Some books just happen

A guest blog post by Adam Fitzroy

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER WYE happened all by itself, over a very short period in 2013. As has occasionally been the case with Manifold Press, our editors found they had a vacant publishing slot for February when another project was delayed, and asked around for anything that might be completed quickly enough to take its place. I’d been floundering for a while, trying to decide between competing story ideas, but this gave me the impetus I needed to get off my backside; I had a piece of fan-fiction ripe for redevelopment, and I pulled it down off the shelf and took a fresh look at it.

I’m not remotely embarrassed to admit that this particular book was originally fan-fiction, and the reason is this: as soon as I started to rewrite it, it completely took on a life of its own. In fact, it’s so very different that the original story is actually still online somewhere – and I defy anyone to come up with the name of the TV show it was based on. (Entertaining guesses will be welcomed!)

What happened after that is all a bit of a blur. The basic plot featured a character stepping in to take over the farm of a brother who’d died in mysterious circumstances, inheriting responsibility for his brother’s family (and debts) at the same time. He would then meet up with an old flame/passing love interest, and they’d rekindle their relationship while working for a shared objective. This, basically, is all the book has in common with its fan-fictional progenitor! Anyway, the fact that I’d been watching rather too many cooking shows on TV guaranteed that there would be a chef or chefs involved somehow, and historical research I’d done for another project gave me a location – not a million miles from the setting for MAKE DO AND MEND, as it happens. If you ever look at a map of the River Wye, you’ll see that there’s a large lazy bend in it with the villages of Welsh Bicknor and English Bicknor on opposite sides. There are, too, several derelict bridges along that stretch that used to carry railway lines but have been allowed to decay for a hundred years or more – they’re quite spectacular, but probably very dangerous to cross.

Also, when I was writing the book, gangmasters and illegal immigrants were much in the news; one company was revealed to be housing migrant workers in a ‘temporary village’ in its fields – a situation which only became apparent when they applied for planning permission to build them a cinema. Friction between a small, independent organic farmer – with good intentions but little money – and a large dominant agri-business with massive resources but questionable ethics, made for a good conflict scenario, which becomes more powerful still if the large dominant agri-business happens to be boosting its profits by employing undocumented workers and housing them in sub-standard conditions. So, in essence, what I ended up with was David versus Goliath – with a side order of organic mange-tout!

Fleshing out the minor characters was one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. They always start off as people needed for a specific purpose – to deliver a piece of information, or to be knocked out (or off!) so that someone has to take their place – but the moment you start thinking about who they are and why they’re in the place you need them to be they begin to grow all by themselves. One such was Sharon, the police officer who guides the characters through the latter part of the story. I’d been on a bus once when an unruly passenger started acting up – and, after a few minutes of suffering in silence, the (stunningly-dressed – I think she was on her way to a wedding) woman in the seat in front of me got up, leaned over, quietly produced her warrant card and said, in effect, “Look, I’m off duty at the moment but it would only take one phone call. Shut up, or get arrested.” He chose to shut up.

I have no idea who the woman was, but she stayed in my mind – largely because I would never have looked at her in her finery and thought ‘police officer’. She stepped out of her civilian life just for a moment, did her job, and then stepped back. That intrigued me, and Sharon was the result; she doesn’t actually look like a copper at all, and she’s all the more effective for that reason.

I had a lot of fun, too, writing Rupert’s friends Gary and Steve. (Minuscule clue there to the series of origin!) Believe me, I researched their apartment very thoroughly; I’ve seen the view from their balcony and it’s wonderful. I’ve also stayed at the hotel where Jake and Rupert had their rudely interrupted night of passion – and yes, you can hire a car at Victoria in the middle of the night, but I bet it costs a small fortune!

So I think what I’m trying to say is that this was a book that – as Rumer Godden apparently used to say – was ‘vouchsafed’. It dropped into my lap almost fully-formed, precisely when I needed it, and I wrote it very quickly to fill a need. Everything clicked into place smoothly, and it was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had. I wish more books would ‘happen’ like that, but I mustn’t be greedy; I’m just grateful that THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER WYE* came along at all, and particularly just when it did!

*PS: I can take no credit for the title. I stole it, as I should have made clear in the book itself, from an episode of the short-lived (but absolutely excellent) TV series Extreme Archaeology.

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