Patrick Neate lives in London and Zambia. He is the author of three novels, and in 2001 he beat out Ian McEwan for England’s Whitbread Award. He has published articles in many leading music magazines, including The Face, Mixmag, and Time Out.
Spanning three continents and two centuries, Twelve Bar Blues is an epic tale of fate, family, friendship and jazz that won the Whitbread Novel Prize in 2001. At its heart is Lick Holden, a young jazz musician, who sets New Orleans on fire with his cornet at the beginning of the last century.
In an exclusive interview, Patrick Neate talks about hip-hop, new-found fame and appearing on The Weakest Link.
How did it feel to win the Whitbread fiction prize? Has it changed your life?Bizarre. It was neither strange to be swamped in such hyperbole: it suddenly seemed like everyone was either saying Twelve Bar Blues was the best book they’d ever read or the worst and I kept having to remind myself that it is, of course, neither. As for changing my life? I guess it has in a way. I keep getting asked to talk about writing: so much so that it’s hard to find time to actually do it. Oh well.
The book inhabits a seedy world of blues musicians, prostitutes and witch doctors – dare we ask how much research went into it?&/Brsquo;ve always known a few working girls and the odd spirit medium so that wasn’t too much bother. Strangely, blues musicians proved more difficult. I suppose that’s what the imagination’s for. It is fiction, after all.
Twelve Bar Blues borrows heavily from jazz terminology. Are you a jazz fan?Certainly. But not in a trainspottery kind of way. In fact, I really don’t see Twelve Bar Blues as a ‘jazz novel’. I simply chose to set it in that milieu because it’s such a rich seam for the kind of storytelling I enjoy. As for terminology, it just seemed so appropriate. I think all the best novels have, for example, blue notes and swing rhythms.
What would be the perfect musical accompaniment when reading Twelve Bar Blues?Ha! Depends on what pushes your buttons. When writing it, I listened to a lot of Louis and a lot of Coltrane; nothing obscure, just sticking to what I know and love. In fact, the album that most saw me through the writing is one called ‘Lewis’ by Lewis Taylor. It just seemed to fit the mood. It’s the most beautiful soul album in the traditions of Stevie and Martin made by this white guy from London. Perhaps that says something.
The book gives voice to a number of different characters, including a London hooker, an African doctor and a Louisiana jazz musician. Was it difficult to create these very different voices?Not really. I’ve always been fascinated by the structure and quirks of accent so it came quite naturally. On the page, at least.
What has it been like to try and re-create these at readings?Think Jim Davidson meets Pa Walton. I don’t do accents at readings.
You’re also a hip-hop DJ, do you think listening to rap rhythms has influenced your writing style?A hip-hop DJ? Any proper DJ would laugh at my inclusion among their number… I’ve been working on the same scratch for a decade (Pete Rock and Chris Isaac. I’ll get there in the end). Still, there’s no doubt that hip-hop influences the way I write. I love the immediacy of it, the rhythmical storytelling. I always reckon that if a passage doesn’t sound right aloud (accent or no accent), I’ve done something wrong.
What was it like appearing on The Weakest Link? Were you happy coming second to Jilly Cooper? Is Anne Robinson as scary as she seems?It was the emotional equivalent of TCP on a scratch: painful but necessary. ‘Character building’ my dad would say. Anne Robinson (Annie, I call her sweedie) is absolutely terrifying but I’m convinced she fancied me so I reckon I got off lightly. I thought Jilly Cooper was mad cool. She wrote me a very kind personal postcard afterwards which has pride of place above my desk.
What are you working on next?&/Brsquo;m writing a book about hip-hop and a novel about pigeons fighting above the streets of London. Think Brandon Lee. Think The Crow. Think The Pigeon. Clearly it can’t fail.
What are you reading at the moment?&/Brsquo;m going on a TV show called Before The Booker and I have to argue the case of a novel written before the Booker existed. I’ve chosen I, Claudius so I’m re-reading it for the first time since I was 15 or so. I loved it the first time round. Now its brilliance seems a little depressing.
Can you recommend us two books?Blimey. Umm… two recent novels… William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is fantastic. However much acclaim he gets, it’s never enough. And Black Box by Nick Walker.
We also asked Patrick for suggestions for top holiday reads. Here, in no particular order are Patrick’s choices…
Black BoxNick WalkerThe best first novel I’ve read for ages. Deranged, original and impossible to put down.
Any Human HeartWilliam BoydNot quite up to the majesty of Brazzaville Beach but, in a slightly stalkerish way, William Boyd can do no wrong in my eyes.
His Dark Materials TrilogyPhillip PullmanI just finished The Amber Spyglass. Its breadth and brilliance is completely terrifying. I’m very jealous.
The New Rulers Of The WorldJohn PilgerCompulsory – as always.Hooky GearNick BarlayOne of the few writers who describes contemporary London in a remotely plausible way. Consistently funny too.
Society WithinCourttia NewlandOne of the others.FurySalman RushdieEngaging hokum or Delphic prophecy? The former, I reckon. Very enjoyable nonetheless.PimpIceberg SlimRe-issued, relentless, relevant… And lots of other words beginning with ‘R’ (readable, repulsive, rumbustious, rude, recherche…)
Yours Truly, Pierre StoneSam BainBreakdancer, Buddhist and my oldest friend. Besides, this is very very dark and very very funny.
The Emperor’s BabeBernadine EvaristoCompletely charming novel in verse. The character of Zuleika is genius.