Ballad In Blue
20 September 2018
This is the story of how Ballad in Blue came into existence.
Three years ago, living in Tallinn, I decided to take a break from the non-stop bloodfest of crime writing, and write an esoteric, romantic drama set in Estonia. I used to get a haircut in a place where all the barbers were young women, dressed in black. It was like getting your hair cut by Robert Palmer’s backing band. My idea was to write a story about one of the barbers, who would happily sleep her way through several customers a week, before falling in love with a Syrian immigrant. (There are very, very few Syrian immigrants in the Baltics.) The story would be told in the first person by a young chap, Joel, after the fashion of Nick Carraway in Gatsby, who would sleep with her, fall in love, and then watch her work her through every other customer in the shop.
The story didn’t pan out that way, and soon enough it was obvious it was going to be about Joel, rather than the barber. I wrote a draft of around three hundred pages, then decided that I’d rewrite it as a film script, just to get a different perspective on the story, to see what other ideas I could come up with.*
(*I obviously felt I had time on my hands, although this is, in fact, a very good idea for making any writer look at their story from a completely different perspective.)
Where I worked in my flat, I looked down over the Chinese Ambassador’s garden, and in the autumn, when I was writing, there would regularly be gardeners using a leaf blower, and I’d sit and curse them and their bloody racket, then the phrase the leaf blower in the Chinese ambassador’s garden came into my head, and I thought it sounded like a good book title. So that’s what I originally went with, although I changed the nationality of the ambassador. THE LEAF BLOWER IN THE JAPANESE AMBASSADOR’S GARDEN.
The film script idea was really just part of the process, and I had no intention of it ever actually being a film. (It still isn’t, that’s not where this next part of the tale is going.) Then one evening, my wife, the diplomat, was at a cocktail party to mark the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and she got talking to an Estonian film producer named Ivo Felt. There used to be a time when she thought I should go to cocktail parties, and I’d go to the cocktail party and stand in a corner not talking to anyone, and if my mood was ill enough, I would look particularly miserable and a ten yard exclusion zone of melancholy would form around me, and then my wife would say, you really oughtn’t to come to cocktail parties. (Or words to that effect…)
So that evening at that particular cocktail party, my wife says to Ivo, what do you do, and he says something along the lines of, ‘I’m a film producer, my last movie Tangerines was nominated in the Foreign Language categories at the Oscars and Golden Globes. What do you do?’ and my wife says, ‘Never mind about me, my husband’s writing a film script set in Tallinn, would you like to read it?’ and Ivo says, ‘Why, I’d love to.’ And she comes home and says, by the way, that film script you’re casually writing as an exercise, with no intention of ever showing it to anyone, is now going to be put in front of an Oscar-nominated movie producer, so you’d better get on with it.
I met Ivo a couple of times. He’s a lovely man, but I don’t think he liked my script. I certainly never heard from him again after he read it. If he read it. And to be fair, his movies are fairly heavy, serious, brilliant studies of Estonians under pressure (at least, those that I've seen are.) The Leaf Blower In The Japanese Ambassador’s Garden would have been way too frivolous for him, although he never got back to me to say.
Anyway, at some stage I decided that I’d spent too much time on it, and it was time I got on with writing crime novels again, so I put the book and script away in a metaphorical drawer and spent the next year writing Hutton 4, Pereira 1 and 2, and BOY IN THE WELL. Then, about a year and a half ago, I decided to go back to my esoteric romance.
By then, however, our departure from Tallinn was imminent, and in the meantime I’d visited Washington DC a couple of times, loved Georgetown, and decided to set the book there instead. I also made the decision to completely scrap the first draft, and to write it as a third person story, based around the film script. And I changed the title to BALLAD IN BLUE after a Hoagy Carmichael song, which is on the Hoagy LP Hoagy Sings Carmichael, with the Pacific Jazzmen, which is Joel’s favourite album, and also my favourite album, and which avid readers might recognise as the LP that plays as the killer Durrant slaughters nine people while butt naked with a massive erection in WE ARE THE HANGED MAN.
As I started to write the book I realised I was literally translating a film script, as though the reader was watching a film, and I was about to go back and start again, when I thought, damn it, I’m just going to write this in the first person plural, present tense, as though we, the readers, are watching the movie at the cinema. And that’s how it stayed.
Writing it this way, it’s ended up pretty short. The original draft had long rambling conversations, but they were all butchered – to the book’s benefit – in the original conversion to film script. As well as switching the location, at some stage along the way the barbershop became an old music shop, and the story became about the relationship between Joel and his lesbian aunt.
And then it was ready to come out early this year, but first of all I ran it past my agent and my editor at Mulholland, just in case, and they both called it excellent, but literary and too short, and no one would buy it. So, I had the option to hang on to it until after the Westphall books have swept to chart-conquering glory next year, when maybe there’ll be more of a market for esoteric, literary romances with my name on it, or to just release it now, and see if sales get into double figures.
So here it is. Ballad In Blue.