It’s really annoying when writers say their books are “hard to describe” – but in George Paterson’s case, it’s true.
“Playful,” he begins, when asked to distil the book into three words. “Dangerous… and funny!”
The Glasgow native, who fronted rock band WHITE, has penned songs and spoken word pieces since his teenage years.
Now at 55, he’s released his debut novel, The Girl, The Crow, The Writer And The Fighter – which is as multifaceted and indescribable as it sounds.
The novel intertwines reality and fiction, history and speculation, spanning multiple timelines, points of view and countries. But it all started with an unlikely friendship between two real people… who never met.
What if Sonny Liston met Henry Miller?
“I read an article that Stuart Cosgrove wrote in Bella Caledonia in 2015,” Paterson explains. “It was about Sonny Liston, the heavyweight boxer.
“Now, Sonny Liston came to Scotland in the early 1960s, and the article was about his experiences here. It was the first time he felt he was treated as an equal by white people. That was a revolutionary thing for him.”
While “kicking around” Sonny Liston’s story in his writing, Paterson was also reading a lot of fiction by American author Henry Miller, who was famous for breaking conventions around literature and sexual content.
“I’d started writing something based on letters Miller had sent to an actress in his later years. And so I was working on this piece called ‘Henry Miller’s Final Erection’!” he laughs.
“At the same time as I was kicking both of those pieces around, I read another article about the friendship between (wrestler) Andre the Giant and (writer) Samuel Beckett. They had a genuine friendship in their youth. Andre’s father worked as a labourer on Beckett’s father’s property in France.
“So then I was thinking about unusual friendships, and I put Liston and Miller together in my head! I thought: ‘What would happen if they met in real life?’”
‘The finest American novel not to come out of America’
Thus the novel was born. And, a fitting homage to Miller, Paterson peppers his own experience into his writing – particularly when it comes to bringing his settings to life.
The Girl, The Crow, The Writer and The Fighter has been dubbed “possibly the finest American novel not to come out of America” by Scots cultural commentator Alistair Braidwood.
And while writing an international story wasn’t in Paterson’s plan, touring around the world with bands WHITE and DMP, before living and working in London for 15 years gave him a natural grounding in crossing borders.
“Having spent time in other countries, it felt very natural to dip into those worlds as if I was a local,” Paterson reveals.
“I know Paris and New York quite well, I feel very much at home in both of those cities, as I do in London, too.”
‘I still had this artistic itch’
The story may not all take place in Scotland, but the wry wit of the writing certainly calls back to Paterson’s Glaswegian roots.
And it was moving back to his hometown that really gave him the drive to finish the book.
After working for 15 years running Camden Town Underground station in London, the author stepped “out of the rat race” in 2017.
“The last 20 years in London, I just got so caught up in work and my career, and I thought ‘this is no real way to live the artistic life’,” smiles Paterson.
“My family and I decided that maybe it was time to do something different, make a big change.
“I still had this artistic itch that I wanted to scratch.”
But with a newborn daughter to care for, the move back home was no idyllic writers retreat. Paterson wrote amongst his home life, not outside of it.
“I started piecing this together when she’d go to bed or when she was sleeping during the day,” he reveals.
“So in those moments where she was asleep, I’d just be writing. Over four or five years, it became the novel.
“It still doesn’t feel real.”
‘You have to suck it and see!’
An born storyteller, Paterson admits he had no formal training in creative writing, instead building up his skills writing “daft bios” for the bands he’s been in, and short stories about their antics trying to break into the music business in the ’80s.
But he reckons his lack of academic training has given him a freedom to be ambitious in his writing that perhaps those more in the know don’t share.
While other authors fret about certain computer programmes, blends of tea or writing rituals, Paterson keeps it simple.
“I tend to go for really long walks around the west end of Glasgow and just open my mind to possibilities,” he says.
“Maybe, had I received formal training, I wouldn’t have allowed myself those freedoms. But because I haven’t, I feel a bit unchained and unshackled.
“It’s trial and error, you know? You have to suck it and see!”