Monday, 8 September 2014

Without A Hitch

An article by Chairman Ian Whates

This year, the anthology ‘End of the Road’ (Solaris, edited by Jonathan Oliver) has been shortlisted for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award. The following offers some insight into how my story for the book, “Without a Hitch”, came about.

A few years ago I had reason to visit Stephen Baxter at his home in Northumberland. The journey is a long one but not especially complicated – involving, for the most part, a two hundred plus mile slog along the A1. As I set out from Stephen’s for the return trip, RDS kicked in to warn that a major accident had closed the southbound A1 ahead of me. There was a diversion in place but that in turn had become completely jammed and police were advising motorists to expect a delay of up to three hours… I kept track as I drove closer and closer, praying for a miracle. Thankfully, as I skirted Newcastle – still twenty-odd miles short of the incident – the road reopened, but the experience stayed with me. Being a writer, it inevitably triggered the ‘what if…?’ reflex, opening the door to all manner of conjecture. When Jonathan Oliver invited me to submit for the anthology ‘End of the Road’, the memorable trip back from Steve’s instantly sprang to mind.

It wasn’t the only possibility. I also toyed with writing a more fantasy/mediaeval tale, or one featuring an enigmatic road that traversed numerous realities (what might lie at such a road’s eventual end?). However, I kept coming back to the idea of the stranded traveller, of utilising a more mundane setting and featuring a man desperate to get home who suddenly can’t.

I had recently published Chris Beckett’s fabulous second collection, ‘The Peacock Cloak’, via NewCon Press. One of the constituent stories, “Poppyfields”, features Chris’ recurring protagonist Tammy Pendant. I can’t help but admire Tammy for her toughness and her resourcefulness – her survival instinct and willingness to exploit men’s vanities. While plotting my submission for ‘End of the Road’, Tammy came to mind, and I realised she would provide the perfect foil for the developing story. So, I borrowed her (thank you Chris). Oh, this isn’t Tammy, not quite; I gave my character a different context, different motivations, and a more defined cynicism, but the result is definitely Tammy-esque.

Jon Oliver said in his notes introducing “Without a Hitch” in the book that he was surprised, given the anthology’s theme, that mine was the only submission he received that featured a hitchhiker. This gave me pause. Had I taken the easy way out? Had I selected the obvious option that other authors spurned in favour of a greater challenge?

I like to think not. Vanishingly few concepts are truly original; the secret is to twist and shape expectations in an unanticipated fashion to create something distinctive. I’ve never read a story quite like “Without a Hitch”, though some of the constituent elements undoubtedly feel familiar. I know this was the right idea for me to develop for the book, and I’m delighted with the resulting tale. The fact that the editor also liked it is, of course, a very welcome bonus.

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