My new novel came about while I was working hard on transforming the old stone ruin on the property I had bought in Portugal into a lodge that would be a perfect place for writing. When the builders had left for the day, silence descended like a veil and all the previous hustle and bustle was replaced by an uncanny stillness. I didn’t even have to think about the details of the story in large parts. They came together naturally. The backdrop of the empty hamlet and surrounding views allowed me to slide into the atmosphere of the tale, set as it is amongst a remotely beautiful landscape of mountains, forest and flowing water. Then all that was required was to enter into the lives of the characters that populate the novel. I saw and felt them wholly within their stunningly wonderful environment, which is as mind-blowingly and refreshingly profound to them as it was to me, and allow them to react naturally both between themselves and the surrounding terrain. All the conflict that arises – and that conflict is both sad and terrifying and wondrous to a degree that I find barely sustainable even now – is only possible as it is set within the limitless grandeur of such surrounding beauty – of sky and mountain and cascading water. I could never have gone into the depths of their being if it hadn’t been for the serenity which engulfs them so majestically. A smaller setting would have made the telling of the tale unendurably painful for me.
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When we bought this place up in the mountains of central Portugal, I was barely aware of the old stone building standing in the garden. A big untended grape vine grew from one side and covered much of the front while nature had done the rest. Tall concrete posts rose twelve feet high and supported long thin eucalyptus trunks, which also hid the building from view. The lower level had been divided into stalls using concrete and brick and used for housing domestic animals. The family would have lived on the top floor, with the heat from the animals rising to help keep them warm in the winter. Scorched stone showed where there had been an open fire in one corner. The wooden floor separating the two stories was largely rotten, although the thick supporting oak beams were as strong as ever, despite being over a hundred years old. The terracotta roof tiles had caved in at places and rain water had caused the floor planks to rot. When I actually noticed the presence of this wonderful old stone two-floor building, I immediately understood that here was the place for me to set up a writing-room. What I didn’t understand was just how much work that would take.
I was working on a chapter from the new novel when I saw smoke rising from the river gorge. At first I assumed it was coming from the chimney of a couple that have just taken over an old stone house on the bank – a woodfire can create a lot of fumes to begin with – or possibly it was wispy cloud coming up through the valley. But it persisted and grew thicker, sending ever-darker plumes up higher and higher. Then I saw a flicker of red flame inside all the smoke. I began to worry about the couple and decided to investigate, and help if necessary.
In the mountains there is always the fear of fire breaking out.
Today it happened.
Fortunately, the fire-fighters were able to put out the flames before they spread.
Not so bad this time.
MONTANA BLACK is not here
Montana Black was an experiment in using a pseudonym for the next novel. However, it feels really uncomfortable using the moniker when going on social media sites, since it seems like it could be understood as an attempted deception. It’s one thing putting a name on a book cover, it’s another using that name for announcements in the first person singular.
To be fair, it’s done all the time in music: Madonna, Lady Gaga, Iggy Pop et al, but somehow it’s understood that it’s a real person behind the name – you can hear them singing on recordings or watch them on television or on stage. That isn’t so clear in the world of modern literature where the authorial name is perhaps the only authentic presence available to the reader.
True, since the dawn of the western literary tradition pseudonyms are commonly used: Homer, Hesiod, Plato and so on, right up through the Georges Elliot, Sand and Orwell, on to the regular use of pseudonyms by modern-day writers, especially where the writer chooses a name which seems best-suited for a particular genre: Mickey Hammer for a hard-boiled thriller, say, or a Rosemary Bliss for romantic fiction, Ayn Rand for a ghastly philosophy concerning the survival of the fittest…oh, that’s already taken. But you get the idea.
Somehow, Montana Black felt suited because it has the feeling of being free and away from the grid – as I am in reality.
Also, it is ambisexual, which seemed desirable since the new novel is very much grounded in sexual relations and contrasting loves between people as it was first recounted in what is probably the best-known story of all in the western world: that of events in the garden of Eden. Over the course of time that depiction of our original forebears has taken on the stigma of misogyny – largely because of an added commentary – rather that the telling of a great cosmic truth, and that is an enormous burden for any text to bear. All the more so if the re-telling is undertaken by a man. No one wants to be associated with out-dated, even oppressive, thought patterning, regardless of how baseless the charge. Add to that the almost unbearable final scene, set amongst the elements of nature, and it is really unsurprising that the author might wish to create some distance between book cover name and content.
In the end though, as in the beginning, there remains the birth-name.
On reflection, this name is perfect. The first word means ‘valley’, in Welsh, which fits with where I live and work ensconced in a mountain range of central Portugal, overlooking a series of beautiful valleys and undulations all the way out to the Atlantic coast, and up here near the ‘ridge’ of one particular mountain the house rests in the ‘lee’ of the prevailing wind. Plus, orthographically-speaking, dig the repeated g, l and y).
So, my own name it will most likely be.
Freedom is being able to get up and go anywhere you want. That’s my view. And that’s how I saw it when I gave up my job, re-modelled my little campervan, rented my house, booked a ferry crossing to the continent, and headed south to write my novel.
The moment I saw this place I knew this was where I was going to live and write. The main house was built over a ruin that dates back more than two hundred years, and is now a large downstairs space – called an adega. The walls are made of local schist stone, which is shades of brown and sparkles in the sunlight on account of its quartz content, and because they are so thick the interior retains its heat in winter and makes the place cool during summer. An all-year round maintained temperature. That was the other feature I always liked about the houses and buildings down south – the whitewashed walls and terracotta roofs, somehow, they seemed perfectly fitted to fend off the summer heat, while standing sturdy against any winter storms. Set off from the main building was another stone ruin which has now been transformed into a south-facing lodge, with large sliding glass doors overlooking the mountains and valleys away to the far-off coastline. The writing desk is placed on the top floor in order to provide the best view of all. There is no sound up here other than birdsong or the breezes blowing through the eucalyptus and so no distractions to upset the creative atmosphere. A perfect place, in fact, to live and write.
I always wanted to live somewhere where grapes grow – it was for me the sign of a perfect climate. The first time that I saw great rows of grapes was during a trip through the south of France, in late summer, and I was beguiled by the way the vines followed the lines of the earth, like waves on the sea. Then, on a trip to Greece, walking through Peloponnesian orange groves and picking the fruit directly from the tree and munching on the brightly coloured fruit as I walked along – that was just heavenly. On another trip, to Italy, I stayed at a place amongst the olive trees – a thousand years old – and that felt pretty cool, too. So when the chance came to live in a place where all these fruits flourished and grew in profusion, there was no way that I was gonna refuse. I knew, this was the place for me. Here, I knew, I could be a writer.