From R.L. To Peter, Paul and Mary: The Inspiration

R.L. Burnside

The inspiration behind The Reputation of Booya Carthy – and the welcome question that I have been asked most since its release – came from various different sources. It kind of grew from the fledgling idea that I wanted to write a music-based novel. I was going to do the old ‘rock star’ story: a musician struggling for success in a cut-throat, debauched world. But that was a story so well used – and why wouldn’t you just read a true life rock star autobiography, where the truth is most often stranger than fiction? (Slash’s is amazing) – that it was in danger of being clichéd even before I’d started planning it. You can have fun with musicians: a world where late nights, much excess, intolerable behaviour, extreme hedonism and wild self-neglect is an acceptable lifestyle, all in the interest of art, overseen by a manager who is either despairing or hitting it harder than his clients. Although I would never rule it out as a future project, who hasn’t read that story?

I remembered an article that I’d read about the blues singer of international acclaim, R. L. Burnside. He was a true depression-era Mississippi legend of the blues – he had thirteen children and an album titled A Ass Pocket Full Of Whiskey; who can dispute his credentials? – tutored in his youth by Mississippi Fred McDowell. I don’t know how much of that article my mind has warped to fit a fantastical image of the great man’s circumstances but, as I remember it, he was living in a mobile home by the side of a country road with three generations of his family, whilst children, dogs and chickens kicked up dust. I recall that in the accompanying picture he was standing in a string vest, belly out, with rheumy, red-lined eyes, untamed salt and pepper hair, sipping out of a brown paper bag. It was staggering how a recording artist with fans across the globe could be living in such conditions – could you imagine Roger Daltrey or even Albert Lee living in, essentially, a caravan in a lay-by (although Albert does have gypsy blood; maybe a bad example)? So I wondered, what if . . .

“Would it be terribly curt to enquire – I must admit that curiosity has rather got the better of me – but I am interested to know where that name comes from? Booya . . .”

The name Booya was a bit more of an evolution. I had been reading Stephen King’s novel Lisey’s Story. In his fashion, the protagonist could flip to a place in her mind: Booya Moon. I was with a friend, playing around with the word Booya (it’s a great word; if you can be bothered, go and pump it in to twitter. You’ll see that hour upon hour people tweet their ‘wins’ with #booya! It’s a double fist pump to their air. It’s a positive word. Urban Dictionary has it as: “”Bam!”, “in your face”, and “hell yeah”, all at the same time. A term that self-congratulates, describes excitement, lets others know the magnificence of the celebration as well as the superiority of the user, and is used as an exclamation of those ideas.” But that is not why I chose it as the name for my character . . .) I was driving back home after we’d been chatting Booya, and that’s when I first thought, How about that for a name for my character? I loved it (some people tend to pronounce it Boo-yer; I see it more as Boo-yar). At that time I was reading as much as I could by Carmac McCarthy. I love his understated, staccato, economical use of words, the way that he paints a background to kick up smells and light and feeling. He was a large part of my inspiration to want to write. The Carthy surname is a tribute to that great man of letters. So I had a topic, a setting and a character name . . .

“(He) frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called . . . ?”

As a child I always thought that the line from Peter, Paul and Mary’s Puff The Magic Dragon finished, “. . . in a land called Honahee”. Apparently it is actually Honnah Lee, or Honalee, which is a fictional place in Leonard Lipton’s original poem that inspired the song. I deliberately wanted to use a fictional location for Booya to grow up in. I felt that it allowed more scope for the imagination, rather than try to fit my story around real places and their history. And Honahee always stuck with me – though I never imagined trying to incorporate a dragon, magic or otherwise, into my story.

In many ways my novel ending up being ‘faction’ – a mixture of fact and fiction – by picking true people, places and events and working them into my town, Honahee, rather than the other way round. Legends of the blues had played there in the past, we’re told; there’s an obsolete hanging tree in the centre of the town – a reminder that the civil war changed much in the south, but that crime was still punishable; the interior of the barrelhouse was like many that you’d find in the south – from the revellers to the variations of music on display; (I’d like to say more on outside influences but don’t wish to give any spoilers away; you can find them in the book). And on the civil war: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell was a big influence on me prior to research. I was interested in the so-called ‘freedmen’, their new civil rights, and the reactions of democrats in the south to Emancipation Proclamation and the constitutional amendments – or as we know it, the rise of the white supremacist to take the law into its own hands. Furthermore, I found that the impoverished of the south – especially the blacks – were yet exploited as cheap labour options: after a season of working the plantation owner’s land they would find themselves in debt to landowner for specious credit at the beginning of the season. Even seventy years after the abolition I believe that slavery still existed. As I learned, even in federal institutions.

There is so much documentation on the blues, so much mystery surrounds the characters that defined the genre, that it is quite surprising that it has been largely ignored as a setting for a novel. There are, however, plenty of novels and biographies on southern folk. My reading list before and between drafts featured William Faulkner, Mark Twain, John Grisham, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee (naturally), Truman Capote, Albert French, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Steinbeck, the book adaptation (yes, that way round!) of the brilliant film Mississippi Burning. And non-fiction titles and biographies helped to further shape my understanding of what a ‘southern’ novel should be: Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the story of Skip James: I’d Rather be the Devil, The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, Charters’ The Country Blues, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. There are more, endless amounts of books to read from the south.

When one of my sisters finished a draft of TROBC, she asked how much Alex Haley’s Roots had inspired the novel. I truthfully replied that I hadn’t even heard of it, and proceeded to read it over the next couple of weeks, pretty surprised at how much I had got right about the feelings of blacks in the south and the post-civil war feelings that were still harboured in the chests of men – from the aggressors to the persecuted. Another genre that gained the public conscience after I had written a few drafts was Twelve Years a Slave, Soloman Northup’s recollections and memoirs of being stolen from his life, a companionable comparison to Kunta Kinte’s history in Roots. Sometimes finding the right era in which to set your book can actually help to plot it for you, in part. It was the certainly the case with Booya.

“You Sprinkled Hot Foot Powder All Around Your Daddy’s Door . . .”

The aforementioned authors and titles with links to the south were not the only books that helped to inspire the creation of Booya. Whilst I was reading Les Misérables I kept wondering, Well how does Javert keep turning up in Valjean’s life, even when he’s mayor of a small town tens of miles south of Paris? The answer is pretty simple: because that’s how Victor Hugo imagined and wrote it. Back to Lisey’s Story, a character (a writer) explains that “the reality is Ralph”. The writer character reads a news story: On the day that a family leave to return home after a family vacation, they can’t find the family dog, Ralph. They finally have to make the painful decision to leave the dog behind: they aren’t going to find him. Three years later, a little worse for wear, Ralph turns up back at the family home hundreds of miles away. Stranger things happen in life than in fiction anyway, so . . . the reality is Ralph. (The character goes on to explain that you can’t use such extremities in stories or the editor will inevitably say, “It creaks a bit, old boy.” We’ll ignore that for now. Because still, the reality is Ralph.) Hugo taught me that characters can go anywhere; do anything; meet whoever . . . basically he taught me that the story is whatever you want, imagine it to be; whatever it’s inspired to be. Preternatural events can lessen the reality of a story that is intended to be believable, of course, but I learned that authors are free to conjure even the wildest fancies of chance – like Javert infiltrating the very barricade that Valjean is stationed behind, once more crossing paths with his sworn enemy, the bane of his existence, it seems. It helped in allowing me to let loose the restrictions of what was believable: if it was written in such a way that the reader would think, Yes, that could happen in life – we all are astounded by heart-stopping coincidence at times, like when we once met family friends when walking down a mountain in France; we all say, Well, what were the chances of that happening – then the possibilities are endless, if treated very carefully and well planned. A character’s life is never shaped just by what happens to them and what they encounter, but by the circumstances in which they find themselves and who else it might affect: the situation in which we place them. I found that the characters themselves can tell you the way out. But with an antagonist on their trail it is never that simple.

Thanks Victor!

*If you have any questions or further things that you would like to know about how Booya came together, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Inspire me . . .


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