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4am. Judging a Book by More Than Its Cover.

September 27, 2012

I have admit it. 4am is not a book I would have ever thought of reading, if it hadn’t been suggested by Pam McIlroy, who runs the Broadway Book club. The thought of reading something about squaddies and the rave scene of Hamburg in the 1990s, partly written in broad Glaswegian, was not appealing.

I could not have been more wrong. 4am was an exercise in becoming more adventurous with my reading and not allowing preconceived ideas to get in the way of a good book. Once I’d read it I knew I had to interview 4am’s author Nina de la Mer.

Why write in dialect? Not only is this difficult to keep consistent, but also runs the risk of alienating potential reading audiences because they are spending so much time trying to understand it. Did it worry you that writing in dialect might limit the size of your reading audience?

I did it this way out of stubbornness, mainly! I wanted to present a successful realist novel in the vein of 20th century classics from writers like Alan Sillitoe or the lesser known James Curtis, and to do so I thought it important for readers to actually ‘hear’ the characters talking as if they were listening to the man or woman in the street.

I believe passionately that dialect, as well as slang, plays a vital part in gaining authenticity in presenting real people and real lives. Of course it’s true that some may struggle with Scottish dialect, but it’s my aim for my books to challenge the reader in some way and at the same time myself. My editor did make a real effort to make the dialect easily penetrable.

You’re right though, I did worry about it alienating some readers, but a desire to write with the courage of my convictions outweighed my hopes for a huge, commercial audience – though it would be nice!

The plot is driven by two monologues of Cal and Manny, the two soldiers. How did you get so deep into two men’s psyches and create such an authentic voice for each?

The dialect helped in Cal’s case. Glasgow slang is so rich and funny, not to mention bawdy and masculine, that writing his voice in pure Glesga patter was invaluable in helping to shape his character. I suppose that Manny is more of a man’s man, but I honestly have to say writing his voice was not too tricky either. I spent a lot of time with boys and men growing up, being something of a tom boy myself, and I keep my ear to the ground when in social situations so as to get real ear for the way men speak to one another. Perversely enough, it was writing the female roles that gave me most grief. I don’t know why, perhaps as their experience was too close to home.

Choosing Germany as the setting and characters who are members of the British army on the Rhine (BAOR) is quite a challenge. How could you be sure of the accuracy of your story, as this is a very particular situation normally only people who have experienced this life might be confident writing about?

The book was very loosely based on my experience of spending a year abroad in Germany (Hamburg) in the early 90s, not as a soldier, but as a German student on a ‘year abroad’ as part of my university degree. On a night out I met a group of young soldiers in a night club, and we became firm friends and raving partners. I was in awe of their ability to toe the line between Army discipline and their hedonistic weekends, and became fascinated by where they’d come from and how their lives would turn out. 4AM is my fictionalised imagining of those things.

Anyway, this personal experience gifted me with a unique insight into Army life, which as you rightly point out is actually a very closed world – it was this insight which gave me the confidence that my story was authentic enough.Then, later, as I began writing the book in earnest, I learned from my research that the Army is very particular about its representation in books and film. So to make sure I did the best job I could in order to do the lads’ stories justice. I interviewed soldiers who’d served in the military in the 1990s, read books and trawled the Army social networking site ARRSE for military gossip and slang.

As the story is set in the nineties, writing about a time so close to the present can be tricky. So how difficult was it to avoid subtle inaccuracies?

It’s funny how of some mundane years in life you remember very little – working in that same office, trundling through that same routine – while for others you have a snap shot in your mind of many treasured moments. My year abroad was that kind of year and so I think this helped avoid inaccuracies, in that I had a picture perfect memory of the clothes, the music, the TV shows etc of that year. Not that there weren’t any inaccuracies, but I had an amazing copyeditor who weeded out any anachronisms pretty quick smart.

The monologues are an immensely complex tapestry of detailed observation of place, people and emotion. How did you choreograph all of this to keep the plot moving and not repeat yourself?

Thank you, that’s very kind! I suppose it is the opposite of the onion peeling thing, by which I mean that writing the story was an attempt to build a metaphorical onion layer by layer. So, when I began writing and was looking back to critique early drafts, I’d think, ‘OK so this lacks emotion’, or ‘this part of the story is not pacey enough, I need to add another layer’.

I probably shouldn’t admit to it but, being a natural nerd, I also kept an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all of those things – people, places and emotions – in an attempt to plan and control the book as a whole. And, again, good editing comes from, in this case, my brilliant editor at Myriad Editions, Vicky Blunden, who pointed out which areas of the plot needed work; Vicky, being, if you will, the final outer layer of the onion.

Nina de la Mer

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