Leaves by John Simmons
I am thrilled that John Simmons has agreed to visit with me as part of the blog tour by Love Book Tours about his novel Leaves published by Urbane Books.
You can follow the whole tour.
Ophelia Street, 1970. A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognise, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged. But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbours over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory. As the leaves turn from vibrant green to vivid gold, so lives turn and change too, laying bare the truth of the community. Perhaps, ultimately, we all exist on Ophelia Street.
When I wrote the first version of Leaves I was straight out of university. I was proud of it but it was put aside, not completely forgotten, for 40 years. The passage of time meant that I could now look at the novel in a fresh light – and I realised that I could take advantage of the fact that I was now looking back on a time past.
So I introduced a new character, the narrator, who is looking back on the formative events from 1970. I found that this changed the tone in an interesting way and gave me a completely different perspective on the events that I had written about in my youth. As one reader said to me “Ah, you’ve written a historical novel”. Not my original intention but, if so, I could vouch for the authenticity of the period details.
Leaves is about a young man living in a north London street. A child’s murder hastens the community’s decay. I was drawing on a location I knew well from growing up in north London but the story was purely from imagination. I found it useful to anchor the story in the reality of the passing seasons, reflecting that sense of a community’s decay through nature itself. In an important way the structure of the seasons was the inspiration for the novel – the story and the characters developed after that structure was established.
That taught me the need for structure in novel-writing. I’ve now had three novels published, with a fourth nearing completion in draft form. Each of them has a clear structure, each written with three parts that are set in different periods of time. This has shaped the novel, in an obvious way, but it has also helped with the development of characters – for example, in The Good Messenger, the character introduced as a nine-year-old in Part 1 becomes a young man of 24 in Part 3. In what ways has he changed, and how has he remained the same?
With Leaves the changes in the characters happen over the course of a year, but the narrator looking back provides a reflective voice. Perhaps because I’ve got older, this reflective tone has become my natural writing tone. But what I hope makes Leaves interesting is that you understand the younger man through the eyes of the same man when he is much older. In a strange way it adds urgency to the storytelling, the sense that time is always moving on.
I’m a writer and consultant with a background in the world of identity and branding. I was a director of Interbrand until 2003 when I co-founded 26, the writers’ group, and Dark Angels that runs residential writing courses in remote retreats. These came out of a number of books on the relationship between language and identity, including “The Dark Angels Trilogy” – We, Me, Them & It, The Invisible Grail and Dark Angels.
In recent times I have also written fiction, first Leaves published in 2015, Spanish Crossings in 2017, with The Good Messenger in autumn 2018. These books are all published by Urbane.