I won't swap Essex for sunny California!
For American author Jon Fink, East Anglia is effectively the 51st state.
For American author Jon Fink, East Anglia is effectively the 51st state. He tells Steven Russell why he loves it here and how an English tale of murder inspired his new story
THE sun finally manages to muscle itself some elbow-room in the sky and, for a moment, the Stour Valley looks a picture. Then the bullying stratocumulus clouds re-establish their superiority and the light is shut off. The rain begins again and the winds pick up. February on the Essex/Suffolk borders, huh! Not the place, you'd imagine, for a child of California to make his adopted home. But Jon Fink is more than happy on this side of the Atlantic, thank you for asking. “I don't want to go back to Los Angeles!” he insists. The very thought of it gives him the heebie-jeebies.
Born in Philadelphia in 1951, he spent about three years there before the family moved to Los Angeles because of his dad's job in the aerospace industry. Home until the age of 12 was the Studio City district of the San Fernando Valley - an old Warner Bros lot sat five minutes' walk from his elementary school - and then a ranch-style house at Tarzana, built on the 540-acre spread once owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan.
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But Jon was never an LA kind of guy. His circle of friends maintained “an ironic and satiric distance from Los Angeles”, looking on the city with an outsider's perspective.
When his parents moved to Belgium, again for work reasons, he stayed in California to study, though subsequently dropped out of college. When he joined his family across the pond, he realised why he felt so alienated in LA. At heart, he was very much more a European than a Californian.
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“My mother still talks about the look on my face, at 18 years old, sailing down the Seine, at night, in a Bateau Mouche.” (One of those excursion boats.) “You go past Notre Dame and other buildings. It was absolutely breathtaking. I connected with it aesthetically and culturally. It had a depth. Los Angeles has many virtues - mostly for Europeans! Depth isn't one of them. I found that the human qualities and cultural qualities I valued, Los Angeles didn't, on the whole, reward.”
Back in the States, at 19, Jon signed on at the California Institute of the Arts. (CalArts in shorthand-speak.) He wrote poetry and found himself among like-minded people. “Everybody operated on the assumption that art mattered.”
Trouble was, he got into the way of thinking that life could be a kind of Parisian cafe society from the 1920s. While he had poetry published from the age of 21, “living the student prince life” didn't exactly a solvent career make. “It has been a long, slow, learning curve!” he grins, ruefully.
Jon was accepted onto a PhD programme in theology, which took him to Florence, but it taught him he wasn't cut out for academe and he looked for gainful employment back in LA. After missing out on a job as a funeral home driver he got a position on a soft-porn magazine, writing captions to describe the . . . well, action . . . and editing copy. “I got great stories out of it, and one character.”
He was homesick for the European sensibility. “In my interpretation it's 'slower and deeper', simply because the cultures are so old.” British culture is much more reflective and nowhere near as brash as the States. “It's why Avatar wouldn't be made here.”
To illustrate the contrast in attitudes, Jon tells a story about the time he took UK citizenship about eight or nine years ago.
“You have to swear an oath and I went down to the local solicitor's office. He said 'Do you want to swear or affirm?' And I said, being an atheist, 'I want to affirm.' Next thing I know, there's a New Testament under my hand and I'm swearing - and I don't complain! I figured I crossed the line: I am now English!”
Jon had come to London in the autumn of 1978 - “right before the winter of discontent” - staying first with a pal in Highgate and then a cold cottage in East Sussex owned by a friend's mother-in-law.
Aged 27, to him everything seemed possible. He wrote for a music paper and then got into TV. Channel 4 was the new kid on the block and creative opportunities were there to be seized. Jon wrote for, and acted in, a 1984 series called Lubo's World, playing “a kind of Russian Alan Whicker”. Other writing credits included Carrott Confidential. He also developed scripts for films “that never got made”.
There were a couple of years co-presenting a Channel 4 review show called Revid with Gary Crowley. “He would always laugh, because I would get very upset by bad movie-making. A girlfriend I had once said 'You know, you're the only person I know who takes pop culture personally' - and it's true! I think that good work only ever makes room for more good work. But the bad work that succeeded, the work that distracts instead of engages, closes off possibility. When I see pop culture that does that - and today it does it in spades . . . well . . . we remember the days when BBC 2 would run David Hare plays, or Dennis Potter. What is taken for serious drama now is gob-smackingly shallow.”
At one stage Jon was lent a cottage near Lingfield. When his time there came to an end, the owners suggested another place they had: the flat above a converted stable block, near Mistley, where he still lives today. He arrived in 1986.
“It's physically beautiful; I can play my guitar really loud. I love the neighbours I did and do have; and it's perfect for writing.”
Screen work had become frustratingly difficult, with ideas for TV and movies stuck in “development hell” - neither given the green light nor rejected.
In 1987, fed up trying to eke a living in limbo-land and by now in his late 30s, Jon decided to try his hand at fiction. He remembers the time well. In the aftermath of the hurricane-force winds of that October - camped for 10 days in his living room without electricity, cooking over a coal fire and reading by candlelight - he started to write Further Adventures.
Published in the UK in 1991, it's about an ageing former actor who during the Great Depression entertained America as a radio superhero known as The Green Ray. Forty years later, The Green Ray, aka Reuven Agranovsky, is forced out of retirement for a “half-blind but whole-hearted stumble against the forces of greed, perversion and reality”, as the PR blurb has it.
Three more novels followed. The last of those “had discouragingly low but not altogether undeserved sales figures”, Jon admits with candour.
Then he came across something by chance. Flicking on the TV, he caught the last scene of a documentary about the Houndsditch Murders in December, 1910, when Latvian revolutionaries killed three unarmed London policemen.
Early the following year police learned that two gang members were sheltering in a flat in Sidney Street. After an officer was shot, and the police weapons deemed ineffective for the stand-off, Home Secretary Winston Churchill took command and sent in marksmen from the Scots Guards.
As the bloody siege continued into lunchtime, smoke wafted from the building, which was then ravaged by fire. After the shots died down, police entered and found the bodies of two men. But the suspect they had expected to discover, a charismatic ringleader known as Peter the Painter, wasn't there.
Jon says of the documentary: “The narration over an antique photograph of a good-looking European man, posed in his suit and casually leaning against a chair, snagged me. Here was Peter Piatkow, a.k.a Peter the Painter, infamous revolutionary, will-o'-the-wisp, who had mysteriously vanished from the ashes of 100 Sidney Street. What had happened to him?
“When I proposed a novel that imagined a solution to this mystery, my publisher embraced it as torridly as Nikita Khrushchev embraced Yuri Gagarin. Kisses on both cheeks. Artistic and commercial endorsement. We were off to the races!”
Apart from the little matter of writing it . . . something that took six years and a dozen drafts! No-one said the life of an author was going to be easy.
Jon also produced a sequel to Further Adventures, finishing the 87,000-word novel in five months.
A Storm in the Blood, his tale about the Sidney Street Siege, has been published in America by Harper Perennial and is due out here in the autumn, in time for the 100th anniversary of the event. A revised edition of Further Adventures, and The Return of the Green Ray, will follow.
As well as dreaming up more adventures for the radio superhero, he's been busy on a novel for young adults. “Lots of style, plot and jokes.”
East Anglia is set to remain home. His parents still live in California, but a coach and horses couldn't drag Jon back.
When he paid a visit nearly four years ago, for his dad's 80th birthday, it was the first return in eight years. “It just keeps metastasizing,” he says of Los Angeles. “It's unrecognisable - a cancerous spread of concrete architecture. Ventura Boulevard, where in my youth you didn't see anything over two storeys, looks like Hong Kong now. It's so populous, and the cars are so big, the ethos so callous, that if I felt alienated 30 years ago, then now it is just repulsive.”
Wife Lisa likes visiting more than he. “But I'd be happy if I never saw it again!”
JON Fink's wife, Lisa Stevens, is also an ex-pat. They hail from neighbourhoods only three miles apart in Los Angeles but met not in California but London! “We could have passed each other on Ventura Boulevard more than once,” he quips. Jon met the TV documentary maker at a party in London, on his 50th birthday in 2001. “It was a bit of a fix-up by friends.”
• He adores: fountain pens; cycling in the countryside; cats Asbo, Boaz and Cinco de Mayo
• He's riled by: the decline in standards of English, particularly subject-verb agreement - such as a raft of proposals are, instead of is;
Much Twitter and Facebook content - “the elevation of the trivial into the semi-permanent”.
• He counts Dawn French and Lenny Henry as friends. They met more than 25 years ago at a wedding and Jon and Dawn exchange jokey gifts each Valentine's Day. He helped her work on her book, and a copy of Jon's novel Further Adventures lay on a table as a prop in The Vicar of Dibley.
• He's giving a talk at Clacton-on-Sea Library on Tuesday, March 16 (7.30pm start) as part of Essex Book Festival. Tickets �4 & �3. Box office: 01206 573 948. www.essexbookfestival.org.uk
Jon Fink's novels:
Further Adventures: In the depths of the Great Depression, the voice of radio superhero The Green Ray entertained America. Forty years later, the man behind him - actor Ray Green - is caught up in an all-night blackout in New Mexico. Events force The Green Ray out of retirement. But at 73, Ray faces a different - more terrifying - world.
Long Pig: The paths of a young graduate and a TV evangelist cross over an invention for making eco-friendly sausages. Both men meet unpleasant fates.
If He Lived: A modern ghost story featuring a psychiatric nurse mourning the loss of her runaway daughter.
Woke Up Laughing: Mid 40s, middle-management, Harris Wheatley is going nowhere. Then the office syndicate wins the lottery and he finds himself with �840,000. If he acts swiftly, the chance to reclaim his life, perhaps . . .
A Storm in the Blood: A tale of people who have lost their way in the world, based on the true story of the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street.