How I Wrote Fever City by Tim Baker
After a conversation with James Ellroy, Tim Baker began work on a noir thriller. Twenty years and one vivid dream later, the completed work FEVER CITY is being published by Faber & Faber on 21 January
In 1995 I attended a reading that James Ellroy gave at a bookstore in Paris. Afterwards, when the store was nearly empty, I started chatting with him about the correlation between Elizabeth Short, better known as The Black Dahlia, and the book he was then writing about his mother’s murder (which would be published the following year as My Dark Places).
Ellroy became excitable – almost agitated – and spoke powerfully about the intersection of collective memory following a public event such as a sensational murder, and private memory that involved a personal family trauma. It was easy for a child to confuse the two, he said.
Ellroy’s comment about collective memory struck a chord because I had been considering writing a novel about the most sensational public murder of them all, the assassination of President Kennedy. I had only recently put that idea aside to start a novel about the kidnapping of the son of a millionaire, and wondered if I had made a mistake in doing so.
Progress on the kidnapping novel had been excellent at first, but then I realized that the narrative kept veering towards the very themes that Ellroy had mentioned: collective and private memory. They were great themes, I knew, but they still didn’t have a natural place in my story, however much I tried to incorporate them.
After two years, I decided to put the kidnapping manuscript down. This was done not with regret but rather with the certainty that I would return to it when I was ready – when I had figured out a way to infuse the kidnapping narrative with the themes I sensed belonged to it. I didn’t know how or even why, but I suspected that the assassination of JFK held the key.
In the years that followed, I published several books of non-fiction, began writing for film, and took a job running the consular section at the Australian embassy in Paris after my son was born. That position not only gave me the financial security every new parent is anxious to acquire, it also provided access to police procedures and judicial processes that helped form a clearer and more accurate picture of how investigations might proceed following a kidnapping.
Then in 2010 I went to LA to collect an award from the Producers Guild of America for a screenplay I had written. It was my first visit to Los Angeles and to my astonishment I fell in love with the city. I had expected to find a monotonous, car-crazed metropolis, but instead saw nuance, nature and noir everywhere I looked. I started considering relocating my novel’s kidnapping from New York – a city I loved and felt comfortable writing about – to LA, a city I hardly knew. It felt audacious; even reckless. But it felt right.
I went back to the old kidnapping manuscript and began the process of transferring the story from a simple past, third-person narrative to a present tense first-person narrative, and shifted all the locales from New York to Los Angeles. The change in the tempo was extraordinary. The story assumed a pace and drive it had never possessed before. It felt electrified.
But there was still a problem. As much as I tried, I couldn’t incorporate the Kennedy assassination in a way that felt organic. With a feeling of deep despondency, I put the manuscript down for a second time, wondering how long it would be before I picked it up again.
The wait was much shorter than I ever expected. One morning in January 2011, I awoke from a vivid dream at 4 o’clock. Although the dream was active and felt “real”, I was also aware that I was a writer and had to take careful note of what was happening.
I jumped out of bed, opened my computer and started to write. It was as though everything was being narrated to me. I wrote until well after dawn, when I had finished three chapters, then took the dog for a long walk, wondering what the hell was going on.
Later that day I re-read what I had written. I was surprised at the dramatic coherence of the first and third chapters. They were propulsive, violent and gripping. Most incredible of all, they provided the introduction to the themes of private and public memory layered around the JFK assassination.
The second chapter was incoherent and downright bizarre. It made no sense at all – a typical dream. I tossed it. It didn’t matter. In fact it made the other two chapters seem all the more authentic.
Sixteen years after I had begun the novel, the missing pieces had at last been found. I was off.
It took another three years to complete the book. After a final edit with my agent, Tom Witcomb, we both agreed the manuscript was ready for submission. Three days after going out to auction, Faber made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. A novel that had taken so long to be written ended up being sold with blinding speed. It somehow made sense. As James Joyce said, the longest way round is the shortest way home.
FEVER CITY: A Thriller is published by Faber & Faber, 21 January 2016, £12.99
Born into a showbiz milieu in Sydney, Tim Baker left Australia to travel in his early 20s and lived in Rome and Madrid before moving to Paris, where he wrote about music and worked in film. He later ran consular operations in France and North Africa for the Australian embassy, liaising with international authorities on cases involving murder, kidnap, terrorism and disappearances. He currently lives in the South of France with his wife, their son and two rescue animals, a dog and a cat. He is working on several novels, including a sequel to FEVER CITY. @TimBakerWrites