“Love the story but why on earth have you set it in Birmingham of all places? No one wants to read a novel set in Birmingham!” my editor announced in despair. “Any chance you could set in London, preferably Islington?” she pleaded.
This conversation was repeated more times than I care to remember as my novel, Under the Rotunda, was undergoing the tortuous process of being written and rewritten at the behest of this London obsessed editor. There are, however, times as a writer when you just have to stand by your artistic principles whilst remaining aware that, in reality, such high-minded stances rarely pay the rent. Over the two years it took to write Under the Rotunda I was bluntly informed that I’d sell more copies if the book was set in London. Trouble was nobody seemed to understand that I didn’t know the geography of London too well, having only ventured down there for meetings and interviews. Furthermore, as a native Brummie I wanted to write about my city and it’s recent renaissance. I don’t know whether it’s possible to claim Birmingham is actually cool but it’s probably safe to say it’s cooler now than it ever has been and I wanted to shout (or at least speak loudly) about it. They always say you should write about what you know and as I’ve lived here all my life I do know about this place, warts and all. I’ve watched Birmingham transform itself from a dying conurbation, reliant upon manufacturing and heavy industry into a vibrant, service based economy where knowledge is the new currency. Furthermore, at the risk of sounding shallow (never a good trait for a writer) I’d got this snappy title, ‘Under the Rotunda’ and it rhymed! Under Big Ben or Under the London Eye didn’t have quite the same ring.
It really never occurred to me as I started to create the characters and flesh out the plot to set the novel anywhere else. The Rotunda itself seemed to be such a powerful symbol, having stood for forty years or so, managing to defy IRA bombs as well as public and political derision to become a much loved listed building, containing highly sought after luxury flats. I can’t claim to have always been in love with the old lady Rotunda but she has definitely grown on me. It seems that she stands like a stoical matriarch watching over her huge and diverse family; a family who have arrived from all over the world to live, love and work in this unique city. Aside from the Rotunda the city centre itself has finally become somewhere of which locals can be rightfully proud – a genuine destination rather than somewhere to merely pass through. The eerie network of underground walkways of my youth are all but gone and the canals seem reborn, having once more become an economical asset. I genuinely believe that I could not have set a contemporary novel anywhere quite as exciting as Birmingham! I only hope the reading public agree.
The themes of transformation, regeneration and resilience present in Birmingham’s dramatic resurgence are echoed in the lives of the four main protagonists in Under the Rotunda. The action starts on an ordinary, rain sodden Friday evening when two couples get together for dinner. During the course of the evening events take a dramatic turn for the worse with tragic consequences for one of the characters. The remainder of the action follows three of the dinner party guests as they assess their lives and make some intriguing choices about their futures. These characters are ordinary people who, whether they realise it or not, have been influenced by their environment. They work, like many, in Birmingham’s growing service sector. Two are accountants working for a large firm and the other is an idealistic artist who has struggled to earn a living and has been forced to sell his soul to the evils of commerce just to keep afloat, thus abandoning his dreams of the bohemian life in Moseley (an area popular with creative types).
As the book took shape I found the action moving out from the city and into the suburbs. I was forced to write with the Birmingham A-Z close at hand as I checked and re-checked street names whilst calculating the feasibility of characters travelling from one part of town to another within the timeframe required by the action. I have been overwhelmed with the local interest in the book. Furthermore the reading public have often been desperate to know whether their neighbourhood is mentioned. The one thing I can promise readers is that if they’ve lived in Birmingham or if they are natives they will definitely find landmarks and places with which they are familiar. For those who are not familiar with the city, the book should provide a good introduction to both the geography and the people.
As I now watch my little book make it’s way in the cut throat world of publishing I am left with the feeling that if Birmingham is to truly become a world city then artists and writers should be encouraged to use the landscape and the people as their inspiration. The more a city appears within cultural works, the more its profile is raised and this not only makes interesting art but also good commercial sense. I hope that in some small way I might have managed to motivate other local writers, musicians, performers and artists to use their own environment. If so, it has been worth all those hours of phone calls from grumpy editors who seem to think that no one is interested in reading a book about people who live outside London.
© Danny Bernardi 2006
This article first appeared in the Birmingham Post.
Under the Rotunda by Danny Bernardi is out now priced £8.99. It is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/184685184X/
and can be ordered direct from bookshops. ISBN: 184685184X
A free extract of the book is available at:-
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