Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The August when I accidentally saved a bunch of people

Nine years ago today, I woke up in a Chicago hotel room, turned on the TV and saw a plane sticking out of a building I'd worked in, right there on the screen in front of me. 

I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression. I don't consider myself a World Trade Center survivor or someone who was especially close to the disaster, but it did touch the edges of my life and scare me half to death. I had been there, in that building, working, on several occasions over the summer months in 2001. When I woke up on that September morning, it wasn't 'some skyscraper in America' I was looking at. It was a place I knew. The first plane had hit just a few floors above where I'd stood and admired the view and told a colleague 'I want your office' and that very space was being engulfed by fire as I watched, and tried to work out which tower it was that had been hit, pretty sure I already knew. I remember moving around the room quite randomly, panicking, trying to decide what I needed to do. I needed to get in touch with home, that was for sure. My family knew I'd been working in the World Trade Center that summer. I'd mentioned it specifically when talking to my sister about her fear of lifts. Even though I was in Chicago at the time, they also knew I travelled round a lot and that I didn't always keep them totally updated as to exactly where I was. I guess that, for all anyone knew, Chicago could have been next on the list. There certainly are a lot of tall buildings there if you were that way inclined. So I needed to get in touch with my family, and I needed to get in touch with the office and I needed to get there, actually, to physically be at my office (even though I had recently left my job) and be with the people in America I was closest to, my friends Tim and Rebekah. 

My first challenge was contacting home. This was before the days when you could use your mobile phone anywhere in the world. In fact, back in 2001 you could pretty much use your phone anywhere in the world except America. Mine had worked when I'd gone to Africa for a fortnight but, aside from a ten minute interlude in New York where I caught the edge of a GPS signal, it was a useless piece of plastic everywhere in the states. I'd never got round to getting one of the brick-like American 'cell' phones that made me laugh. I was staying in a hotel room as I'd recently left my job and the apartment they'd supplied with it and the phone there was good only for local calls. When I tried to ring my mum, it wasn't having any of it. A payphone then. Hmm.. Well, anyone who's ever tried to use a payphone to ring internationally in America knows how that works out. It doesn't. There are no dollar coins and you just can't put enough quarters in. I walked around Lincoln Park and tried one after another, getting nowhere. 

I did manage to ring Rebekah. The news wasn't good. Most of our colleagues were accounted for but there were two people nobody could reach. I remember telling her that they'd be found. I could almost hear her biting her lip down the phone line as she said 'I'm not sure they will.' Something inside me was insistent about it, though. I don't know looking back if it was some kind of foresight or just sheer bloody mindedness. Perhaps it was wishful thinking because both people were colleagues I'd liked and respected. I was adamant, though, despite their office being on 86th floor. They will be found. 

I decided to make my way to our Evanston office where my friends were, and where I might be able to get inside and make a phonecall. For a moment I wondered if travelling anywhere was the right thing to do. The news anchors were very clear that everyone should stay in their homes. But I would be travelling away from the centre of Chicago so surely that made sense? It was before the London tube bombings so that the idea of something happening on a train or the El did not even cross my mind. I needed to contact home and find my friends. Of course, the office was in a tower block so that, when I got there, no one was allowed in anyway. 

I had to get in touch with home. Would anyone think to check their email? It was worth a shot. I managed to find an internet cafe and send a message and prayed that someone would get it. The cafe had a huge TV and you can guess what the live pictures were that were coming through. It was there that I saw the towers fall, one after another. It felt like the world was ending. 

Finally, I found my friends Tim and Rebekah and we were able to spend some time together and talk about what was going on. Someone had got hold of some weed and we smoked it in a public park. It seemed a valid reaction at the time. There had been a miracle. The two 'missing' colleagues had been located. Despite their 86th floor location, no one we knew had died. It sounds silly looking back but, at the time, it felt almost as if I had willed it to be true. I know I had believed it when I told Rebekah they'd be okay. Under the circumstances, I don't know where that belief had come from. It was an amazing story. Bill Trinkle was on his way to a client site that morning, where he arrived to cheering and applause. He was an early starter and someone everyone was sure would be in the building. Judy, the receptionist, was in the lobby on her way up to work as the plane hit and was able to get out quickly. The New York office manager had fortunately decided to take his holiday that week. There was no management around and morale at the company was pretty low at the time so that no one else had quite made it in to work yet that day. There'd been some really horrible political stuff going on and lots of redundancies. It hadn't been pleasant at the time but now, we were all glad of it. 

And I'd had a part to play in all this too. My friend Tim pointed out that I'd probably (entirely unwittingly) saved a whole bunch of my colleagues. It all revolved around that political stuff. There'd been a new president of the company brought in by one of the shareholders. This was a German guy who'd had quite a high profile in the industry in one way and another. It had been this guy who had brought me over from London to help him sort out the business and make some difficult decisions. But things hadn't gone well. Shareholder support had turned against him and his position was in jeopardy. We had a conversation one warm evening in August. He was on his way back from a long meeting at the office, I was on my way back from the bar I'd been drinking at with my friends and we collided in an alleyway near our apartment block. He told me they were planning to move him aside; that they'd offered him a job managing the New York office. He was trying to decide whether to take it or not. I knew straight away what I thought about this. I told him he should resign. It was about pride, in the end, I said. He nodded his head and went away to think about it. The next day, he did resign. He told my friend Tim that the conversation he'd had with me had been a big factor in his decision - that he'd been seriously considering accepting the job but that as soon as he heard me say this, he knew I was right. 

If my boss had taken the job in New York, everything would have been different. He had a European banking mentality. That meant early starts and long hours. He would have almost certainly have been in his office that morning. And it's a bit like Bagpuss. If the manager is awake, all the others make sure they get there and sing like the mice on the mice organ. I suspect that most of my New York colleagues would have been there too. I'm not claiming any credit for saving their lives. It was a lucky accident. It did make me think, though. How every action, every tiny thing we do has the potential to have a huge effect on the people we know and ones we don’t as well. I just said what I thought. I can't envisage ever saying anything different in that situation. But if I had, the world would be totally different now to what it was like then. I might even have ended up in New York that day myself. 

I often wonder about those crazy times in the autumn of 2001. I wonder how much we knew, somewhere, deep inside us about what was about to happen. It’s one of the times in my life that makes me consider the boundaries between past and future, and how solid they really are. I'd been keeping a journal, not something I generally do, and my entries from the few days before are strange. They talk about restlessness and strange atmospheres, the feeling of bad things on their way. They talk about changing my life. I'd had a good friend Kevin from England visit me the week before. He left the day before the attacks. He spent the entire time in Chicago telling me how scary the skyscrapers were and refusing to go up any of them. I remember laughing and telling him he should see the view from the World Trade Center. And I think of another story too, a writer I know whose first novel came out the year before mine did with the same publisher. His was about terrorist attacks in London. Its date of release? The 7th July 2005. 

My memories of the World Trade Center itself are so tied up in what happened to it next that it’s impossible to separate the two. There was a tight security system that meant you needed to show your passport and have your photo taken before you were allowed in as a visitor, a system that never could have foreseen or done a thing about the attack that finally happened. I can still picture the lobby and the coffee shops downstairs, the doors and windows and desks and chairs and papers that I wrote on and left there, all up on the 86th floor. 

Most of all I remember the people I got the lifts with. The people who worked above the 70th floor and who got the express ‘elevator’ first, before having to find the right lift to take them onward depending where exactly they worked. The people who probably died that day. I especially remember the first time I visited the building, when I stood around looking confused about where to go next as I got out on the 70th floor and a really kind man noticed and helped me out. I always wonder what happened to him. I hope he survived but, in my heart, just as sure as I was that Bill and Judy would be found, I'm certain that he wasn't so lucky. And he was kind to me. Needlessly kind, with no agenda, except that he could see that someone was lost. It's too sad to think about. 

I used to think that what happened that day changed my life but, when I look back now, I wonder if it did. I was already changing my life. I was writing loads and had been looking into MA courses with serious intent. It perhaps propelled me faster in that direction but whether it truly changed anything I did is another matter. I know I went back to London and thought about getting another job in banking, but never quite got round to it. I went back to teaching instead, and then to Nottingham, to do an MA in Writing but also to my family. And I wonder about that decision because I remember the feeling I got that day nine years ago, a sense of everyone going home. Everything closed in and everyone reached out for the people they loved, getting there anyway they could, car, bus, train, feet. It wasn't as easy as that for me with airspace closed but it's interesting that, in the end, I found my way home too. I think that probably is significant but it's so hard to tell. 

It's taken me nine years to write about this. Looking back now, it's hard to separate the way it felt then from the hazy glow of nostalgia that settles over it now. I've seen Bill Trinkle since and some of the other people from the New York office. They seemed happy. Super relaxed. I suspect that it did change their lives. But it's hard to remember how it really was that day, those few weeks before. Every interaction seems filled with meaning, every decision as important as Hell. I knew Bill and Judy would be all right. My sister just had a feeling about checking her email because I might try to get in touch that way. I'd been so certain that my boss shouldn't go to New York that the moment I told him so felt almost supernatural. But is that how it was? 

I don’t know. All I know is how sad it still makes me when I think of all those people in my lift. 

Monday, 16 August 2010

New courses

I am running two courses in the next couple of months for those who are interested in improving their writing.

The first is part of the Nottingham Writers' Studio series of workshops and focuses on planning and developing your novel  - where you go once you've got an idea, in other words. It runs all day on 25th September at the Nottingham Contemporary. For further details, or to book a place contact Robin Vaughan-Williams on 

The second is for writers much further down the line, those with well developed or finished novels looking to find an agent or publisher. The idea is to help writers make that jump from writing well to getting their writing noticed. Ahead of the course, each participant is asked to send their proposal document comprising three chapters, a synopsis and covering letter. The course will focus on these proposals, looking at the work that each individual needs to do to get the attention of an agent, and so has an element of manuscript reading built in. It will look at the actual projects, what changes might improve them or make them more marketable but it will also examine the wording of the proposal, and synopsis, to help the writer sell his or her novel more effectively. If I feel that individual projects would be of interest to agents I know then I may make recommendations for the writers concerned. This course will take place on 14th and 15th of October at Antenna in Nottingham. For further details, or to book, see or contact me direct.

Monday, 28 June 2010


Well, I promised some links. Here's the first one. DONKEY, directed by Deborah Haywood, written and produced by my good self.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Things you should know...

Starfishing is out in the USA now via the good people at Scribner. You can buy your copy in all the usual places. It is a rather sumptuous looking book, as the attached picture I hope demonstrates.

I also have a new Facebook page. There already was a community site here , which is basically mostly wikipedia stuff at the moment. I've set up my official page here so do go along and join, or should I say 'like' using the official FB lingo. I suspect I'll update this page much more regularly than this blog, so it's a better way of keeping in touch with what's going on.

I've been making films too. Oh yeah, I am a film producer, baby. Only very short films, but films nonetheless, and one of them is from a script what I wrote. It's the first time I've seen my work come to life like this and it's very exciting. We're going to enter them for the Virgin Media Shorts competition and try to win some money towards making a feature. It was a real eye opening experience and I was left with total respect for the job directors do, especially my main lady the super talented  Deborah Haywood. I'll write more about all this  when I have time and energy and the films should be online soon, so I'll send some links.

I also have a short story in the current edition of The Battered Suitcase, which can be read online or downloaded to your Kindle. You can also order a POD copy, I believe, but check the website for more details. 

Don't mention the World Cup...

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

RIP Alan Sillitoe, a writer who reached across the generations

It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me at all that the death of Alan Sillitoe last week came as a real blow to me. I didn't know Alan well, but we had met a few times and he'd been an enduring support to my career all the way. More than that, his books and writing were part of what inspired me to write in the first place. I can't express what his letters, quotes and general support meant to me.

The first time I met Alan Sillitoe was when I was revising for my 'O' level English. Not in person, but on the page, that most famous passage of Arthur's journey down the stairs used as an extract in one of the past papers we were looking at. I was immediately taken with his writing, with the fact it was Nottingham, proper Nottingham, the place I knew, and with the vivid scenes he painted. I had read a lot of Lawrence before this but had never come across Sillitoe. And so something began, something deep inside me about writing (which was something I'd always wanted to do) and about Nottingham too. It would take twenty years to develop into my first novel The Killing Jar but I believe that this moment is where the book began.

I finally met the man himself those twenty years on. It was at a production of the theatre adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at Lakeside Arts Centre. We walked out so that Chad could smoke and, of course, Alan was also smoking. I didn't say much to him - just hello - but the timing felt significant. Just the day before, I'd received my first proof copy of The Killing Jar from Chatto. I wished I had it with me. It was the only copy of the book I had but I would have handed it to Alan there and then without a quiver of indecision. As it was, I stood with my husband and tried not to stare. Then a journalist walked over and began talking to Alan about the Arctic Monkeys and their use of his words in the title of their debut album Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not. 

It strikes me that this is something Alan Sillitoe did really well, reaching across the generations. Nottingham had become a very different place since he wrote SNSM but there was something essential about the book, about being young, about kicking out against the system. Something important. Not only had it spoken to me but to the even younger Arctic Monkeys and, when I did a search on MySpace, it seemed to a whole raft of other young men and women. Brilliant Nottingham Culture mag Left Lion quoted him too, choosing his words for their own motto: All the rest is propaganda. 

Since then I've met Alan a number of times. The day I got my Betty Trask, when I finally did get chance to give him a copy of my book, which I was thrilled that he asked me sign, and put my address in so he could write to me afterwards. Write to me he did. In fact, we sparked up quite a bit of a correspondence for the next three and a bit years. His kind words about my writing will stay with me for a long time and his letters will be something I cherish until the day I die. I feel an immense sense of privilege to be able to pull them out from the safe place I keep them and see Alan's own handwriting telling me to 'keep on keeping on'.

I had a dream a couple of days after he died. I was living in a really run down house, a right hovel, with peeling wallpaper and bare pipes that leaked, nasty carpet with ground in dirt and Alan Sillitoe was coming to visit me there. I felt embarrassed. He was this great writer, and used to a bit of luxury, and here was I offering him a cup of tea in my dingy place. Of course, he didn't seem to mind. Then we went outside. The garden was massive, acres and acres of green stretching for miles and miles. I pointed it out to him. I told him about my plans for the wonderful things I was going to build on that land.

Sometimes I think the subconscious is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

On writing a novel... quickly...

I have finished my departure novel.

At the risk of inciting sickness, jealousy or furious ire, I'm going to admit here that the bulk of the novel was written in a week and half. I edited it over the course of two days and then I sent it to my agent. We've now spoken about a couple of minor revisions and he's sending it out next week to editors.

I posted word counts as I went on Facebook and was told off by a friend for making it all sound too easy. In fact, this friend and I, we used to joke all the time about the adverts you saw in magazines like Writers' News that began with the headline 'Why not be a writer?' as if it was as easy as having the idea. We used to talk about one particular aspiring friend who was bashing out the words like nonsense and we suspected was looking round the room shouting 'Look no hands!' as she did it. And that's probably the way I looked when I was writing this novel.

The thing was, thanks to new and consuming work commitments, I had a short time horizon to get a draft out. It was that week or probably not at all. So I set myself a daily word count target of six thousand words that even I found ridiculous. Then the first day, I wrote them. And the second day, I wrote them. Three days in and my draft had doubled in size. The next day, I was halfway there. There was something incredibly refreshing about getting through the project so quickly. There were other advantages too; It was easy to keep the story in my head, to remember where I was and what the characters had done.

Don't get me wrong, the actual writing I did in that week and half was really the conclusion of lots of work I'd done on the project. I'd planned the book meticulously, thought about it at length, talked it out to my most trusted writing allies. I had read around, finding every similar novel I could get my hands on and reading it, revisiting others that I'd read years before but wanted to have more fresh in my mind. In the background, I had done all my homework so that when it came to writing the book, it flowed, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

So, no, it isn't that easy to write a novel. That said, the process made me think a little. As a touring writer, I hear the same things again and again when I go to meet readers. These vary from generic questions (Where do you get your ideas from? What are your writing habits? Do you use a computer or write it longhand with a pen?) to specific ones about my books (What happened to Jon? What was it Kerrie found in the outhouse?) to wistful statements about the art of writing. (I'd love to write a book, What a marvellous thing to have done, I've always wanted to write a book.)

It's the last of these that came to mind after I'd finished my draft of this novel. I've always wanted to write a book. I remember once mentioning to an acquaintance I bumped into on the tube 'I want to write' and his counter 'Who doesn't?' and he was so very right, I've worked out now.

So who does write? What makes the difference? I can only say what I say to anyone who comes out with this statement and their wistful far away eyes. Do it. It possibly sounds trite and simplistic, but I really believe that's all you need to do. Put one word in front of another, hold your breath and write until you get to the end. (By trial and error I have found that for me it's better to have some idea where I'm going before I start out. Although, I've also found that the only way to learn how to write a novel is to try it and fail a few times...)

An English teacher I worked with years and years ago, one of the crowd who'd gone into teaching because of Dead Poet's Society and been sorely disappointed in leaky, crumbling comps, he once told me that he thought I lived by the film's motto and did seize the day. I wasn't sure at the time; mostly I thought I lived day to day and didn't think too carefully about anything but, in hindsight, he might have had a point. I surprised myself in the last few weeks. I decided I was writing the novel quickly, and I wrote it. Quickly. 

I hope that I don't come across as arrogant on this post or you think I'm showing off. That would mean I haven't got my point across very well at all. Really, I want to stress that, whilst it might not be easy, writing a novel is possible. It really does get done one word at a time.

Right. I want you all standing on your desks with a fist to your chest. Come on! Carpe Diem you lot!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Authors' Club First Novel Award Event

The Authors' Club First Novel Award lastest shortlisted writers will be talking about their work at Waterstone's in Piccadilli later this month. I won this prize a couple of years ago and I have to say it's one of the nicest things that has happened to me since I got published in 2006. The event should be a good un so do get in touch with Waterstone's direct to book your tickets.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

I'd like to see David Attenborough cover this one...

I came across something quite bizarre in my most recent spate of research for the novel I am writing. I needed to find out more about poisonous mushrooms, and so I did a few searches on google to see what I could find.

Well, one of the searches on 'deadly poisonous' came up with Fly Agaric, which surprised me somewhat as I knew this mushroom was taken as an hallucinogenic and, as far as I was aware, people didn't tend to die from taking it. A little further investigation revealed the the poisons lost their potency, although none of their hallucinogenic properties, upon drying and treating in various ways.

I couldn't help but wonder how people found this out, and how they ever knew it might be safe to eat Fly Agaric, so I dug a little deeper. What I discovered was the most fascinating symbiosis of man and animal, both in search of the ultimate high.

It all started with reindeer junkies. Yep, it's official, reindeer love a bit of fly agaric. They will hunt it out and can sniff it from several kilometres away. In fact, the easiest way, apparently, to attract deer to an area is to put down some cut up Fly Agaric and they will come running. And jumping. Because one of the effects of these mushrooms on the deer is that they get very energetic, and jump around, much higher than they usually would.

Where do the people come in? Well, apparently, indigenous laplanders would watch the reindeer as they ate the mushrooms and pranced and danced, and they wanted some of it. They knew the mushrooms eaten raw could be poisonous so instead of eating them themselves, they fed them to the deer and drunk the deer's urine.

I'm still trying to picture the first time this happened. How could it possibly have gone? Well, mate, I think if we drink their wee we might get quite high. Okay, yes, let's give it a go. Hmmm... Not sure. But apparently that was what happened and the Lapps got high too.

The next bit is priceless. You know how Santa has a sleigh, right, and how it's pulled by flying reindeer? Well... It's thought that this entire picture came from hallucinating Laps, watching hallucinating reindeer jump really high and seeing them fly off into the night. I love that in and of itself but there's still more. The crafty deer didn't leave it at that, with the laps drinking their wee and having all the fun. Oh no. When their partners in crime urinated on the snow, the deer ate that, thus completing a very neat, trippy circle of high and making the most of the harvested mushrooms.

Sometimes you really couldn't make it up.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Long time no blog

Well, it has been a while since I last blogged. In my defence, I have been ridiculously busy since Christmas. New job, two novels to write, readings to prepare. I did promise to keep you updated on the double book chase so here goes. Familiar Friend is lagging well behind at just 8850 words for the moment. This is mostly because I want to take my time with this book, make it as good as I can. I'm waiting until I have more time for it.

Departure Dan, though, has taken on a life of his own. I've been quite surprised how the story, planned chapter by chapter from day one, has decided it knows better than me where it should go. I always find there is a moment in writing a novel when everything begins to slot together, and make lots more sense than you thought it ever could, and I've found this moment feels closer on this first draft than it ever has at this stage with my previous books. I'm writing at a rate of knots right now, and have got about 15000 words down in the last few days. Altogether now, I have just under 40 000 words, about half way there.

My next event is at Beeston Library next Monday, 22nd February, where I will be reading from one of my favourite books of all time Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. See the flyer below for more details.

Right, back to Desperate Dan. I mean Departure Dan... That book I'm writing anyway.