Searching for the Heartbreaker by Ian Ayris

When you read as much as I do you’re bound to get the gamut. There will be good, and not so good. There’ll be great, and the occasional stinker. It comes with the territory. What you wait for as a reader, hope for, is that true gem you get every so often, usually out of left field, that absolutely blows your doors off. Abide With Me by Ian Ayris is one of those books, and I can tell you without question Abide With Me will be on my Top 10 of 2012 list at year end. As such, I’m genuinely thrilled to welcome Ian to talk about how the story came together.

IanAyrisWhen I decided to turn my short story ‘The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny’ into a novel, the biggest consideration, literally, was how to turn fifteen hundred words into sixty thousand. I knew there was a novel in there somewhere. I just had to find the key, the way in. I read and I re-read. And the same paragraph kept jumping out. It wasn’t about Ronnie Swordfish and the blood-doping scam, or how Fat Kenny had made it into the big time overnight. It wasn’t even about how he walked into the river at the end and never came out. It was this:

‘Kenny was the lad we never picked for football, but who stayed to watch anyway. Who’d turn up on me doorstep, out the blue, askin me mum if I could come out and play. I’d tell Mum to tell him I was doin me homework, or something. It weren’t just me. I’d see him knock up and down the whole street. One door after another shuttin in his face. In the end, no-one bothered to even open the door to him. Poor bastard. His old man used to beat the shit out of him for bein fat. So did we.’

That was the heart-breaker. That was the key. The childhood.

The characters had already told me they came from Bethnal Green, in the heart of London’s East End. I couldn’t change that. I was born in 1969, in a hospital in Dagenham, but spent most of my life growing up in Romford in a borough right on the edge of East London. So by going back to the childhood of these characters, I ended going back to mine, albeit, geographically, slightly removed.

I grew up in the seventies. So the colours, the toys, the telly, the music, the football, those memories became the story of my characters – the asides, the extraneous details I needed to give their story authenticity.

So far so good. I thought.

The story was coming along, though I still didn’t know where it was taking me. I was writing one chapter at a time – winging it all the way. Thirty thousand words, listening to John tell the story of his and Kenny’s childhood. There’d been tales of Christmas days and nativity plays. Football in the playground. FA Cup Finals. School dinners. The Queen’s Jubilee. And amidst all that, what happened to Kenny. The whole thing rippled with sentimentality – except for that last bit. But there was a darkness from the start – a darkness attached to Kenny. And I could feel it growing. John could feel it. John knew it. But I carried on, not realising the darkness was coming from inside me.

When the darkness consumed John, everything changed. This was no longer an exercise in expanding a short story into a novel. In truth, the short story had disappeared long ago, all that remained were the names of the characters. The novel I was writing was a something else entirely.

It was my life.

Obviously, it wasn’t actually my life. I’ve never been to prison or involved with gangsters or found anyone hanging from a set of bannisters. But I did grow up in a world that was brown and orange all over. I do remember the Cup Finals of 1975 and 1980 where West Ham beat Fulham and Arsenal, respectively, and I remember the Queens Jubilee and I remember sitting at the back of the class staring out the window. Waiting for something. Anything. And I have felt empty and lost and distant and confused and searing, unbearable, unspoken pain.

And all of this stuff was there all along, buried within the layers of that short story. I just didn’t know it at the time. I sometimes wonder if every short story is just the tip of a very large, very dark, very scary iceberg.

In the case of ‘The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny’ that was certainly, and somewhat surprisingly, true.

Ian Ayris was born in Dagenham, Essex. Having spent most of his childhood more interested in kicking a tennis ball about the school playground with his mates than actually learning anything, he managed to leave the public education system in 1985 with but two O Levels and a handful of C.S.E.’s. And a love of writing. His academic achievements set him up nicely for the succession of low paid jobs he has maintained to this day. Ian’s love of writing resurfaced late in his thirties, and he has since had almost thirty short stories published both in print and online. He is the author of Abide With Me and the short story collection, Uncle Mildred and Other Stories. Ian lives with his wife and three children in Romford, Essex where he is currently studying for a degree in English Literature and is a lifelong Dagenham and Redbridge supporter. To learn more about Ian, visit his website.


  • nigel

    March 27, 2012 - 5:42 PM

    Lovely post. What a title it was for a short story. I’d love to see those 1500 words. The novel is superb and I really hope it hits the stars for you, Ian. Good man. I saw West Ham play at Preston North End the year after they were relegated from the 1st Division and it was like watching a bunch of superheroes, Trevor Brooking running down that wing and we probably lost (can’t remember that much). All power to you.


  • Eric Beetner

    March 27, 2012 - 3:01 PM

    I’m so glad you liked Abide With Me, Elizabeth. And thanks for giving Ian some space. It truly is a special book and heartbreaking is the word for it. Here’s hoping it catches on in the US.

  • AJ Hayes

    March 27, 2012 - 2:13 PM

    I don’t know exactly what language Ian speaks in his stuff. I do know it’s a universal one. One that speaks — with no need of translation — directly to the human heart in all of us. A major talent has emerged with Abide With Me. Gonna buy Ian a buncha Purple Yorkies. Arf!

    • Elizabeth A. White

      March 27, 2012 - 9:11 PM

      Great point. There is something very transcendent about the story. It may take place in 1970s East London, but at its core it’s a story everyone should be able to relate to their childhood in some way.

  • sabrina ogden

    March 27, 2012 - 12:44 PM

    Wow, what an incredible post. I’m really looking forward to reading this! Wonderful post, Ian.

  • Paul Brazill

    March 26, 2012 - 2:27 PM

    Smashing stuff. Abide With Me is the real deal.

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