FEATURE: Shaun Baines – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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We caught up with author Shaun Baines to find out more about the release of his debut noir thriller Woodcutter. The book is out now through Amazon and the paperback is released on Thursday 7th June through Thistle Publishing.

Woodcutter is about fictional gangsters in Newcastle.

Its catalyst came with a move from South Shields to a damp cottage in the Scottish borders. We’re isolated here with cows outnumbering people ten to one. Our closest human neighbours are half a mile away, but can be glimpsed from our sitting room window. What did they think about two Geordies moving into the area? (I have yet to explain to them the differences between Geordies, Sand-Dancers, Maccams etc. I fear it may require a Powerpoint presentation and a stiff drink.)

Were we a Geordie terrorist cell? Part of a witness protection scheme? A Panorama investigation into the dairy industry? I settled on runaways from a criminal past and Woodcutter was born.

However, it wasn’t until my fourth draft of the book that I realised there was a bigger inspiration – my family and the families I knew. I’m often asked if I base my characters on real life people. The answer is no. And then, yes because without knowing it, I’d written my own family into my gangster fiction. Just to be clear, none of my family are criminals. You can’t read my book and say, yep, that’s Shaun’s Mam. My family are normal (okay, semi-normal) working class people, but the theme resonated with me.

More than anything, Woodcutter is about family and the dysfunctional spaces in between.

In the book, Scott Dayton says to his brother, Daniel. “What did you expect? Dad is a hardened criminal. So am I. So are you. You can’t have all that in a family and expect love too.”

But they do. As any family member would.

Families in the north-east are unique. They can hurt each other, not speak for months, sometimes resort to violence. It’s hard to witness. I went to school with two brothers who were renowned for their toe-to-toe, full on, fist fights. It was like watching Die Hard’s John McClane and Rocky Balboa smash it out by the tuck shop. At that moment, they hated each other. When the school yard monitor intervened with an ill-timed comment, they closed ranks and redirected their wrath toward him, who was probably just trying to protect a box of Space Raiders from being crushed in the melee.

My own family history is complicated, but not atypical. When my parents divorced, my sister and I were allocated a parent each. She went with Mam. I stayed with Dad. I didn’t see my sister much until she moved back in with us years later. Before that, Dad and I muddled on together.

My Dad used to work in the shipyards, scrubbing out oil tanks before Health and Safety was a thing. He installed kitchens, rewired houses, anything to pay the bills. I think he lost his job in the eighties when Margaret Thatcher’s hold over the North turned to strangulation. It wasn’t discussed with us kids, but I remember hushed conversations and worried expressions. Then came night shifts as a taxi driver. If he gets the chance, he’ll tell you about the time Frank Bruno was in the car. Or Bobby Robson. Or Westlife. In fact, try and stop him. But it was mainly drunks and the occasional individual who tried to rob him.

Work was the thing for Dad. It was a necessity, but also a source of pride. Men were men because they worked. The notion of manhood has changed since Dad’s day, becoming something more rounded, but passion and commitment remain the same.

It’s a lesson I’ve taken with me into adult life.

While Dad taught me this, the women in my life supported me in other ways.

My Mam was a tiger mother before Shere Khan was a lad. At junior school, I was once force-fed fish by the dinner lady and was sick in the afternoon. My Mam went to the school the next day to ‘have a word.’ The Head Mistress later apologised to me in person and was never quite the same again. And I don’t remember ever seeing fish on the school menu again. (Actually, Mam, I wasn’t sick. Sorry. I said that to stoke you up. Thanks, though.)

My Step-Mam came into my life when I was sixteen, but far from an adult. She became my nuclear deterrent in times of difficulty. A lovelier person you could never hope to meet, but cross her family and the next thing you’ll see is a mushroom cloud. She’s there on stand-by. With a hair-trigger switch.

It is because of these strong women that I made a vow never to depict a woman as weak or a victim. In Woodcutter, its sequel and my short stories, women are sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always equal to men. What’s true in fiction is true in life. Should I ever slip in this regard, I’m sure my tiger mothers would be quick to show their teeth.

Whether my background affected my decision not to start my own family is debatable. My wife comes from a family created by Disney and she doesn’t want kids. We adopt ex-battery farmed chickens. It’s easier because you can’t keep children in sheds. Apparently. Whereas my sister has two adorable, fully-formed monsters she keeps in the house.

But a family’s influence is without question. It creeps into everything we do. Luckily for me, it was largely positive, but I worry for those without that support; those who slipped through the cracks and turned to wrongdoing, and the familial bonds of gangsterhood instead. My main character Daniel struggles with his identity because he understands the nature of crime, but without it, he’s adrift.

If it’s your family who corrupts you, how do you shake that influence?

Woodcutter is out now through Amazon and the paperback is released on Thursday 7th June through Thistle Publishing.

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