Many years ago, soon after the release of 'A Quiet Belief in Angels', I went to Georgia to make a little piece for the Richard & Judy Book Club and Channel 4. It was an incredible trip. I was asked by the Travel Section of the Mail on Sunday to write an article about my experiences there. I had not read this for years, and I found it this morning and am re-posting it. I hope it's of interest…
My recent trip to Georgia ranks alongside the most significant experiences of my life.
Aside from marriage and fatherhood, it was one of the most profound experiences I've known. But it was also unsettling in more ways than one.
Located in the southern part of Georgia, with real towns such as Folkston and Kingsland around it, Augusta Falls is a fictional town created as the backdrop for my most recent novel, A Quiet Belief In Angels. Despite having visited the United States only briefly, and never having set foot in Georgia itself, I found myself walking in the footsteps of my protagonist and central character, Joseph Vaughan.
As a result of Quiet Belief being selected for the widely-publicised and prestigious Richard and Judy Book Club 2008, I was given this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see and experience a world I perhaps would otherwise never have done. With my editor, Jon Wood, I flew into Atlanta, the capital of Georgia. To the south is Florida, to the east is South Carolina and the endless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. To the west is Alabama, and heading north you would find Tennessee.
Arriving on the 16th of January we planned to spend the following day scouting locations for the short documentary that would precede the book review section of the Richard & Judy Show that is to be aired on the 30th of January. We had a brief opportunity to work alongside the technical crew despatched to follow us. We were looking for scenes evocative of the book. We were looking for the spirit of Augusta Falls.
From Atlanta we flew south to Jacksonville, just across the Florida state line, and here we found Amelia Island, one of the southernmost Sea Islands that stretch along the east coast. Formerly the haunt of smugglers and pirates, Amelia Island is thirteen miles long, four miles wide, and there's sand as far as the eye can see. We found ourselves on a section of the coast called American Beach. Established by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, President of the Pension Bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, it was the only beach where blacks could congregate right up until the late 1960s. Here you will still find the blues club used by black artistes who drove down from Jacksonville, and even now the island hosts America’s ‘Springing The Blues’ Festival. We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites, a hotel that overlooks the stunning harbour front. The epitome of Southern hospitality, the lilting accent everywhere you went, so beautifully described in ‘Gone With The Wind’: ‘soft and slurring, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants’. Breakfast was scrambled egg and grits, waffles with sausagemeat gravy, all served in portions sufficient to feed a family.
On the evening of the 18th, the day we completed our filming, we ate at Sliders Restaurant. Ordering chicken wing starters saw the presentation of twenty five wings in a basket, alongside salad and celery, dips, sauces, all manner of seasonings. American dining seems to be the antithesis of the English ration-book mentality. Over here you order a salad and you get a piece of lettuce, a slice of cucumber and half a tomato. In the US you are delivered someone’s back garden on a plate. After Sliders we ventured bravely into The Hammerhead Bar, watering hole for the blue-collar paper-mill employees. Heavy rock music, the air smoke-filled and redolent with beer and spirits, we survived several games of pool before being challenged by the locals. Asking them to guess where we were from, they responded with ‘Czechoslovakia’, ‘Russia’, even ‘Israel’. When I admitted I was from Birmingham, I was greeted with a slight sneer and a question as to why I was so far from Alabama.
As we noticed when scouting for locations, there is a very significant religious presence. You’ll see churches every mile – Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelist. Even on television it seemed that sixty channels were equally divided between sit-coms, home shopping and religious ministries.
As for our chosen film locations, they were right there across the Georgia state line. And it was there that I found the south precisely as I’d imagined it. Wooden-turretted houses, rocking chairs on plankboard verandahs, Confederate flags on white gravestones. It was all there.
And to walk along roads about which I had written, to see signposts for ‘Jesup County’, ‘Waycross’ and ‘Homeland’ was perhaps the most pleasantly unsettling experience of all. Here were the ghosts of the characters I had created. They were still here, had been here all along, almost as if they’d been waiting for me.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing was the cemetery. We found it on the way to a small town called Folkston, the town we used as our ‘stand-in’ for Augusta Falls. The cover of my novel, published back in August 2007, featured a Southern church on the cover, and around it were the obligatory gravestones and crosses. Driving down the highway, we looked left, and there it was. Almost identical. It was all we could do to stop the car in time.
The following day we went back. We shot our film, we read some of the inscriptions, and even the director was slightly unnerved by the experience. ‘This could be the cover of the book’, he said. No-one replied.
As we drove away we saw the Sheriff's car, on its side was emblazoned the legend ‘Charlton County Sheriff’s Department’, and the Sheriff himself, standing right there at the front of the car, could very well have been the Sheriff of Augusta Falls.
We passed by stunning trees of red cedar, a variety of pines, oaks, maples, sweetgum and white hickories, much of it draped with Spanish moss. The bayous seemed to stretch for miles. We visited Okefenokee Swamp, an endless wildlife refuge populated by cranes, mosquitoes, wild pigs and vultures. There's an earthy, waterlogged scent that almost seems to marinate you. The sense of isolation was amazing. It was as though civilisation ended as the swamp began. You can take boat tours and that's a great way to see it. But I recall thinking if I went fifty yards the wrong way I'd be lost – and never seen again.
In fact for the entire time I experienced a strange emotional effect – it was mysterious, tinged with a continual sense of déjà vu, perhaps even a sense of homesickness that I wasn't aware I possessed until I was there. In hindsight I realise I had an emotional hollow after writing this novel, a hollow ordinarily filled as I complete my writing. But in this case, with A Quiet Belief In Angels, it was as if I had to walk where Joseph Vaughan had walked, had to see what he had seen, to resolve that inner emptiness that the book had left behind.
A Quiet Belief In Angels started with a location. It started with geographical, social and cultural characteristics. It started with the feeling that Georgia was the ideal place to set this story, the sense of rural community, the predominance of religion, the importance of family. Aged twelve at the outbreak of the Second World War, Joseph Vaughan’s life continues to be dogged by tragedy. Beginning in 1939 with the murder of a little girl from his own class, Joseph is witness to a subsequent nine murders that take place over the next decade. In 1949 a local farmer, a friend of Joseph’s mother, is found hanged, around him the artefacts and trinkets of the murdered girls. Joseph Vaughan moves to New York, his dream of being a writer before him, but the murders begin again and he has to return to Georgia to face his own ghosts.
Years ago I studied photography and so the Georgian scenery was a dream. The roads were wider, and the sheer quantity of space made England appear claustrophobic and contained. I am city-born and bred, and I still live in Birmingham with my wife, Vicky, and my eleven year-old son, Ryan. Georgia was a world apart, a country of vast differences and no similarities, and it gave me a completely different perspective.
And the city of Savannah – ‘The Queen of the South’ – a stunning rain-washed complex of magnificent architecture, its timeless ambience, its tree-lined squares, the feeling that if you could only take the cars away you’d be back in 1850. Once characterised by Lady Astor as "a beautiful woman with a dirty face", Savannah is surely one of the most aesthetically stunning cities I have seen. It's an incredible place, welcoming, warm and friendly, but you know you’re a visitor, a guest of the South, for when the stores close and the lights go down you know that Savannah is for the Savannahians.
So now I’m home, and the South is behind me. I’m back in Birmingham, back at work, and I carry with me the memory of an experience I will never forget.
I've written two more books since A Quiet Belief In Angels, a Washington-based CIA thriller, and a serial killer novel set in New York. But Georgia haunts me, like remembering an old friend.
And the book I have just started, a book that’s not due to be published until 2010 will have Georgia centre-stage, the old friend exhumed and revived. It was something I had in mind before I went, but I returned with this as a certainty. It’s the least I can do now I’ve been there.
My journey to Georgia gave me so much I believe I now need to give just a little bit back.
(Author's note, August 2013 The Georgia-set book I mention in this article was never published. I wrote three books in 2009 – 'Patron Saint of Thieves', 'The Darkest River' and 'Saints of New York', and we decided to publish 'Saints' for 2010.)
In case anyone is interested, I have posted a gallery of photographs from this trip on my Facebook page.