Ryan Davis and the criminal underground

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27 is the cracking debut novel from Ryan Davis, a rock’n’roll crime thriller set in the dingy world of the criminal underground of Birmingham, in England’s West Midlands. Jim Vale, aka Jimmy Tyrant, is the lead singer of one hit wonders The Tyrants who has lost everything he once held dear and decides the only way out is to follow his idols; Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and end it all at the age of 27. When his suicide attempt fails he finds himself caught up in gangland Birmingham, drug dealers, internet millionaires and karaoke-singing gangsters. 27 follows Jimmy’s journey to come to terms with his past and rediscover himself, his music and his place in the world. I spoke to author Ryan Davis about the 27 mythology, rock and roll, Birmingham and their impact on his writing.

What do you think is the appeal of the 27 mythology?
It’s about the preservation of youth, I think. When rock stars die at 27 they will never grow old; which means they will never have the chance to sully their greatest achievements. They become crystallised; forever young, beautiful and talented. And, in doing that, they become sort of immortal, god-like.

Did you have any particular musician in mind when you created Jimmy?
Jimmy’s an amalgamation of many different singers really, famous and not so famous. When I was a kid, getting into music, three, hugely influential musicians vanished or died within a few years of each other. Kurt Cobain was twenty seven when he committed suicide. Richie Edwards, from The Manic Street Preachers, was also 27 when he went missing. Then there was Jeff Buckley, who initially went missing, and then was later found dead, washed up on the banks of the Mississippi. He was only a few years older. Being in bands for a large chunk of my life, I’ve see a certain type of person that is drawn to being the singer; outwardly quite cocky, but ultimately, deep down, they are the most emotionally fragile member of the band. This dichotomy is great for a writer to create a compelling character. I always wondered, what if they had faked their death? Why would they? And what would be the consequences of this? Where would it take them? What would happen? It just seemed like a great story to me.

ryanWhat are the influences on your writing?
I like Daniel Woodrell and Denis Johnson, who write beautifully and wittily about drifters and men in the throes of some form of existential crisis. I love Graham Greene’s twisted and morally compromised characters. Early Evelyn Waugh for his humour and economy. Sam Lypite and George Saunders for being hilarious and insightful. And Richard Price; I wanted to write about Birmingham the way he writes about New York.

How important is the city of Birmingham to your writing?
It has been very important, especially for 27. The book is about change and reinvention. It’s set in 1999 when Birmingham was beginning to be redeveloped. I could see that the very thing that was being forced on Jimmy was happening to Birmingham; it was turning from this raw place of invention/and industry to a shiny new object that wants your money. It was the only time and place for me to set it.

How important is music to your writing?
Very important, but not directly. As a musician, I suppose my sense of rhythm and pacing comes in handy for writing a novel; as novel writing is about holding back and building to the big reveal. I’ve learnt about a lot of book through reading interviews with musicians that I admired when I was younger – I read On The Road and Naked Lunch ‘cause I heard that they were some of Dylan’s favourite books. Although I can’t listen to music when I write. I start to think about the song or the piece, and wonder what instrument is playing the harmony or what the chords are doing or how the lyrics work. I don’t know how people can do that.

Do you plan to revisit any of the characters in 27? It feels like there is more to tell?
I’d like to think that is it for Jimmy Vale. To part-quote the Stones; Jimmy gets what he needs at the end of the book. It felt right to finish it where it does. I won’t give the ending away! I hadn’t thought of any of the others characters until very recently. There is a character, a teenage dot.com millionaire, called Jacob Little that keeps popping into my thoughts about the next novel, but it’s early days yet so, watch this space!

What other projects do you have on the go?
I’ve written a short story called Sugar Crash that will be featured in an anthology called The Sea in Birmingham that will be out in October. I’ve written a film that I’m developing, a political thriller, with the director Carl Tibbitts. He directed Retreat with Tandy Newton, Cillian Murphy and Jamie Bell and he also directed White Bear on the last series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. And I’m also at the base camp of my next novel… I’m pretty busy at the moment!

I’ve read a few books set in the midlands recently and it seems to be a much neglected part of the country literature wise. Do you feel that this is changing? Any reason why?
Birmingham was perceived as this nowhere place in the middle of the country, this half way point between the gritty North and the slick South , that was industrial and smoke blacked. Like all things that appear to happen overnight, the literary element of the region has actually been evolving slowly for quite a while. Tindal Street Press, a Birmingham based publisher really helped lift the literary profile by publishing books written about Birmingham that went on to win big awards. Catherine O’ Flynn’s What Was Lost for example. I’m lucky enough to be a member of the Tindal Street Fiction group, surround by brilliant Brummy writers like Alan Beard, Joel Lane and Gaynor Arnold that have been writing in, and about, Brum for years. The city is leaving behind industrial past and trying to find a new place for itself. Brum is kind of like Manchester thirty years ago – it’s a bit rough around the edges. The music scene is great, you can eat really well and it’s cheap to live here. All these elements allow great stories to happen. I think it’s a pretty exciting time to be a writer in Birmingham.

27 is available in all the usual places. Read more about Ryan and 27 on Twitter or on Facebook.

neil martin


Interview by Neil Martin.