Nick Stone Comes Clean About His Miami Vice

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John Scalzi’s Whatever blog has a recurring series of guest essays called “The Big Idea,” and earlier this week thriller writer Nick Stone showed up with an article about the storytelling properties of tarot, including his own experiences as a reader, although those experiences aren’t exactly why he ended up writing a novel called King of Swords. Now, when I first came across the book, I was curious as to why a British novelist was setting a suspense novel in 1981 Miami—I figured there must be some sort of connection there. And Stone was happy to fill me (and now you) in on the details behind the strange hold the city has on his imagination…

I’m English. I live in London. And I set my books in Miami.

Why?

Put simply, a place like Miami couldn’t exist in England. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about there being no second acts in American lives. America is the country of comebacks. It may let its losers fall through the cracks and break into a million pieces, but it will always cheer and cherish the person who makes back it out of the abyss and reclaims the peak. Unfortunately, in England it’s the other way round. We like losers. We champion the underdog. Sure, this is as fair and as noble as a national trait can be. But there’s a flipside, a foul play to our fair play. What we really can’t stand is when our underdogs become top dogs. It reminds us of our failures, of the fact that those we so steadfastly supported are no longer like us. So we start planning their downfalls, hacking away at the pedestal. And boy do we like it when our heroes take that high dive back to Easy Street. Sure, they can always come back, but they never come back all the way. So Miami really couldn’t live in England, because it’s the city of second acts, the capital of comebacks, the place where people go to start again. Forget Vegas. Miami is for me and you. Miami is the place you start again, the scene of your second act.

I’ve been going there for close to thirty years. My mother and I used to overnight there on our way between England and Haiti. In 1981 we spent a couple of days. It was my first time in Miami Beach, and I’ll never quite forget the ride over the causeway, the way everything had an ethereal glow about it. From a distance was like a mirage. Only this one didn’t fade or disappear on me. It stayed.

Back then the place was pretty run down, a once popular and thriving tourist spot abandoned to retirees, newly arrived immigrants, bums and Mac 10 packing drug gangs. The once colourful and architecturally bizarre art deco hotels on Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive were old people’s homes and ten-to-a-bedroom slum dwellings for the latest wave of newly arrived Cubans: Marielitos. This is the Miami I’ve set my second novel, King of Swords, in. It’s not the Miami of today (I’m doing that place now). It’s possibly not even really the Miami of 1981, but it’s the Miami I knew, the Miami of my memories. The one I tried to find again during every subsequent visit, to find that it had slowly disappeared. Maybe it was a mirage after all.

My other early memory is of sitting on the coral and cement wall which runs the length of Ocean Drive, separating the grass and palm trees of Lummus Park from the beach. There was a group of old Jewish ladies sitting on plastic chairs. Despite the heat, they were dressed in headscarves and long sleeved dresses. They were cooking borscht. One of the ladies came over and spoke to me in East Coast-accented Spanish. She was offering me some of her delicious smelling soup, because she thought I’d just arrived from Cuba and needed feeding. When I thanked her for her for her kindness and said yes please in my unmistakeable English accent, she was furious and withdrew her offer. And told me to get lost.

There was never any question of setting my books in London. I live here. I pay my bills here. I don’t notice anything out of the ordinary about it. And I don’t think it extraordinary. To be honest with you, I also find it pretty dull. It’s like New York on valium. And our public transport sucks. And stinks. And you have to use it. Reading is escapism. And, for me, writing is too. I write about the place I’d escape to, physically, if I could. Which is why I write about Miami.

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19 December 2008 | guest authors |