Having been a police lay visitor in the past, I’m interested in what happens when detainees become prisoners and so it gives me great pleasure to welcome, Jon Herbert Scott, author of Trouble on the Wing, to Linda’s Book Bag today. Jon has worked in just that environment and explains how he has drawn on his experiences to create a work of fiction.
Trouble on the Wing is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here, but readers might like to know it will be a free Kindle download on Wednesday 31st May.
Trouble on the Wing
When a new arrival at HMP Hatcham beats up B Wing’s top dog and soon has all the other prisoners running scared, Security governor Tony McKenzie is immediately curious. Who the hell is this guy? And could he have something to do with the prison’s sky-high drug rate which is wreaking havoc around the establishment and causing so much self-harm and violence?
As McKenzie investigates, the beleaguered governor discovers the story behind Djemil HA2684 is more serious, more terrifying than he ever imagined. But there is no turning back. The only question now is, can he avoid getting sucked into the story himself? Or has his job as Hatcham’s Head of Security just become a battle for survival – one which threatens the stability of the entire world?
A Guest Post by Jon Herbert Scott
For a fast-moving prison thriller that involves international espionage, the secret services and cutting-edge drones, it probably sounds a bit far-fetched to say I wanted Trouble on the Wing to be grounded in reality. And yet that was my aim when I set out to write it. I wanted to portray prison life as it really is – in particular in relation to prison staff who, so often in prison dramas, seem to be reduced to cartoon-like parodies: vindictive bull-necked thugs.
I was also conscious that authenticity was the one thing I could offer the reader. I used to work as a prison governor and began as a prison officer on the landings in HMP Pentonville. So while Trouble on the Wing is set in a fictional London establishment, the descriptions of everyday prison life – from the all-too-prevalent themes of self-harm, violence and drug smuggling to the humour and incessant banter between staff and prisoners – I tried to describe all of these jigsaw parts of everyday just as I’d experienced them. Humour, in fact, is a big feature of prison life – a counterweight to the desperation and misery, perhaps – and in some bizarre way the dark twisted cynicism helps ease staff and prisoners through each and every day together. A kind of oxygen, if you will.
I also tried to show the prison service’s obsession with performance targets, the frequent cigarette breaks by prison governors in the Reception yard, and, not least, the sniping, the oneupmanship that so often dominates staff meetings. Keeping to the show-don’t-tell maxim, I’ve not commented in any way – just shown how it is. Shown how extraordinary the mundane can be.
If weaving descriptions of managerialism into a thriller sounds risky, I think I’d agree with you. The danger is it blunts the action, makes it all a bit boring. But get the balance right and I think it can enhance the story – can lend that veneer of authenticity that will win readers’ trust and hopefully make them feel like they, too, are slaving away as Head of Security and feeling the heat as they desperately try to work out how the hell all the drugs are pouring into the prison. That way, readers will empathise with some of my nicer characters (in this case Governor Tony McKenzie) and will root for him to succeed. Well, that was my plan.
It sounds straightforward, writing a novel based on my own experiences, and in some ways it was. Most of the characters are based (fairly loosely …) on people I worked with, while most of the action is based on events I experienced or, at least, heard about. Translating these memories onto the computer screen was the easy bit – a process not harmed by the fact that I used to work as a feature writer for magazines. But that only got me so far. Because to write this book I also had to learn how to tell a story, had to learn how to interweave plot lines, develop characters and get the reader to like them. Or hate them. All of that was new for me – and remarkably time-consuming.
In fact tot up all the hours I spent writing Trouble on the Wing (or should I say rewriting …), and the whole exercise could seem like an indulgent folly. And yet I loved every minute of it. I’ve also loved some of the feedback I’ve got so far – the way former prison colleagues say they recognise the environment they continue to work in, the way readers talk about the characters I invented as if they really exist. I love all that. And yes, writing Trouble on the Wing took a long time. It took fundamental plot changes, it took character culls, it took rewrites. But compared to working in a busy London prison, with a chronic lack of resources, a demoralised staff group and frustrated prisoners – compared to that, it was an absolute breeze.
About Jon Herbert Scott
Jon Herbert Scott spent a decade working as a journalist before getting a job as a prison governor. He subsequently worked in five different prisons, three of them in London. Today Jon is back working as a writer. Trouble on the Wing is his first novel.