Fish Town is a memoir like no other. Written entirely in short, free verse snippets it remains as rich and evocative as any that are more traditionally presented. Author John Gerard Fagan, who is originally from Muirhead but now lives in Edinburgh, depicts his years living and working in Japan in a profoundly Scottish way. With deadpan humour, wit and honesty this depiction of one man’s culture shock becomes a story everyone will find relatable to some extent.
John generously gave up some of his time to talk to us earlier this week and share a wee bit more about his debut publication.
How it all began
The book begins with such a profound sense of fuck this. John’s need to get out and do something else and see something else of the world is absolutely palpable. After finishing a degree in Economics and Marketing, John went the usual route of trying to find graduate jobs but says it didn’t work out.
Instead, he moved to Australia for a year with a group of his mates and it was at this point he started writing, ‘I got the bug then and wrote my first book while I was out there. I’ve been writing ever since including a masters in creative writing. But,’ he continues, ‘That took me to 28 and I still wasn’t getting any permanent work. I was working in factories and in call centres but nothing was really happening.’
Which takes us up to the beginning of the book. ‘I’d done a TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] course just to broaden my horizon and that’s what people were looking for over there, along with a degree, to do teaching. So, I thought I could go over there and do creative writing classes.’ As it turned out only some of the schools loved that idea, while others weren’t so keen and wanted him to stay on script. But, with the goal of ultimately teaching in universities, John persevered.
Highs and lows
The majority of the book depicts John’s time in Fish Town itself with the latter third going into his experiences elsewhere in Japan. Immediately it’s clear that this move all the way across the world was a bit of a frying pan/fire situation. Instead of being sent to the metropolis, John was assigned to a slowly dying fishing town of Yaizu where he struggled to find his feet.
Early parts of the book, depicting hostilities from the teachers at the schools John was sent to and general attitudes of some of the people he met towards each other, are deeply moving at times and frustrating at others: the chapter umeboshi, that depicts the casual cruelty humans can show each other without thinking, sticks out in particular. These are the chapters where the fish out of water element is at its strongest and it’s all the more poignant for it.
That said, while the book starts with a sense of disillusionment that seems to go from bad to worse, it was important to John to show it wasn’t all dark, that there were lighter moments, especially after settling down in Fish Town. ‘There was some good periods, some really good periods, but I think the darker side tends to come to the front more often.’ For John two highlights of his time in Fish Town stuck out, the first was joining a band, “That’s probably my favourite part, looking back, it was a good feeling. It was something I’d always wanted to do and it was easier over there to get set up and get started. They wanted something different for the gig line ups over there.
The second was joining the local football team. He says, ‘That was surreal, everyone was just staring thinking I was some kind of professional [come out there to play]. I was going out there and getting involved, running about as if I was Scott Brown, and everyone else was just silent. But it was good, they didn’t like that about me in the first game but then they got used to it.’
Creating something a bit different
The structure of the book itself is one of the strongest aspects of it. With it being told in such short, snappy pieces it’s easy to fly through and difficult to put down. While it comes across as simple, however, as with all good writing there was a huge amount of thought and effort into moulding it into the book that it is.
‘I decided I needed to make it a clear story of my progression rather than a meander.’ The book initially began double the size it is now with John mentioning all the trips he took and people he met but on completion he realised it needed to be reined in. ‘Whenever it went too far away from the main story, or if I was repeating myself – because there was a lot of repetition in my experience with living in a wee town and seeing the same things over and over – it got cut. I wanted to show the progression from the origin story in Fish Town when I was in my 20s and daft to me slowly learning and changing as time went on.
‘I started writing it on my phone at the airport before coming home [with the final chapter] and it was written then exactly as it is now. I thought when I started writing the rest I would have to change it into prose and give it a “proper” structure because I’ve never seen a memoir being done like this before. I really didn’t want to do that though, I thought it looked good. I got lucky with the publisher [Guts Publishing] because they really saw what I wanted to do with the book and weren’t too heavy handed with it.’
There is a strong Scottish element to the book, from the content (like when people Do The Accent at us) to the language itself, and John says initially he did consider writing it fully in Scots. ‘It came naturally to me to write in Scots, and a lot of my previous stories have been in Scots, but then I thought it might be alienating. While it is a Scottish story, it is set in another country. When I was over there one of my pals was reading Trainspotting but translated into English and that played on my mind a lot: the fact people find it difficult to get into the language.
‘So, I thought, especially for a first book, I’ll keep in the Scots that’s pertinent to what I want to say. I wouldn’t translate a word into English for example, and the majority of the book is written the way I would speak naturally.
‘I didn’t really change my accent when I was out there but I slowed down a lot. Now I’m back people are saying “oh you’re talking posh now,” but I had to pronounce better and slow down or no-one would understand me. But I really didn’t want to lose my voice in the writing.’
In a book that depicts just a huge amount of honesty, John admits there were some things he ultimately decided to take out of the book when it came time to send it out for publication. ‘What’s in there is still really personal though, so there was a bit of anxiety attached to sending it out and thinking, “Oh God, what am I doing here?”’ But in terms of people who are in the book, John says the reaction has been fully positive, ‘All of the reactions from people that are in the book and that have read it have been really good.’
This might not be the end for Fish Town
The memoir wasn’t going to be John’s first published book, that was never the plan. Having had over 100 short stories published and a number of novels written but unpublished, he reckoned that fiction was going to come first. ‘But it wrote itself,’ he says, ‘I wrote it and had it ready to go within a year so was like “Oh, I guess this is first then.”
‘The first book I ever wrote was in Australia but it was terrible, looking back on it I see it was just rubbish. I’ve written about five since then including genre books like post-apocalyptic and horror. But recently I’ve been more focused on Japanese literature. The next book I’ll be sending out will be set in Fish Town. It’s sci-fi, a strange book…but we’ll see what happens.’