Home Featured JP Maxwell interview: walk down ‘Water Street’ into Liverpool’s dark past

JP Maxwell interview: walk down ‘Water Street’ into Liverpool’s dark past

by John Maguire
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JP Maxwell interview Water Street
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Over the last few years, while writing heritage walking tours of Liverpool, it has fascinated me how many lives Liverpool has had. I still find my legs can turn to jelly – shake a little as the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention – when I discover yet another layer. This magical port is like a massive riverside onion, as it grows, another layer is created. Storytelling is a way to access the Pool of Life’s past. My writer friend, JP Maxwell, has created a tale about Liverpool that immerses the reader in a world of corruption, industry and competition – WATER STREET.

Water Street is a transatlantic story that covers a key moment of Liverpool’s history during the American Civil War. It is part of a series of books covering the city from the mid-19th century, taking in the African and Irish diaspora and the world-changing events of that period. From a direct role in supporting the Confederate Navy and war effort to financing the Lincoln Assassination project and even harbouring the one fugitive to escape the ensuing manhunt, this nefarious episode in Liverpool’s past is brought to life in vivid relief.

Maxwell says,

The novel is still the most interactive form of storytelling that exists, even if it has been around for hundreds of years. In Water Street, my goal is to allow the reader to taste, touch, smell and feel the Liverpool of 1863 as well as see it, taking them into a Western adventure that maps to real-life events at a time when my own ancestors were stepping off the Landing Stage.

Maxwell is a Liverpool writer, filmmaker and lecturer in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Liverpool has always been a place that cultivates amazing artists, curious creatives and musicians. At the moment, with the success of Liverpool Literary Agency, a collective of local writers are continuing that tradition, led by an indefatigable Clare Coombes, championing Northern scribes. Maxwell is from this stable, with other talents like Ashleigh Nugent, author of Locks, and Zoe Richards (Garden of Her Heart), to name just two. The agency is proudly raising awareness of Liverpool’s rich source of ability.

For this 4 July holiday, it seemed fitting for ten million hardbacks to have a sit down with Mr JP Maxwell interview about his work.

10mh: When did you first get the idea to write about Liverpool’s involvement with America?

It was a long time coming. If taken to the furthest degree, my ancestors were directly involved in the mercantile and maritime American relationship with Liverpool – a seafaring three times removed African American grandfather, or a woman who escaped the disaster of the Irish Hunger for instance – so it was simmering away across the generations before it seeded in my noggin. The mothership, Mary Maxwell (neé Burke), grew up in poverty in the Dingle and educated herself, so telling family stories and getting them down on paper was a task she undertook from as far back as I can remember. If you connect the ancestors using oral tradition rather than ancestry.com, 160 years isn’t that long ago. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

Earshot of tales about the Confederacy in the city came along much later and once I discovered about the building of a Navy in the yards of Birkenhead and Liverpool, that set the charges off on further research. It’s easy to denigrate the city’s former status on the world stage as pomp and self-aggrandisement, but what I discovered was off the charts in terms of how pivotal this place was to American History. Liverpool was almost a city state in terms of the money and power here, to the extent the tail was wagging the dog in the relationship with Whitehall and Westminster. British neutrality in the Civil War was nothing more than a bit of red tape to circumvent, but Liverpool almost dragged Britain into that war. This would have had savage, unfathomable consequences. To a writer, it was irresistible fare.

Piecing this together all happened during the first lockdown, in 2020 and 2021. The Great Reset gave me a moment to focus upon a project that I had always wanted to pursue, for all the despair, fear and grief that transpired. Plus, I would have done anything to avoid looking at pictures of Boris Johnson.

10mh: Describe your novel in one sentence.

Commander Dunwoody is in Liverpool to win the American Civil War for the South. His wife is here to stop him.

10mh: Do you have a writing ritual or a place where you regularly write?

I’m a flaneur. I’m an itinerant writer, always on the go, calling out to my settings to inspire me by going there; smelling, listening and watching. I have a few quiet sanctuaries where I can double-down on the research, drafting and editing, but they are dotted around the city, at home and at work. A favourite spot is the Picton Library in Liverpool Central Library, an idyll of Victorian calm, but more often than not I’m in some basement silo at LJMU or pounding the pavement. I like my writing to move, so I move.

10mh: Who are your influences?

Me ma, Mary. She taught me to read, listen and write. She gave birth to me and still influences me eight years after she’s gone. All that amounts to a debt that can’t be repaid. I’m biased but she had a similar effect on so many others who weren’t her children.

James Ellroy is far and away numero uno among contemporary writers. He stitches together fact and fiction in a way that transports you to a time and place. There is salacious detail in how he depicts JFK, Marilyn or J. Edgar Hoover, but it is entirely appropriate to salacious times and places. He uses a soul-searching scalpel rather than a thrill-seeking bludgeon. His writing peels off the smooth skin of the American Dream and reveals the rotten interior and I’m a sucker for it every time. It maps to my own writing because he shows how corruption exists on an endless cycle wherever money and power go. Since I come from a long line of people who had neither but were on the receiving end, that theme has a boundless appeal to me. Even now, the past is often shone in a glorious, golden, wholesome light when we should know just how f-cking terrible it was. Ellroy is here to tell you and so am I.

Hunter S. Thompson and Sebastian Barry also spring to mind. Both go after the same rawness as Ellroy, exploring real people and events without pulling punches.

Aside from all these white geezers and me ma, Frederick Douglass is a fundamental influence. He was a self-liberated slave who rose to be one of the foremost American orators, campaigners and essayists of the 19th century. Read his speeches and you’ll feel like putting this messy, complicated and often sh1tty world to rights in 2024. I’ve even fictionalised him in my next book. He was the most photographed man in the United States during the century, a savvy media operator for the day. It’s high time someone made a film about his life, but please make it a good one.

10mh: How long did it take to write the book? Can you describe the process?

160+ years, which doesn’t mean that I’m a vampire, rather that I acknowledge how much my ancestors formed WATER STREET. In a sense though, the book wouldn’t be the same without technology. Only in recent years via social media have the oral traditions of communities become available when the illiterate stories of the working class and ‘Untermensch’ had almost vanished because they were not written down. Marry this to access to archives in as far-flung places as Louisiana plantations and the rapid access to hard data on anyone, anywhere or anything in the mid-19th Century and then you’ve got a tale that would have been difficult to pin down in the same way had I approached it in the nascent days of the internet.

This book is set in 1863 but it was only possible to write it in the last few years, bizarre as that sounds.

I’d like to say that I use cursive longhand in Moleskine notebooks and a Smith Corona typewriter but I’m about as far away from that as possible. I write into the Word mobile app on the bus, on a networked PC, a Mac, a Dell laptop, wherever I go, all backed up into OneDrive. The draft file is navigable using the navigation pane in Word, so I can see all my chapters at a glance and find my way to any part of the folio quickly. Research notes are assembled in Google Keep, all with meta data that I can find in seconds. I like to stay light on my feet so if it gets too noisy or distracting, I turn off notifications and move, even working just on my phone if necessary.

There are a host of devices – my wife rolls her eyes at the amount of gizmos I have – that are all synced. If an idea hits me in the middle of the night, usually between sleep cycles, I’ll record it and set a reminder about it for the following day, or whenever I’m able to follow it up. My job teaching at LJMU involved reading reams of scripts, so keeping momentum and focus is a challenge, which is why I steal every moment, ready to write wherever I go. Writer’s block is alien to me, because there is always something to research, rewrite or design in a narrative. Obsessed much?

10mh: What advice would you give to a new writer?

Story is in everything and if you can drill it down into a visceral, human experience, you’ve got a shot. Get close to your subject matter – I’m so close to mine that it’s in my DNA. In order for a commissioner, publisher or agent to see the potential, you’ll have to live and breathe it. This is not to say that the narrative needs to be layered and complex if a simple delivery will fit. I think it always helps to find a true story to base your first book on, something that will grab a headline.

Don’t expect it to all happen at once. If you step back and think about what it will take to write a full-length novel, it can be crushing and overwhelming. Do your research and don’t stop researching from the earliest sketch to the umpteenth draft. Do a breakdown of chapters – so many writers come up with an opening and then try to busk it through the rest of the novel and they end up treading water and losing the reader. Know your structure, even if that structure changes in the process, you will have a direction for it, which is priceless.

The sad fact is that people don’t like difficult reads these days and you have a sh1t-ton of white noise to compete against – pictures of cats – so if you are a debut novelist looking to get an agent you had better be good or get good in your chosen genre. If I want to be like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce, I’ll write that one when I’m established. Avoid going over 100k for your debut too. If you do, cut it down, right down.

10mh: What’s next?

My next book is THE AMERICANS ON ABERCROMBY SQUARE, a direct sequel to WATER STREET. It picks up Harriet and Conté’s story two years later in 1865, just as the American Civil War is coming to a close. Liverpool has fundamental links to the Lincoln Assassination and the ensuing manhunt, which I’m exploring with a similar mix of Western sass and political sh1thousery.

This one is with beta readers at the time of writing, but my fingers are still twitching. I’m sketching another book about Pat the Cat, one of the key players from WATER STREET. This is about his journey from Cavan in Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1848 to Liverpool. The Hunger overlaps the American Civil War in a legion of ways, not least the huge influx of Irish immigrants to the city, first generation, which was a torrent by 1863. Digging out so much about what happened during the mid-1800s made me want to explore the famine in a dedicated story, turning the litany of misery into a fathomable human story rather than a dry, historical account. Is this where the gallows Irish – and Scouse – humour emanates?

The arrogance and wilful ignorance of the British government and establishment at the time is astounding, even by the standards of then rather than now. Having never lost a war, making the Irish Hunger and slavery accountable is still a process that Britain is yet to fully deal with. Why should it matter in 2024? Because avoidable trauma should never be dismissed, two seconds or two hundred years ago.

And it all keeps me out of mischief, I suppose.

If you have enjoyed this JP Maxwell interview, WATER STREET is available now via News From Nowhere, Waterstones and all good book shops.
‘A brilliant story’ – David Morrissey
The aftermath of the Great Irish Hunger crashes headlong into the American Civil War in the city of Liverpool in 1863. A toothsome historical adventure thriller.
Agent: Clare Coombes, Liverpool Literary Agency

JP Maxwell is a novelist, filmmaker and senior lecturer in Digital Writing at LJMU. He has produced three feature films, receiving network broadcasts on BBC Television and official selection at major film festivals such as Karlovy Vary and BFI Times London. Maxwell graduated from the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1995, having spent four years under the tutelage of former and existing agents from the Cold War era. This underpins and partly explains his penchant for conspiracy and plot, added to the acidic twist of growing up in Liverpool during the Thatcher years. Published by BK Fiction in July 2023, his latest work is the novel ‘Water Street’, the first book in a series of historical thrillers set in mid-19th Century Liverpool, regarding the city’s seismic relationship with the United States and Ireland in those years.

John Maguire is a local writer and playwright. His historical plays include Kitty: Queen of the Washhouse (about public health pioneer, Catherine Wilkinson), currently being adapted into a novel and A Portrait of Willliam Roscoe, He leads Heritage walking tours for Artsgroupie. Tours the company run include a Liverpool’s American History specific tour, written by co-director Mikey Francis Dunne.

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1 comment

Ed G 8 July 2024 - 3:27 am

Loved the interview. Had heard that the cotton merchants in Liverpool were doing everything that they could to get hold of the cotton. I guess the corollary of this story is the desperate hardship happening in the Lancashire cotton mill towns because the Union blockade of Southern ports cut the supply of cotton.


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