review page logo
Nina de la Mer
Who or what inspired you to write 4 a.m.?
In the early 1990s I was a student in Hamburg where I met British soldiers on the rave scene who were struggling to balance military life with their weekends spent clubbing – their lives were the inspiration for a story which I felt simply too good not to be told.
You seem to know so much about army life – is that direct experience? If not, how much research did you have to do before writing the book?
In answer to question one, not at all! I am a confirmed pacifist, and more to the point, have the stamina of a flea. A good deal of research did go into writing the book though, from reading books to browsing Army social networking sites, to digging out stories from newspaper archives to sourcing personal accounts. Concerning the latter, I was very lucky to find soldiers who were willing to share their memories and thoughts of life in the military in the early ‘90s with me, and hope this is reflected in a fairly accurate picture of life on an Army barracks at that time. Also, since the book is partly based on my experience of raving with soldier friends in 1993/1994, much of the action comes from my memories, flashbacks and remembered emotions of the lads I knew back then who walked the line between Army regime and excessive hedonism.
In the novel, you cover drugs, the difficulties of Army life and depression. That’s a lot of issues. Was this a deliberate policy in order to court controversy?
Good point! But the number of issues included was not part of a deliberate plan to be controversial. Just that, in the story, one thing led to another: the tension of military discipline leading to escapism… in turn leading to excessive drug use… in turn leading to depression. Besides, the issue of controversy about drugs in the Army is more of a historical one really, given that the book is set in 1993/1994 before CDT (Compulsory Drug Testing) was introduced to the Armed Forces.

I suppose I should also admit that my favourite books are those which deal with the bleaker aspects of life, so it isn’t entirely coincidence that the novel is ‘issues-based’. Though hopefully the occasional dollops of humour compensate for the more miserly observations on the human condition.
Do you think that the Scottish dialect in 4a.m. might be too much for some readers? I’m thinking of the controversies over the likes of James Kelman and Jeff Torrington.
I’m hugely passionate about writing as actually spoken and believe it’s part of a writer’s job to record the slang and dialects of their era / peers. I’d also stick my neck out and say that I think both the Scottish dialect and the barracks humour / slang add character to the novel. I spent my early childhood in Scotland and find Glasgow ‘patter’ so richly embedded in Scottish culture, so evocative and poetic, that it became increasingly important to me to write in the lilts and phrases that echoed around me as a child. And I suppose millions of non-Scottish readers managed to pick their way through Trainspotting, so with the right story to carry dialect along it’s possible for popular success using regional language.
Can you comment about the quote on the cover? (‘Mesmerizing. And kind of frightening that a female writer can crawl so far into the male psyche’ John Niven).
Well, I love that quote and am very grateful to John Niven for providing it! As to the notion of writing as two young men, it honestly wasn’t difficult. In fact, the reverse was weirdly true, in that I found writing the female characters tricky: I was keen to avoid the risk of being identified with them so made huge efforts to distance their experiences and personalities from mine.
Do you have any advice for first time novelists?
It’s tricky because I think everybody has a different approach to writing that suits their style best. I, for instance, am not a ‘get it all down and then edit’ kind of writer, but plug away at each paragraph back and forth, forth and back, like some kind of maniacal writing yo-yo, before I can even call something a first draft. That said, I do think all writers can benefit from the input of a variety of early readers and I certainly would not send out work out to publishers and agents until your eyeballs are bleeding from the amount of times you have gone back to, and perfected, your work.
Have any particular authors inspired you to write?
Although 4 a.m. is probably categorised as contemporary fiction, I am actually stuck in a time warp when it comes to my own reading preferences and could happily pore all day over the work of modernist and early 20th century writers; those in particular who deal with the inner lives of ordinary people and who write as spoken, so Patrick Hamilton, Alan Sillitoe, James Curtis and, from across the pond, Ring Lardner and John Fante. Those are the ones that first spring to mind.
Nina de la Mer

Recommend this site to a friend

Find us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter