Sam Emony (the pseudonym for Neil Hughes) describes his novel The Old Familiar Places as “a love letter to the music that moves me the most”. Ahead of the launch at Ronnie Scott’s (details below) he talked about the background to the book. Interview feature by Andrew Cartmel.
With the huge success of The Martian by Andy Weir and — dare one say it — Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, the self-published novel as a form has become not only legitimised but actually widely celebrated. Now with arrival of The Old Familiar Places, we have an example of a jazz novel in the field. Indeed, as soon as the reader learns that the hero Sonny is named not for Sonny Rollins but Sonny Clark, we know we’re not just in the hands of a writer familiar with jazz, but a connoisseur who really knows his stuff.
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That writer is Sam Emony, actually a pseudonym for Neil Hughes, a well-known figure on the British jazz scene. He is an experienced promoter who has worked on the Buxton International Festival and the Southport Jazz Festival and who founded the Cinnamon Club in Manchester some twenty years ago.
But he also studied English and Drama at university and always nurtured the ambition to write. Dickens’ Great Expectations was a powerful formative influence so it’s not surprising that Sam Emony (I’ll use Neil Hughes’ nom de plume here) has chosen the coming of age story as the subject of his first novel — although to me, more than Dickens, it calls to mind Somerset Maugham’s novels of self-discovery such as Of Human Bondage.
Described as “a love letter to the music that moves me the most”, The Old Familiar Places (great title) is the account of Sonny Jackson’s rite of passage as he voyages through the 1970s towards adulthood and professional status as a pianist. In some ways that tale is the wish fulfilment dream of every aspiring musician, as Sonny falls in with (and falls in love with) a beautiful well-heeled young widow who rents a flat in Mayfair for the two of them. With a piano.
But Ruby, the widow, is a complex and shaded character — “a control freak but her heart is in the right place” — and Sonny’s journey, through jazz college in the capital en route to Juilliard, is far from easy or straightforward and often, as in real life, marked by real tragedy.
The novel is bookended by two funerals, beginning with the service for Ruby’s husband, jazz trumpeter Freddie. Freddie was a serious muso: how the hell did he get a copy of Blossom Dearie’s Rootin’ Songs (Joe Harrell, piano) in his LP collection? I was insane with jealousy when I read this. Sonny is a friend of the family and ends up playing at an impromptu gig for Freddie’s wake. In a very adroitly deployed surprise, it turns out that the jazz loving drummer playing with Sonny is none other than Charlie Watts. Syd Lawrence and Eric Haydock are also part of the jam.
This use of real musicians in the novel is one of its most distinctive aspects (when Tommy Flanagan turned up on page 81, the author had my full attention). It lends gravitas to the story as well as a sense of reality, making the era come to life, as when Sonny visits New York and catches Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds in full flight.
Sam Emony has a sense, shared with the notable realist novelists of the past, of the momentous ebb and flow of events in even the most mundane life — and Sonny Jackson’s is far from mundane. There is a constant awareness of how music informs life, and vice versa: “That’s the easy bit, playing. Existing is so much harder.” And Sam Emony can write deftly and effectively as when Sonny and Ruby finally, inevitably, end up in bed together: “Her smile drops for a moment as she notices a bedside photo from her wedding day. She leans over and her breasts brush my face as she turns it over.”
The novel builds up considerable suspense when it looks like Sonny’s shot at Juilliard is going to be sabotaged by a jealous rival. I won’t reveal the outcome here, but I will say the novel ultimately moves forward decades for a coda where we learn the fates of the characters. And Charlie Watts puts in another subtle warm spine-tingle of an appearance at the very end.
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Andrew Cartmel is a playwright and the author of the Vinyl Detective and the Paperback Sleuth novels series. Once upon a time, he was script editor of Doctor Who. Twitter
Sam Emony will be on the Robert Elms BBC Radio London show on 17 February
Book Launch is at Ronnie Scott’s on 22 February.