I hope Red or Dead is an extremely, and overtly, political novel

David Peace is an English writer. He was named one of the Best of Young British Novelists in the 2003 Granta list.

Red or Dead is your second novel dealing with football. Do you think you could write a novel about present-day football?

Yes, I do. I believe football, past and present, provides a tremendous opportunity for novelists to examine not only the game itself, but particularly the times in which we live, or lived; football is one of the key narratives of our times and, it seems to me, therefore reflects the society in which it is played. It is a gift for any novelist.

What were the first questions you asked yourself when you set out to write about Bill Shankly?

For me, all novels should begin with a mystery, a question. And so the mystery, the question I wanted to answer was why did Bill Shankly retire in July 1974, and then what became of him in his retirement. However, I quickly realised that in order to write about the resignation and retirement of a man, to even attempt to answer these questions, then I had to first go back to the work itself. And so that work is the first half of the book.
But at the same time as I was asking these questions, I was also trying to get inside the skin of the man; what I wanted to do was to paint a portrait with words of this man, his life and his work, and to try to understand that life and that work, and then that life after the work.

In the first half-time of your novel, you stick with facts and facts only. What does this type of writing allow?

As I say, the first half of the novel was very much my attempt to try to show the work of the man; the huge sacrifice and sheer struggle it took to take Liverpool Football Club from the position they were in in 1959, through their rise, and then to the moment Bill Shankly retired. In doing so, I was very much informed and inspired by something Shankly himself said after he had retired; that football is a river, and it is relentless, and when you are in it, there is no stepping out of it. And so I stuck that quote above the desk as I was writing, in order to always be showing this relentless river that is football, with all its repetitions, its routines and its rituals, day after day, game after game, season after season, so it becomes almost a living experience for the reader as it was for Shankly and that, then, we feel all the sacrifices and all the struggles until, at the moment he retires, we feel the exhaustion Shankly himself must have felt. And in order to paint such a portrait, the facts – the games, the crowds, the weather and so on – then become a key element that binds the text together.

The writing style in Red or Dead reminded me of The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy—your prose is as repetitive, with an incalculable number of occurrences of Bill. But in my opinion, you do it better. Poetry exudes from your prose with the successive actions interspersed with nominal sentences. Could you tell us a few words about your writing process?

Well, thank you! But I don’t agree; Mr Ellroy remains the inspiration and the master. But my own writing process is always the same, whatever the book or the subject; I begin with the research, the facts. And then I try to weave these facts into a narrative. And so I write in longhand, then read back aloud what I have written, trying to instill the rhythm of the life and the times. And then I type it up, print it out, read it aloud again, and again, and again, until I believe the rhythm is there. And so I suppose the text is quite an oral text and this is then why, perhaps, it can have a poetic sensation, if it is working. And so, once again, thank you.

One could read Red or Dead from a political angle. Bill Shankly was overtly a socialist. Didn’t he set up a ruthless competition between his players—for the good of the group, of course, but still a group the player belonged to for just the brief moment of his performance?

Well, I hope Red or Dead is an extremely, and overtly, political novel. I do not think it would be possible to write about Bill Shankly in any other way. In fact, it would be wrong to do so. Shankly was a socialist. And his beliefs informed everything he did. And so I don’t believe he set up a ruthless competition between his players. He was actually incredibly loyal to his players, perhaps too loyal, and so he found it very, very difficult to let them go, and therefore often handled such moments badly. However, Shankly’s socialism was a very selfless socialism which, as you rightly say, was never about the individual but always about the collective. And so everything he did, he did for the Club as a collective; for the crowd, the people and the supporters. Not for himself, and not for the players. But of course, and again as you say, the players found this extremely difficult. And I believe he did, too. One of themes of the book is this tension between the individual and the collective. But another very important theme is the battle, the war against time, aging and mortality, which I believe is a fundamental, innate and tragic part of football.