I ain't no Hugh Howey, that's for sure.
I know that it's
Cat Stevens ‘Father and Son’
A while ago I wrote a piece called ‘Why my book is worth more than two pints of Guinness’, explaining my reasons for maintaining a relatively high price for the ebook of my third novel Dancing to the End of Love. I received a fair amount of dog’s abuse and ridicule, mainly from people keen to stress that my book was only worth what people would pay for it. I’ve experimented since then with various price points and offers, but mainly with the intention of having the book read and reviewed rather than sold. Occasional sales were nice to have rather than sought after and I regarded its availability online as a shop window for possible suitors who might wish to publish the book in print.
Having enjoyed a certain amount of success with the ebooks of my first two novels – at a lower price point and previously published in print by Penguin Books – I was convinced that any author would be crazy to sell or give away the digital rights to their work. No publisher will ever match the cut an author can receive by digitally publishing their own book. There have been high profile instances over the past year or so of authors agreeing print only deals with publishers, so things do appear to be changing. Also, many publishers are now trawling the online digital world for successful books to buy and publish in print.
So how do you think I reacted when a publisher told me they would be interested in publishing Dancing to the End of Love but would insist on being offered all the rights, including digital? Was I strong and resolute or did I roll over like the Shallow Hal I am and say sure, why not? Reader, I rolled over.
Here are the things that went through my mind:
- It’s nice to have somebody – anybody – enthuse about your work to your face.
- Even though I’ve been published before, having a publisher take an interest in a book still feels like a vindication, a stamp of authority, a seal of approval.
- After two or three years, it’s become boring chasing sales online. Self-promotion is essential for an author but I haven’t actually done any serious writing since finishing Dancing to the End of Love. All my writerly time has been given over to maintaining an online presence with a view to achieving sales for my first two novels.
- While some publishers are open to a book already being available online, some publishers aren’t.
- Publishers are still in the business of making money and they want to make money from writers’ digital rights.
- I’ve been through the submission/rejection treadmill with Dancing to the End of Love with three separate agents, each of whom loved the book and had differing approaches and ideas about how to get it sold. I don’t think I have the stomach or the patience to do this anymore, so the fact that a publisher is interested makes me inclined to say again: sure, why not?
- The publisher is merely interested at this stage and the book is now being read to see if sufficient people in house feel the same way. This in itself will take time. If they wish to go ahead and buy the book, it would have to slot into their publishing schedule – probably in the spring or autumn of 2015. More time passing by, more inertia.
- If they choose to publish, this will be of direct benefit to me in the form of increased sales for the ebooks of my first two novels.
- This matter is relatively easy for me to think through and to live with but for a first-time author in a similar situation I imagine it would be just about impossible to be cool and rational.
- I would have to re-engage with the book as part of the editing process. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say that writing Dancing to the End of Love took a profound emotional toll and the thought of going back to it makes me want to curl up into a little ball and go to sleep.
- They may have editorial suggestions that I find unacceptable.
- The publisher would rather I took Dancing to the End of Love off sale immediately, whereas I have said that I will do so as soon as they express a firm commitment to publish. I think this is fair but it might well affect their decision to commit.
- Unlike my first two novels, Dancing to the End of Love is available exclusively through Amazon so un-publishing it would be the work of a second or two. Harder to dismantle are the various platforms through which I promote myself and my work: my own, very basic website; my various Twitter, Goodreads and Facebook accounts; and anywhere else that I’ve created an online shop window for the book. The smoothest possible transition for these platforms would surely be to announce that Dancing to the End of Love will be published by this publisher on some given date in the future.
- I’m likely to be paid so little an advance that, from a financial recompense point of view, all this angst is hardly worth it. I’ve got used to (more or less) instant financial notification through Amazon for copies sold; reverting to a publisher’s model of contracts and six-monthly royalty statements sounds like a crashing bore.
- If I decide to post these thoughts online, this in itself might dissuade the publisher from committing to Dancing to the End of Love.
One thing I do know: the whole process will happen so slowly that I should just chillax a little but this is easier said than done. It’s hard to remain calm. I ain’t no Hugh Howey, that’s for sure.
On literary connections - both real and imagined.
When I first heard that Patrick Ness was to write a novel based on the myth of The Crane Wife, it seemed so perfectly right and fitting. A writer who can’t put a foot wrong picking up on the song and album by The Decemberists: this was a match made in heaven - or in Portland, at least. Joseph O’Connor often uses ballads in his writing - both as a source material and as content in a narrative - and he’s talked of the lyrics of a song being the starting point or the inspiration for longer pieces of work. A single song can mean so much that it takes 100,000 words of prose to do it justice and even then you might not get it right.
I’m delighted that Patrick Ness has been so upfront in The Crane Wife with highlighting the importance of The Decemberists’ song, with a quote at the start of his novel and such gushing praise for the band in his Acknowledgements. I was equally thrilled to learn that Patrick lived for much of his childhood in the Pacific North West and I love the idea of himself and Colin Meloy developing similar sensibilities through a shared sense of place. What I didn’t know was how the fable of The Crane Wife was such a feature of Patrick’s earlier childhood in Hawaii; their coming together now along different but intertwining paths seems to make this connection even more special still. Colin Meloy’s novels Wildwood and Under Wildwood now share the same UK publisher as Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife - I love that kind of shit!
Discovering that Patrick Ness lived as a young boy in Hawaii got me thinking: the narration of The Knife of Never Letting Go is distinctly reminiscent of the Hawaiian section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. Again, I love the suggestion (even if it didn’t happen) of Sloosha’s Crossin’ having such a profound impact on Patrick Ness that he found the narrative voice that would produce the Chaos Walking trilogy. Similarly, I get a warm feeling inside when I read about Colin Meloy sneaking in to the house in An Spidéal in Ireland where Mike Scott recorded The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. Living now as I do on the west coast of Ireland, this story makes me feel a whole lot closer to the singer of The Crane Wife and also now, by extension, to Patrick Ness - which is nonsense, I know, but it keeps me happy and makes me smile.
On Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan
I reckon I must have bought Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks on at least three separate occasions and now I’m considering buying it once again. You see, each purchase has been on vinyl and, as a result, I only get to listen to it on the rare occasion I seek it out, crank up the old turntable and turn the leaf into my back pages.
I was fourteen years old when I made the first purchase, soon to be fifteen. A year or two later, the album was the victim of a punk-inspired (and ill-advised) clear-out of my record collection. Two years after that, having watched the movie Renaldo and Clara with my then girlfriend, I persuaded a housemate to allow me to give her his copy of Blood on the Tracks as a present. Of course, I had to replace this copy and by then I wanted my own again, so - three copies bought. When this girl broke up with me, the album was a god-send of self-pity and indulgence, although - if truth be told - I had been cheating on her and I deserved every bit of pain she put me through. To this day, Blood on the Tracks reminds me of just how stupid I can be when I really put my mind to it.
Is it the perfect break-up album? I’m always surprised by how few songs are specifically about relationships falling apart and suspect its reputation has as much to do with the general tone, feel and atmosphere, but then some lines can still stop you dead in your tracks:
‘Like a corkscrew to the heart, ever
since we’ve been apart.’
Like a corkscrew to my heart, every time I listen to the album.
On Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway
Some books you wish you'd written yourself and this is one of them. When an author so easily articulates what has been spinning around in your mind for such a long time, in the form of a novel that is so uniquely his own - well then, you can only sit back and be grateful.
There are many things to admire in this novel but I'm going to include here two quotes that get right to the heart of what I wish I could achieve as a writer:
'I am not a stakeholder. I hold no stake. I pay my taxes. My taxes buy weapons and arm soldiers. My taxes send the soldiers to Afghanistan and formerly Iraq to be terrified and traumatized, and to inflict terror and trauma upon others, including the killing and maiming of others, and I do not support Our Boys, it is a volunteer army and I believe that every one of those volunteers is misguided and that their innate, childish, boyish attraction to aggression and adventure and camaraderie is being perverted by malign and morally vacant politicians who are not even clever enough to be operating to anyone’s advantage, not even their own, who are merely drunk on narrative and who see themselves as part of something bigger, such as the delusion of History, and who are impressive only in the scope and depth and profundity of their stupidity.'
And a few pages later:
'Mr Blair is not the owner of his own evil. He is the host if you like – if you want to use the sort of terminology that he has adapted into his own life and heart, the vocabulary of the groping church – he is the possessed corpse of a former human, animated entirely by the spittle-flecked priests of Rome and by miserable justifications, by ointments of the sagging flesh, the night-time coldness of the awful touch. His skin is a manila envelope. It contains an argument, not a heart. But he has made choices and the choices are owned by him, and he owns those choices and he is the chooser of death. He is the chooser of death. He has chosen death and he has chosen to visit it on others when no such choice was necessary. He is the progenitor of the crushed skulls of baby girls. He is the father of the dead bodies of children and the raped mothers and the bludgeoned fathers. He has embraced the murder of his lord, and he has used the people to enact his fantasy and his perversions. He has masturbated over the Euphrates. He has rubbed History against his cold chest like a feeler in the crowd. Like a breather, interferer. Slack muscle of pornography, piece of shit.'I hope it's okay to quote so extensively from the book here.
On Ruby, and how she will always take her love to town
Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones was the next song on my iPod this morning, which was hardly surprising given that I’ve been working my way through songs beginning with ‘R’ for the past week. It reminded me of a blog post I’ve been intending to write for some time now about their song No Expectations from the album Beggars Banquet; about just how close to perfection a song can get and how I often wonder if the Stones knew what a gem they were creating as they recorded it. I’m not implying the song was a pure fluke; what I’m saying is that, coming after the heady grandeur of Sympathy for the Devil, it seems almost a throwaway track and something of a pleasant ditty to help calm us down a little. And yet, for me, it’s often the song I return to when I wish to remember just how effortlessly good The Rolling Stones could be. I say ‘effortlessly’ but of course it wasn’t without effort; it was the result of a coming together and a working together of a group of individuals who knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it. You just don’t get to be that good without a lot of hard work and, mostly, you put in all that work and still don’t get to be that good. I’m not saying it’s the best Stones song ever but it’s probably my favourite.
I don’t get to listen to No Expectations too often because the only version I have is on vinyl and I’ve yet to figure out how to digitalize my record collection. I was eight years-old when Beggars Banquet was released. Brian Jones was alive and very much a part of what, after all, was originally his band. Brian is playing the slide guitar on No Expectations and that’s a further reason to love the song. I didn’t know all this in 1968 and probably bought the album when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I also didn’t know just what a transformative year 1968 would turn out to be (you tend not to think about such things when you’re eight years-old) and I wonder now, in the same way that I wonder about the Stones recording No Expectations, what it was like to live through such times and if it is possible to fully grasp the importance of events as you’re living through them. Martin Luther King was shot on my eighth birthday but I didn’t let it spoil my big day.
Anyway, because No Expectations is not on my iPod, I thought I might as well just listen to a few Stones songs before I started my day. (Do you listen to music first thing in the morning, headphones on, cup of tea? Oh man, one of the true joys of this life.) I decided to wait and see which song would come on after Ruby Tuesday and it was Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town - the version from The Killers’ Sawdust album - and it made me so damn happy to hear this song that I forgot all about The Rolling Stones. Is my memory playing tricks with me or do I remember Kenny Rogers singing this on Top of the Pops with his band The First Edition while sitting in a wheelchair? I was so much older now it was 1969 and I had an elder brother to explain to me just what the hell the song was about but still, I didn’t let the Vietnam War get in the way of my childhood. It wasn’t until 1978 and the movie release of The Deer Hunter and - more pertinently - Coming Home that I would connect the dots between Jon Voight, John Savage, Kenny Rogers and that wheelchair. I know now that the song was originally about World War II veterans and then the Korean War before its obvious association in 1969 with Vietnam. When I hear it today, it’s about Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing stupidity and futility of nations who send their young people to war.
P.S. If you ever get the opportunity to see John Savage in a film called Inside Moves then do so - it will break your heart. In fact, check out his whole remarkable film career. Jesus! All these memories, simply from listening to two songs before I get up in a morning; so tired now I think I might just go back to bed.
On The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Last night, as I was reading in bed, I came across this short passage in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and it blew me away:
He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had done so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.
He walked so surely it was as if all his life he had been waiting to get up from his chair.
I hope it’s okay with the author to reproduce this short extract here. I think you’ll see why I feel inclined to do so.
On Marketing, darling
My first two novels were published in print by Penguin Books which, when it came to marketing the ebook editions of these titles, was an incredibly powerful selling point to have. It also meant that I had newspaper/media reviews to help customers decide if they wished to buy my work. When it came to setting up my third novel Dancing to the End of Love as an ebook, I decided to use selected quotes from various publishers’ rejection letters as I had no other source to draw upon. There was an element of mischievousness in this, as you might imagine, as well as a certain piquant satisfaction in using their words to my own purpose.
Now, I know many authors who have received better rejection letters than I have - ‘better’ in the sense of the praise heaped upon the submitted work while, regrettably, the publisher remains unable to publish. I believe it was in the spirit of laughing off this ridiculous circumstance that writers often find themselves in that I decided to turn the words of the rejection letters around. I am also a bookseller so I understand more than most the difficulties publishers face: if they can’t see a way in which a book can earn back the money they invest, there is no way they should publish. (This doesn’t seem to apply to the enormous advances paid for celebrity biographies but that’s another matter in which different rules apply.) To a certain extent, I sympathise with the publishers and understand that their words of praise are heartfelt; they are simply not in a position to publish this book they think so highly of and literary fiction is about the hardest genre of them all.
What I hadn’t taken into account was a customer turning round and pointing out in an online review that if these publishers have chosen not to publish Dancing to the End of Love, well, the obvious and very good reason is that it just isn’t good enough. Not what you’d call ‘an incredibly powerful selling point’ is it? I can’t even delete the publisher quotes as readers of the review will smell a rat. And I certainly know better than to respond to a review; no author ever won any new readers by doing that. It’s marketing, darling, and it just bit me in the ass.
On Mixing Memory and Desire
‘There’s a note underneath your front door / That I wrote twenty years ago . . . ’
Whenever I listen to the song 20 Years by The Civil Wars (which is just about all the time right now), I am so strongly reminded of Roman Polanski’s Movie Tess that I’m taken back to a certain time in my life. The movie was released when I was twenty years old but these were the early, heady days of video and I’ve no memory of having seen the movie at the cinema so I think we're talking 1982. I know the song isn’t about Tess but I love it so much and the feelings of association are so visceral that I let the memories wash over me and flood my mind.
As these things tend to do, my listening to 20 Years and seeing The Civil Wars in concert coincided with the release of Michael Winterbottom’s new movie Trishna - a re-imagining of the Tess story set in rural India. Winterbottom is such an accomplished and eclectic film-maker that he can seemingly turn his hand to anything and produce movies that are consistently interesting and occasionally outstanding. This is not the first time he’s adapted a Thomas Hardy novel: The Claim was The Mayor of Casterbridge set in 1860s California; and, more successfully, Jude was a devastatingly powerful adaptation of perhaps Hardy’s darkest and - at the time it ws first published - most controversial novel. It is over fifteen years since I saw Jude but the memory of those final scenes can still break my heart.
When a song like 20 Years takes me back to a moment from my past, it’s impossible not to compare how my life now matches up to the hopes and desires of my life back then. How do I measure up to the dreams of my younger self? In love; in family; in my work - how have I done? But perhaps, as Roy Orbison might have sung, it’s too soon to know.
‘I’ll be praying for redemption / And your note underneath my door.’
On Punk Publishing: Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
I like to listen to music early in the morning, in bed with a cup of tea to start the day. I have Sennheiser headphones that I bought with the prize money from a short story competition I entered and they are one of the finest things in my life. The headphones remind me of where the money came from to be able to afford such fine things in the first place and - more importantly - they blow me away with their sound quality.
This morning I was listening to the Irish singer/songwriter David Kitt. It's over a decade now since he released his first album, The Big Romance, and it still stands out as a self-sufficient artistic achievement. I say 'self-sufficient' because he recorded and released the album himself - even to the extent of using an old 8-track in his bedroom. He uses samples and you can easily picture him out in the world recording the sound of a train running along a track and taking it home to incorporate it into his music. He did what he did on his own, without a record company advance, and then he set about getting his work out into the world. I'd say he was justifiably proud of his achievement and nobody ever once suggested that, because he wasn't with a mainstream record label, his work was worth any the less. In fact, the opposite was true: fans loved the fact that he'd done this himself and it added value to his work. To be free of the man is worth something in the music business and I'd say David Kitt was able to buy himself a decent set of headphones with the proceeds. One of his best songs is even called Headphones.
Punk rock formed me. I was fifteen when Patti Smith's Horses was released. I was sixteen when The Ramones' first album came out. I was seventeen when Never Mind the Bollocks exploded out into the world and when Elvis Costello's My Aim is True took me in a whole new musical direction. I saw Talking Heads support The Ramones at a gig in Leeds Polytechnic in 1977. I saw The Jam; I saw The Clash; I saw The Buzzcocks; I saw The Stranglers; I saw Dr. Feelgood; I even saw Eddy and the Hot Rods, though I tend not to brag so much about this last one. They were heady days and the whole ethos of punk was that you could do this yourself. Learn a few chords and off you go. You can imagine the amount of shite that was produced, can't you? But can you also imagine the buzz of creativity, the freedom to produce your own music and to share it with the world? The knowledge that you could put your work out there and it would stand or fall on its quality alone? And if your work didn't succeed in the sense of gaining popularity and making you a million dollars, then at least you were doing something, you weren't simply sat at home in your room, wishing and hoping and waiting to be 'discovered' by some record company scout. Whatever else, you could say you had tried. You could point to your moment and say there, that was me back then: I was in a band. We made an album and played some gigs. Those are my songs. That was me.
And that, my friends, is what is happening to the publishing business. This is writing's 'punk' moment. We writers will stand or fall by the quality of our writing but it's out there. As Van Morrison might say, It's Too Late to Stop Now. Or, as Poly Styrene might also say, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
On Marlon Brando, Michael Fassbender and Me
'The physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything we’ve come to expect at the movies that there was something almost like fear.'
'The necessity for isolation from the world is, of course, his, not hers. But his life floods in. He brings into this isolation chamber his sexual anger, his glorying in his prowess, and his need to debase her and himself. He demands total subservience to his sexual wishes; this enslavement is for him the sexual truth, the real thing, sex without phoniness.'
'His performance is . . . intuitive, rapt, princely.'
'I think some may prefer to make this mistake, so they won’t have to recognize how deep down he goes and what he dredges up. Expressing a character’s sexuality makes new demands on an actor.'
'A full creative presence on the screen, the realism transcends the simulated actuality of any known style of cinéma verité, because his surface accuracy expresses what’s going on underneath. He’s an actor: when he shows you something, he lets you know what it means.'
'The excitement of Brando’s performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be.'
'That’s what makes moviemaking an art.'
'But acting involves the joy of self-discovery, and to improvise, as actors mean it, is the most instinctive, creative part of acting—to bring out and give form to what you didn’t know you had in you; it’s the surprise, the “magic” in acting. A director has to be supportive for an actor to feel both secure enough and free enough to reach into himself. Brando here, always listening to an inner voice, must have a direct pipeline to the mystery of character.'
'He has become the least fussy actor. There is nothing extra, no flourishes in these scenes. He purifies the characterization beyond all that: he brings the character a unity of soul. Paul feels so “real” and the character is brought so close that a new dimension in screen acting has been reached.'
All the above quotes are from Pauline Kael's famous review of Last Tango in Paris, extolling what she considered to be the best male acting performance of all time. I believe that every single claim she made for Marlon Brando could justifiably be said of Michael Fassbender's role in Shame. There was an element of improvisation in Brando's acting that I'm not sure is there in Fassbender's but, this aside, the two performances are intrinsically linked. The sexual nihilism of both films make this quite an easy connection to suggest but I also believe that Fassbender's performance is on a par with Brando's - the type of remarkable acting we see only very occasionally and self-evidently the best we're likely to see in any given year.
Like Last Tango in Paris, Shame is not an easy watch; it's not titillating, it's upsetting and in many ways it's just downright depressing - but it is still a fine, fine movie. At the heart of it is Fassbender but Carey Mulligan is also outstanding as his sister and it's a measure of her on-screen presence and acting that she isn't blown out the water by her co-star. She challenges his dominance in the same way her character questions her brother's chosen life and her rendition of the song New York, New York is a movie-making moment, a 'hold everything because this has just become something amazing' moment.
So I was shocked that neither Fassbender nor Mulligan had been nominated for best actor Oscars and it's been bugging me for the best part of a week now. Part of me wants to say 'who cares?', but I also feel angry on their behalf. To produce a piece of work such as they have and not have it recognised by your peers must be disappointing to say the least. It's not even as though I object so much to the actors who have been given the nod: many a time I've argued the toss with friends about just how good an actor Brad Pitt can be and I win that argument by simply listing many of his roles. But to say his acting in Moneyball (which I enjoyed) is of a higher level of performance than Michael Fassbender in Shame is plainly ridiculous. The same can be said of George Clooney in The Descendants: excellent, but not once in an era remarkable. And Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher: studying mannerisms and voice intonations are fine but not one of Pauline Kael's claims above could be made of Streep's performance in The Iron Lady.
I know in the end it doesn't really matter. Brando's role in Last Tango lost out to Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger - go figure. But at least he was nominated - as was Al Pacino for Serpico and Jack Nicholson for The Last Detail. The following year, Dustin Hoffman as Lenny and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown both lost out to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto - again, go figure.
I just felt, as I left the cinema and in the time I've had to think about it since then, that watching Michael Fassbender in Shame was one of those privileged moments in my life for which I shall remain forever grateful.
On the joys of being miserable
The song Wake by The Antlers caught me unawares, with my iPod on shuffle. It hit the spot and immediately became a must-listen-to track. What dark places await, what sweet and unrelenting misery . . . Heaven knows, I'm miserable now - and I'm delighted about it.
What is it about the miserable songs that get so deep inside our heads? Wake is on an album called Hospice - yes, indeed - and not since The Eels' Electro-shock Blues have I heard such an unhappy collection of quite brilliant songs about death and dying, illness, pain, unhappiness, guilt, forgiveness, suicide, self-harm - and I can't stop listening to it. I want it all. I want everything it has to offer. I want to offer myself up to it. I want to emulate it. There are seemingly deliberate musical comparisons between Hospice and Electro-shock Blues that suggests a conscious nod of debt and recognition that goes beyond simple subject matter. Both albums are artistic, emotional catharses.
The miserable songs are always the best, the ones that mean the most. Here are twelve favourites that took weeks, months, years to get out my system, before I finally moved on to the next unhappy tune:
How to Fight Loneliness by Wilco
Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths
Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen
It's Not by Aimee Mann
Dear God Please Help Me by Morrissey
Raining in Baltimore by Counting Crows
No Surprises by Radiohead
If You See Her, Say Hello by Bob Dylan
Hurt by Johnny Cash
Sorrow by The National
Run by Snow Patrol
P.S. You Rock My World by The Eels
Listen to them ad nauseam - it'll drive your loved ones crazy!
On the Ripping Yarns of William Boyd
In my younger and more vulnerable years, William Boyd gave me some advice I've been I've been turning over in my mind ever since . . .
Well, actually, what happened was that I wrote to him after having read An Ice-Cream War and told him how much I enjoyed his writing and that it reminded me of E.M. Forster. I also asked if he would agree to read some of my own work. He did agree - which was particularly nice of him - and he even replied with a few kind words of encouragement. He told me to 'keep writing'. In my youthful naivety and enthusiasm, I thought at first he meant for us to keep in touch but then I grew up a little and realised that he was telling me I should keep trying to be a writer.
So you can probably understand how I've always felt well-disposed towards William Boyd, considering him to be both a great writer and a fine human being. He was listed amongst the first Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, along with the likes of Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie etc. - all of whom I've followed with interest over the years, given the impression they made on me as a young wannabe writer. They all represented something to aspire to but for some reason William Boyd seemed to not quite belong to the same literary club - as though he already knew his own unique path and was determined to follow it come what may.
William Boyd is first and foremost a storyteller, a teller of stories. He writes in clear sentences, builds his characters into substantial entities, and he creates engrossing scenarios that drive a narrative. The 'only connect' failure to communicate awkwardness that characterised An Ice-Cream War - beaten to the Booker Prize in 1982 by Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark - was merely a taste of what was to come. Boyd produced a remarkable run of novels that included The New Confessions, Brazzaville Beach, The Blue Afternoon, and Any Human Heart and each of these books showed off his ability to tackle big themes over an extended time period. Often concentrating on a single protagonist, his stories never failed to reflect the bigger picture surrounding a person's life. I'd say the single most impressive achievement is that you want to know what happens next; not as a mystery to be solved but simply as a matter of interest in the outcome of the story, the resolution of a character's life. And, believe me, that is some achievement.
In 2006, Restless was published by Bloomsbury, Boyd having moved from Penguin Books, and it marked something of a new departure. Almost unashamedly populist, the book won a Costa Book Award and - more tellingly - was on the shortlist for the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year for the British Book Awards. This resulted in the kind of commercial success writers can only dream of and - given how fondly I think of William Boyd - you'd imagine I'd be pleased for him. And I am, only . . .
In switching to an espionage plot with Restless and attempting an almost orthodox thriller with his next book Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd has lost me. I'm not a snob - honest - it's just that he isn't as good at this as are many other writers. What prompted me to sit down and write this piece was my reading of his next book, Waiting for Sunrise, due to be published in early 2012. A literary agent once said to me: 'I enjoyed your book - but not that much.' I did enjoy Waiting for Sunrise - but not that much. There's more subterfuge; there's a return to the trenches of the First World War; there's a fascinating lead character with a story to tell; the problem is I just don't care. By the time I get to the denouement, it doesn't seem to matter who did what to whom and when.
Graham Greene knew how to spin a ripping yarn and William Boyd does too. Greene used to differentiate between his novels and what he called his 'entertainments' and I suspect these later William Boyd books should be categorised as entertainments. What they lack, and what I miss, is that insight into the human heart - the human factor, as Greene would have put it - that so captured my own heart all those years ago.
On nebulous on-line marketing
Is this marketing? Is this me marketing me? I'm writing this in the hope that somebody somewhere will read and value what I have to say and then think, hmm, maybe I should buy one of this guy's books. Why anyone would do that, I don't know, but I'm putting this out there in the nebulous hope that somebody will. All the articles, posts, book reviews etc on this page share the same purpose: their raison d'etre is to persuade you to buy my books.
Is this a crazy or a forlorn hope? My feeling is that so long as what I write on this page is sincere - and it is, even when I'm lambasting some book I can't stand like The Finkler Question - then it can do no harm. Even with Google Analytics, it's still pretty much impossible to gauge the effect of on-line marketing on a person's decision to part with their money and buy something. Everybody knows the number one reason for a customer choosing to read one book over another: a good strong recommendation from somebody whose opinion you trust. So why bother with marketing if you can't measure its worth? At least with paid-for advertising you can see a direct connect between a person seeing an ad and proceeding to buy, although I also suspect that most advertised offers register in a person's mind and are taken up, if at all, on a later occasion.
Marketing, advertising, selling, publicising: this is what every company does to promote its product and yet it seems in the on-line world that this is almost frowned upon. We're used to being fed a diet of TV and radio ads, billboard posters etc; we like it if they amuse and entertain but we understand that all they're doing is pleading for us to PLEASE BUY THIS PRODUCT. We understand that newspapers couldn't exist without paid-for advertising and yet we blithely direct our conscious attention to the content and let the ads work their insidious way into our brain. A decade or so ago, many chat shows pretended their guests weren't on the show for the sole reason that they had an autobiography to sell; now we're happy for the chat show host to hold up the book at the end of the programme, telling us it's in the shops right now. But when it comes to on-line social networking such blatant self-promotion seems to be considered bad form. If all I did was Tweet about my Buy One Get One Free offer, a hundred times a day, every day, I would soon be rumbled and lose what few followers I have. Conversely, I see people follow my Twitter account and I know immediately that they're just selling something - cold calling, effectively - and I think yeah, so what? Why would I follow you back? What's in it for me?
When I first set up this (very basic) website as a vehicle to attract attention to my writing, I understood it was essential to have something to contribute; I had to add value for any potential readers. My first solution was to serialise my third novel, Dancing to the End of Love, into Snapshots, posting a new Snapshot each day for a whole month. Then I posted an award-winning short story, Caravan of Love, and created a page of mini-reviews of some of The Greatest Books of all Time. This page here, Where I'm Calling From, is the closest thing to a blog you're ever likely to get from me, with the dates removed so you can't see how infrequently I post. So please think of this site - and this page in particular - as an entertaining ad. I enjoy writing it and I hope you enjoy reading it but let's not pretend it's anything other than a request for you to buy my work.
On Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty
It took me a long time to get to Lonesome Dove, just as Larry McMurty takes his sweet time telling this story of an epic cattle drive from Texas up to Montana, but it was well worth the wait and it is one hell of a trip. The reading of Lonesome Dove took over the past three weeks of my life; whatever else I was doing was simply a distraction until I got back to the boys on the trail, out on the plain. I can honestly say that this is one of the finest books I have ever read - and I don't say that lightly. I invested so much in these characters that when - inevitably - some of them died, I was as emotionally devastated as, for example, when Prince Andei dies in War and Peace. And I'm well aware of the risk that people won't take such a comparison seriously but, believe me, it is there to be made.
There are many deaths in this book: bad deaths of good men, gruesome deaths of foolish men, cruel deaths of young boys who are not yet men. McMurty supplies a false sense of comfort with the cosy storytelling and then hits you hard with the brutality of the old West. I'm not saying that the violence is as unrelentingly visceral as in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian but at times it's not so very far away. Both books, perhaps, set out to debunk some of the myths of the old West but in doing so cement others: life was hard, cheap and dangerous and could be taken away at any given moment, often in a bloody and cruel way.
McMurty is such a visual writer, a setter of scenes and a painter of broad canvas pictures, that it's natural to compare this book to some of the great Western movies. Montgomery Clift's young cowboy in Red River would be a perfect fit. The mud and the blood and the many foreign accents in Cimino's Heaven's Gate are similarly accurate portrayals of frontier life. The storyline of The Searchers is re-played out as a sub-plot within the massive scope of the overall story. The lead character in Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves shares a similar pioneering spirit and a sympathetic abhorrence of what the white man does to the buffalo and the land. But the movie I kept most in my mind while reading Lonesome Dove was Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales. Based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter, I always thought Josie Wales was the movie for which Clint deserved his first Oscar. Yes, Unforgiven is similarly de-mythologizing, painting a harsh picture of poverty and pointless violence, but I've always resented the way Hollywood had to wait sixteen years before it was ready and able to acknowledge Eastwood's mastery as a director. And the humour in Josey Wales is a perfect match for the humour in Lonesome Dove. Gus's treatment of the bartender who doesn't afford him the respect he deserves is as amusingly violent as Clint's advice to the bounty hunter who says he has to earn a living somehow: 'Dying ain't much of a living'.
Lonesome Dove is also about hard men and the women in their lives. Much of this amounts to men paying women for sex but it's never that clear-cut and McMurty masterfully nails this perennial dance of life. Two of the strongest characters in this very masculine book are women. The yearning for a home and family is as much at the heart of this book as the love of the land - and what a love of the country there is in Lonesome Dove. Harsh it may be, deadly and full of perils - snakes, mosquitoes, bears, even a thorn in your hand will kill you if it's not treated and removed - but time and again McMurty returns to his sense of wonder as the landscape unfolds before us; sacred to the Native Americans because it is so old, exciting for the settlers because it is so new.
This book is an odyssey. There is bravery and folly, violence and tenderness, humour and tragedy, nobility and knavery. In short, all humanity is here in this story and there are so many things about it that I would love to share. Once I'd finished reading it, I gave my copy to my Dad and it felt like such the right thing to do. Read it and you'll see what I mean.
On The Finkler Question
Finkler Question Questions: Should a comic novel make me laugh? Is it funny to spend the first thirty-odd pages riffing on the word Jew? Can Jews write about anything other than being a Jew? If you’re going to write a novel about being a Jew, should it have at least some universal relevance ie. about being a human being? Should it be wrapped up in an interesting story? Should it have characters I give a toss about? Why does The Finkler Question remind me of Skippy Dies? Is it because they both take an inordinate length of time and number of words to tell me what I already know? Skippy dies – so what? Finkler’s a Jew – so what? Should I have to invest all that time and effort (yes, effort) getting to know a character before I get to care about that character? Is a comic novel more damnable than any other novel that’s as equally dull as shit? If one day was one day too long to spend reading One Day, how many days should I waste waiting for The Finkler Question to entertain me, move me, challenge me – do anything for me? And does this make me a Philistine?
On being a Cystic Fibrosis dilettante
By chance, in the week that Orla Tinsley, the Cystic Fibrosis campaigner, released her autobiography, I threw away a pile of pamphlets and articles I picked up a few years ago to research the subject of CF for my novel Dancing to the End of Love. I'd just needed to know enough not to make a fool of myself in print - enough to get in the zone, to understand the mind-set of my character, Maria Gabriela Carbone, and how her illness affected her relationship with the world. I described her thus:
Maria Gabriela Carbone – an Italian Scot, or a Scottish Italian, depending on her moods, which are many and extreme. Carrier of a gene that will kill her sooner rather than later, so we forgive the mood swings. We forgive her because she is what she is – everything to me and everything that I’m not. No doubt she’d tell me that she’s not mine to forgive and I’d agree, but forgive her anyway.
The novel isn't about Maria - it's about a man who is arrested and held without charge as part of the War on Terror - but she's an integral part of the story. She has a difficult life and is difficult to be around, often alienating those closest and kindest to her. But she is also the saving of my narrator, providing him with unconditional love when all the signs are that he has been rendered incapable (renditioned incapable?) of ever returning that love. Writers rarely admit where they get the idea for a character but I'm proud to say that the work of Orla Tinsley was a direct influence on the creation of Maria's character. I wanted to convey that combination of strength, vulnerability, rightful anger and drop-dead gorgeous charm. I needed somebody who was more than a match for what had been done to my narrator - somebody who understood his life because of the life that had been dealt to her.
The writer in me loves the contrasting casual ease with which I discarded those pamphlets compared to the life Cystic Fibrosis sufferers are dealt - easy for me, not so easy for them. As though I were a Cystic Fibrosis dilettante there for a while but that was so 2009, darling, and I've moved on since then. The human being in me realises it's not that simple and I hope my creation of Maria Gabriela Carbone goes some way towards acknowledging my debt to Orla Tinsley and highlighting the plight of Cystic Fibrosis sufferers everywhere.
On the responsibility of writing about self-harm
People harm themselves in many different ways and it's never easy for others to understand why.
A few years ago, a colleague of mine - let's call him Jack - told me about a friend of his from college whose self-harm had become her whole life. This woman's story had a profound effect upon me, even though we had never met, and what I learnt about her was ultimately the prompt for my second novel, Where the Rain Gets In. I met Jack again recently out of the blue and, when the topic of my writing came up, he told me he'd visited his friend just last week in hospital and that she wasn't doing at all well. What Jack told me hit home a second time and I thought of the years in between Jack first mentioning his friend and what those years have meant to this girl, this woman, this human being living through her own private hell.
I was very conscious when I sat down to write Where the Rain Gets In that what I was doing could be seen as exploiting another person's suffering. I told myself then, as I'm telling myself now, that I was writing from the heart, that this was a genuine attempt to put myself into the mind of a woman who could harm herself in this way. I've come to call this technique 'method writing' - casting myself in the role of another person, trying to adopt their mindset as my own, and writing the words almost as a by-product of where I am taken. I was being honest and I stand by my intentions. What I wrote was a genuine response to a very upsetting life story - a life story that has continued long after its path crossed mine - and I hope this truthfulness is reflected in the writing and what is left on the page.
Of course, I had to create a whole character beyond this initial prompt and I had to remain true to the woman I wanted her to be. I had to create a past for Katie and a present and I had to ask what her future might hold. I had to create a driving narrative, a story - I may be proud of my writing but I'm no Terrence Malick to do without a narrative - and again, this story had to ring true. I think now that I succeeded with her present but relied too heavily on Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House for Katie's past. I had read Mezrich's book and was unaware how heavily I was borrowing from it. At the time, I referenced Andrew Davies' novel B Monkey - just about my favourite ever book - and had received written permission from him to lift certain aspects and use them as my own. Also, this book was a very deliberate attempt to write in the third person and for that person to be a woman. My first novel, An Accident Waiting to Happen, was written in the first person with a voice distinctly my own and I wanted to put it up to myself, to see if I could do the whole third person narrator thing. But the over-riding requirement - what I wanted to achieve - was an accurate portrayal of a woman living her life as a self-harmer and to show that, without most of us knowing it, such a life is the lot of a great many people.
The responsibility of attempting such a thing weighed heavily at times but my need to do it - my compulsion, if you like - helped me see it through. Did I succeed? In many ways, yes; there are many things in Where the Rain Gets In of which I'm very proud. There are certain passages that are some of the best writing I've ever done - every writer knows the good and the bad in their own work - and most of these passages feature Katie self-harming. Writing now about meeting Jack again and of where this story began for me, I can honestly say I went to some very dark places in the hope of understanding Katie and of letting my readers see her and know her, love her and care for her. And whether I succeeded or not, I'm glad I tried. Some people demand our attention, if only for a little while, and not everybody has a friend like Jack to look after them.
On Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side
When I first tried reading Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way, I had something of an adverse reaction and put it down; or rather, I threw it down, shouting why the fuck couldn't he just write one simple sentence without all that flowery, roundabout, get-there-in-the-end fluff and nonsense? In other words, there was something of a culture clash as this English boy found the Irish boy's use of language to be quite an alien thing. It wasn't until I heard Sebastian Barry read from the book that I got it, that I had an aaahh moment and realised that, although the words were English, this was a different language, an alien language to me and it was there to be embraced in the same way as, for example, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Now, you might well think that was a bit slow of me and you'd probably be right; I might never have got it if Sebastian wasn't such an accomplished, charming and theatrical reader of his work. The experience reminded me of when I first read John McGahern's Amongst Women, more or less on publication and while I still lived in England. I loved the book but there were many mysteries to me that weren't revealed until I read it a second time, having left England to live in Ireland. Moran in Amongst Women is a type of man that just doesn't exist in England; hell - the Irish would tell you we can't even pronounce the name correctly. If Moran was exiled to England he'd no longer be the man he was in Ireland.
But now, having read Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture and returned to and enjoyed A Long Long Way, I luxuriate in his language. In his latest book, On Canaan's Side, there are many sentences that stop me dead in admiration: 'The world was made for lesser mortals generally.' How loaded are those words? How - yes - poetic? And yet, still, how alien? Simple language used in a way I'd never dream of. And the measured pace of the storytelling: once again we have some old biddy looking back on her life, just as in The Secret Scripture and, before that, in Annie Dunne. But what a life and what a story to tell: come here, and let me tell ya . . .
Having enjoyed such success over the past few years, there's no need for Sebastian Barry to attempt to emulate anybody, but On Canaan's Side has something of the feel of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn - the jacket image perhaps or the leaving of Ireland for the Promised Land of the United States. I didn't mind Brooklyn but it didn't exactly blow me away me either. It smacked of striving too hard for commercial success - a kind of Tóibín-Lite - and, while it started with a nod towards William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, it ended up sailing closer to Maeve Binchy's Echoes.
I thought as I read (and loved) Joseph O'Connor's Ghost Light that he was maybe trying to 'do a Sebastian Barry' with the language he used - or rather, with the way he used the language - and that this was no bad thing. There was also that south Dublin/Wicklow setting and yet another old dear reminiscing on a long life lived on foreign shores. The story was on a modest, less epic and more intimate scale than, for example, The Star of the Sea, but there was no harm in that and I've a feeling Joseph O'Connor was setting himself a writerly challenge that he passed with apparent ease but which must have taken a lot of very, very hard work.
These Irish boys - they know how to evoke and to suggest, how to transport their reader to a different land in the way that music takes us to different places in our minds, be it with the words of a ballad or a tune or a melody. And I wish I could do it too.
On Travelling back in time with The Time Traveler's Wife
I've spent the past few days re-reading Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and it got to me all over again - it got me good. Often, when I think it'd be nice to re-visit a book I've enjoyed, a chapter or two is sufficient to scratch the itch of curiosity; but to have stuck with 500 pages and to be moved all over again by a story to which I knew the ending is testament, I think, to just how good a story it is. And I know that makes me sound like a big softie - and maybe I am - but I don't care.
The first time I read the book it was the repeated miscarriages that had me blubbing in an unseemly fashion in embarrassing situations, whereas this time it was the leaving, the parting, and the wanting this relationship to go on forever. (Told you I was a softie.) But I also experienced a mental shift, a change of perception, a transplanting back to 2003 when I first read the book - in fact, I was time travelling. Mixed in there with the story of The Time Traveler's Wife was the reflection on my own life for these past seven years. What have I done? What have I achieved? What have I failed to achieve? Who was I then? Who am I now? Or as Bob Dylan sang in Things Have Changed: 'Lot of water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too'. Though actually, the one song or line of a song that repeatedly went through my head as I was reading the book was from Springsteen's The Promise: 'Here's for all the lost lovers and all the fixed games'. What is that? Is it melancholy - or is it nostalgia?
Since 2003, I've had two novels published by Penguin Books. I've written a third that I believe is as good if not better, and published all three novels as ebooks. I've done things that I regret (which I don't intend to tell you about here) and plenty of other stuff I'm proud of, so perhaps I should go easy on myself. Now I'm thinking of re-reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas; can't imagine what that's going to do to my head.
P.S. The version of The Promise I'm talking about is from the 18 Tracks album, not the overblown version from the album with the same name. Here's a link to Bruce performing it live with sub-titles in Spanish. These things are important.
On A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Often, when I sit down to read a children's book, I find it hard to care. There's something about the pitch of the voice or the setting out of the premise that sounds to me like I'm being taken for an idiot. Or that I'm being spoken to like I'm an idiot. "Who gives a shit?" is a common reaction after only a couple of pages. Which I realise makes me sound like something of an idiot myself - or worse, like Martin Amis - but this is how it is so this is how it is.
Happily there are many exceptions to this - His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games, Chaos Walking amongst them - and most of these exceptions seem to share this one key characteristic: the writers don't make any allowances for the age of their readership. Here is a story, they say; you're going to want to read this so either get with it or come back when you're good and ready.
Part of my problem comes from the crap pretending to be a 'good book' that was peddled to me as a child and the ugly, unfriendly format in which it was presented. I particularly remember a Christmas gift of Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne: tiny text on nasty paper, written in a language that was supposed to be English but just wasn't any more, a rip-roaring adventure for boys, don't you know, with educational asides from the author - Jesus Christ! No wonder I never read books as a child. I was far happier reading my cousin's back issues of the Mandy comic than Kidnapped or Treasure Island or any of those 'Classics' that turned up in my Christmas stocking every year. I guess it was no coincidence that it was the modern antithesis of Coral Island - William Golding's The Lord of the Flies - that first turned me on to reading in a big way. Here was a book that spoke to me. It was about children but it wasn't childish. Stuff happened in it that should never happen to children and this made it irresistible.
So I was a little concerned when I started A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness that the pitch might be just a little young for me to enjoy. I needn't have worried. Written from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, this is most certainly a 'younger' story than the Chaos Walking trilogy but in no way does this stop the writing grabbing hold of you and never letting go - the Book of Never Letting Go, perhaps? It's also a beautiful object in itself: to look at and to hold. I came across this sentence from 'Jennifer' in her GoodReads review of this book: Wow - there's amazing humanity, humor, and love woven in every word and illustration of this book. I couldn't have put it any better myself.
On living in the Shallowlands
A few years ago, I had a work colleague who read The Irish Times each day but whenever I asked him about the occasional article he claimed to have missed it and would make sure to read it that very evening. Now, I wasn't trying to catch him out; I was simply hoping to 'share' my experience in the same way I do now on Facebook or Twitter. I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I'd seen a certain article and I had to 'fess up to having seen it but not read it - despite being interested in doing so.
This past weekend was spent sorting through old photographs, noticing (amongst other things) how the Manhattan skyline was so dominated by the twin towers and thinking: you guys are gonna cause an awful lot of trouble. In a way, it would be nice to share all these photos with friends on-line (and I'm sure there is a way) but browsing through them also put me in mind of handling a paperback novel that I love. Do I ever feel that way about looking at photos on-line? And will I ever re-visit old digital images in the same way? Actually, I know the answer to that and it's a resounding 'no' - the reason being that we lost about five years' of digital photos a while back when our PC gave up the good fight and went to live in a better place called the re-cycling depot.
Every day I check my email, Facebook and Twitter accounts and there are many links to articles I'd like to read. Some I do but most I don't and I certainly don't go searching deep into my timeline looking for more. Unlike many people who complain about the amount of shit on the internet, I'm over-faced by the amount of good stuff there is to read, watch or listen to. It's quite possible that, despite having access to so much quality information and opinion, I now end up absorbing less than I ever did before and, when I do read something on-line, I don't concentrate as much as if I'm reading the newspaper. I feel pressurised by other articles that remain unread, by the time passing and by not doing what I sat down at the computer to do in the first place.
Shallowlands - I live in a place called the Shallowlands, dipping my toe into a constantly-flowing stream, when what I really want is to be fully submerged in a deep, refreshing pool of still water.
On ebook nonsense
It's quaint, isn't it, how DVD manufacturers persist in dividing the planet into regions, despite there being instructions on-line to get around this for every model of DVD player on the market. I was reminded of that recently when Waterstones.com agreed to limit their sales of ebooks to Britain and Ireland, given that UK publishers don't hold world rights to their titles. Waterstones were able to sell worldwide simply because they have a .com address. Living in Ireland, I'm able to buy ebooks from Waterstones.com but not from W.H. Smith's, Foyles or Amazon UK as these latter companies all operate with a .co.uk address - this despite U.K. publishers' rights covering both the U.K. and Ireland. U.K. publishing houses are blissfully unaware of this as they never try to order from an Irish ISP address and this is just the latest bit of ebook nonsense that shows how far this fledging industry still has to go.
Amazon is particularly interesting. Amazon U.K. recognises my ISP and re-directs me to Amazon.com; I can buy from the U.S. but not from the U.K. They add on Irish VAT (Value Added Tax) to the price of an ebook, so my own $2.99 ebooks are listed as $3.51 to customers in Ireland. At first, I accepted this as being conscientiously correct of Amazon but then I followed the logic: I'm not shopping in Ireland, I'm shopping in the U.S. If I go to New York to buy a pair of jeans, I pay New York sales tax, which is fantastically spelt out on the price ticket. The retailer is saying, hey, our price for these jeans is this amount but the city, well, they're taking this amount from you. I know I'm shopping for my ebooks in the U.S. because Amazon won't let me shop in the U.K. And my $2.99 ebooks are $2.99 on Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes and Noble etc. In the U.S., Amazon add on the state tax (though how they recognise the state apart from by the actual zip code, I don't know - do ISP addresses in the U.S. run along strictly state lines?). Not being a U.S. resident, I don't know for sure, but I bet the ebooks are still listed at $2.99 with the state tax being added at the check-out and this, as with the jeans retailer in New York, doesn't take away from the initial attractive price. Weirdly, Amazon doesn't add Irish VAT to the price of my third ebook and this remains unchanged at $9.99, despite being set up in the same way.
I bought the McSeeney's print edition of Dave Eggar's Zeitoun from Amazon.com in the United States of America because I knew it would be a beautiful thing to own. I didn't have to ask for permission; nobody stopped me, lectured me on territorial rights or re-directed me to wait six months for the Penguin UK edition and do you know why? Because I bought it on the ol' internet machine, on that new World Wide Web thingy.
On why my work is worth more than two pints of Guinness
Pricing my ebook at $9.99? Am I crazy? Maybe so, but here's why:
I have three novels published as ebooks. Two have been published previously by Penguin Books but the third is published exclusively as an ebook. When I came to set the prices, I took the opportunity to try out the three different price points of €2.99, $4.99 and $9.99. I'm well aware of the power of $0.99 as an attention-grabbing price, particularly on Amazon, but it seems to me that a lot of that attention is on established writers such as Stephen Leather - writers making the most of an extensive backlist and an established readership to storm the Amazon sales chart. Or writers of serial genre novels, paranormal romance etc. And good luck to Stephen Leather and the others who manage to pull this off but, although my paperbacks have sold reasonably well in Ireland, I don't believe I possess the reach to do the same. Also, there's something in me that says this is my work and if I don't value it correctly then who will?
Harry Potter and the Half-Price Book
I've worked extensively as a bookseller over the years and no other industry manages to devalue the potential of their bestselling product quite like the book industry. Dan Brown, Harry Potter, Stieg Larsson- booksellers can't wait to give away margin and to price premium-selling product as low as they possibly can. Sure, they point to the price in Tesco or on Amazon and there's wailing and gnashing of teeth but boo-hoo, I think. Any sales matching that low price represent a complete waste of time, effort and expense when it comes to making money for the retailer. And don't talk to me about loss-leaders - if you need to half-price Harry Potter to get customers into your shop, perhaps it's time you took a long hard look at who you are as a bookseller and what you're trying to do. Those customers won't stay with you once something cheaper comes along whereas your real customers, the customers that you should value and that will value you in return, well, maybe they'd pay a little extra for Harry Potter because shopping in a proper book store makes them feel good about themselves. Half-price Harry Potter books are not your business; your customers are. The fact that millions of ebooks are being bought for $0.99 doesn't necessarily mean those ebooks are being read; some customers are buying them simply because they can, now, at that price. And, if these ebooks are not being read, there's ultimately no future in this market model.
The sweet spot.
It seems to me, as pointed out by Catherine Ryan Howard and others, that the sweet price for a novel published as an ebook is currently $2.99; sweet as in a decent return for the author, a cheap offer for the customer and not demeaning to the work. It's obvious that customers are prepared to pay a higher price for works of non-fiction because they place a higher value on the information containd inside. The fiction e-publishing industry is still in its relative infancy as regards persuading a whole new potential market to switch from paper, or at least to get over the hurdle of reading on a screen, so a low price point makes sense. Is there a danger this will affect future price expectations? Yes. Is the print publishing industry all-at-sea in their approach to pricing, author royalty and distribution of ebooks? Yes. Will things change quickly over the next year or so? Most definitely yes, but the beauty of ebook publishing for an author is that we can adapt and respond - we can roll with the changes.
Going for a song.
$0.99 is the price you can expect to pay for a single song on iTunes (although in true Apple fashion this isn't always the case). So which is worth more - a novel or a song? Depends on the novel and depends on the song, I hear you say. A song can be written in an afternoon and yet last a lifetime - if you're Lennon and McCartney - and a novel might take a lifetime to write and still be better off left unpublished. I priced my first novel, An Accident Waiting to Happen, at $4.99 because readers have told me it's a strong story that they couldn't put down, that they had to find out what happened in the end. (On Smashwords, readers can sample a substantial portion of my books for free so I'm hoping this is true.) Where the Rain Gets In, my second novel, is a harder sell in that it deals extensively with self-harm and so wouldn't be to everybody's taste; I priced this at $2.99. But when it comes to my third novel, Dancing to the End of Love, there's just no way I can bring myself to give it away for a song. I value it too highly; it's worth more to me than that.
Okay, I lied.
Okay, I lied. I've been giving Dancing to the End of Love away for free for a limited time period because I want to get readers reviewing the book online. I also gave Accident away for free as part of Read an E-Book Week, my reasoning being that if I could hook a few readers with that book then they might move on to the other two. I believe in the power of free but it's a marketing tool and not necessarily a sales tool. When it comes to sales and using price to help create those sales, I'm going to use my common sense and price my first two books at $2.99 from the end of this month. I also think my books are ready-made to run a 3 for 2 offer, perhaps with the added twist of giving the most expensive book away for free. Or I might even run a Buy One Get One Free. But I'm going to keep the price of Dancing to the End of Love at $9.99.
Why my work is worth more than two pints of Guinness.
I like drinking Guinness. When I've drunk one pint of Guinness I like to drink another and two pints of Guinness cost about the same as Dancing to the End of Love. So too does a single fancy cocktail but my work is not some Cosmopolitan or a Mojito - it's sweet on the tongue but full of body, beautiful to look at and even nicer to savour. My work - like Guinness - is the product of a long gestation period, brewed to a careful recipe and presented with loving care. But here's the thing: although I can remember certain pints of Guinness at certain periods in my life - and there have been many, many beautiful and memorable pints - my work will last longer than any pint of Guinness. And I'm prepared to back this up by holding my nerve to price my novel - under price my novel - at $9.99.
PostScript (February 2012) - I finally cracked and reduced the price to $7.99. The only reason for this was the extent of the tagging on Amazon with 'Boycott $9.99 ebooks' - I can't hold out against that.
On the movie This is England
The storyline of the movie This is England is remarkably simple and uncomplicated - a young lad missing his dead father is attracted to the protection and sense of belonging of a group of skinheads - but the story sure packs a punch. I hadn't seen the movie since it was first released so when I watched it again the other night I was really pleased to see how well it matched up to my memory and, thinking about it now, it's the simplicity that makes it so strong. The movie comes, it says what it wants to say, and it is gone. Of course, it works so well because of the pitch-perfect script and the many outstanding acting performances - the actors' complete involvement in the world into which they're cast. The latent tension - the absolute certainty that this will end badly and in violence - makes it uncomfortable viewing to say the least and I'm sure it wouldn't be to everybody's taste, but it perfectly captures a piece of England that will never go away.
Set at the time of the Falklands war - or the Falklands conflict as they liked to call it at the time - the footage of Thatcher still makes me sick to my stomach. As the timeline moves along to the miners' strike and the battle of Orgreave rages, it's obvious the root of all this violence lies within the State. And knowing that this thing exists, this cancer, this rotten core, this England - what could I do but to leave?
On Les Heures souterraines by Delphine de Vigan
Some books change the way you view the world, if only for a short period of time, affecting your outlook and forcing you to question all you see. The everyday becomes remarkable, the mundane becomes extraordinary and a book in which nothing much happens presses your Refresh button and helps you to face the day. Such a book is Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan.
Now, I'm not mad about the title, even if it perfectly describes the book. In the original French, the book is called Les Heures souterraines, which has something, I think; I wonder if the author was consulted or advised about the direct translation? That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the underground world de Vigan describes - and it's underground in many senses of the word. I loved the tension of two lost souls making their inevitable (?) way towards each other in an unforgiving city that has no time for the people who struggle along the margins, avoiding the commuter flow of bodies and fighting against the rules of engagement out there in the world. Graham Swift managed to successfully do the same in his novel The Light of Day.
I also really like the story as an antidote to the popular One Day by David Nicholls. I appreciated the premise of One Day but was very disappointed when I actually tried to read it. My favourite two-hander, boy's story/girl's story, of all time has to be Andrew Davies' B Monkey - out of print now, I believe, but if you can get your hands on a copy then do so. It's a treat and a book I return to again and again. Check it out.
On not writing
Whatever else I've been doing since the start of the year, it hasn't been writing. All my energy, all my efforts, everything I've learnt - they've all contributed to my being a writer, but they haven't included any actual writing. So: I set about using the rights I own to my first two novels and learnt (through Smashwords) how to strip my Word documents down to their bare essentials so they could be uploaded and transformed into ebooks. Then I did the same to make them available on the Kindle. I decided to stop waiting around for editors of publishing houses to tell me how much they loved Dancing to the End of Love but were not going to publish it and I published it myself as an ebook.
I've entered the world of social media, despite it not coming naturally to me. To be in a position to actually contribute something to that social media, I devised creating the 31 Snapshots from Dancing to the End of Love - one for each day in March - originally pitching it as part of World Book Day in Britain and Ireland but then expanding it beyond that in an attempt to reach a global audience. To do that, I learnt how to build this incredibly basic site that - like everything to do with computers - breaks my heart and spirit on a regular basis. I've learnt that developing a following on Twitter and, to a lesser extent on Facebook, is a slow old process if you're not going to resort to tricks and insincere methods. I've become convinced that Twitter is so much more than the inane drivel I thought it was, full of excellent referrals to fascinating articles and posts, but I've also learnt that I don't have the time to read them all. I've learnt that I'm putting my work out there into the world and that most of it goes nowhere; on the other hand, I reach some readers that I would never have done in a million years.
I've started a blatant attempt to monetize myself and my work, all the while presenting a front that this in not what I'm about. I signed up to Read an E-book Week and gave An Accident Waiting to Happen away for free, obviously in the hope that word-of-mouth would lead to greater sales. The flurry of activity was exciting but sales have since stopped dead and I'm left hoping that somebody, somewhere is recommending it to a friend. I know not to lose the faith and that I'm in this for the long haul. How Soon is Now? as Morrissey might wail, but I must just keep on keeping on as Dylan sang in Tangled Up in Blue.
But whatever else this is - it's not writing.
On Fishing, Friendship and Fatherhood
Sometimes a book just falls in your lap and your whole world is brighter, better and - something else beginning with a 'b' that I can't quite think of right now. My past few days have been spent reading Blood Knots by Luke Jennings, a memoir that is predominantly about fishing. Now, I hate memoirs - well, I don't hate them, but I tend not to read them - and I'm not a fan of fishing, thinking it a brainlessly cruel 'sport'. But from the get-go, Luke Jennings' writing is so captivating and involving, setting the scene in the mysterious world of London's hidden waterways, that he had me hooked before I knew it. He reeled me in with the back story of his father's experience as a tank commander in World War 2 and he combined this with a young boy's wonder at the world beneath the surface of water.
It soon became clear to me that Luke Jennings' life experience was quite different to my own - prep school, south of England, summer holiday homes in the country - and, being the inverse snob that I am, I might have dismissed the book on that account. This danger increased as it became obvious that one of the young Luke's mentors was Robert Nairac, who would later become the British undercover agent in Northern Ireland who was executed for his troubles. Tales of public school, Oxford, wealth and privilege are so alien to me (there's that Harry Potter thing where Luke travels up north on the train to school and the sky darkens - what cock!) but again, the writing is so good that my own personal tastes were rendered irrelevant. Luke is in thrall to the easy charm of Nairac and is grateful for the attention. Everything is relative and how I feel about Luke is how Luke feels about the better-off aristocrats he encounters at school. In fact, the school he attends - Ampleforth College - forms a direct connection to my own life and it was in the woods surrounding the school that I set one of the very first scenes in my my first novel.
But it is the fishing that holds this memoir together. The technical detail, the descriptive passages of stealth, the wiles of the feeding trout, the viciousness of monster pikes and the mind-numbing boredom and disappointment of most fishing expeditions - all are prefectly captured in a way that you'll never be able to just pass by a body of water without wondering what lies beneath.
The Fever Pitch of fishing; it's that good.
On starting over with The Sopranos
Jesus, that's a lot of water under the bridge. And Tony Soprano looking so young.
Went back to the very first episode of The Sopranos last night, after over a decade, and it was impossible not to think of all that's changed in that time - both in the world and in my life. Who was I then? And who is this person I've become? I certainly didn't know at that point that my dream of being a published writer would come true in about three years. And I didn't know I still had the delights of The Wire and The Shield to savour in the future. And my favourite out of these three? Aw - you know I can't choose.
When I first wrote the Brighton section of Dancing to the End of Love, I already knew the city well enough to have a clear idea of the geography and the feel of the place but I still firmed up a few locations by tramping around its streets non-stop for two days. It's one of the few occasions I've actually done this - acting like a real writer, I guess - and I got so lucky. I was looking for a church and I found the perfect church; I was looking for a park and I found the perfect park; I was looking for a pub and I found the perfect pub. Even to the extent that the 'fictitious' street name I'd been using was the very first street sign I came across after leaving my hotel. And then there were the unlooked for extras, like the graffiti that led me to the story of Omar Deghayes.
'I love living in this town' was one of the lines I used and I think I was engaging in wish fulfillment through my writing. There's something so special about Brighton. I was there the other day - checking out Sussex University with my daughter - and we were blessed with good fortune, meeting by chance the one person we know who lives in the city. A cup of tea turned into a glass of wine and I thought once more how there's some vibe in Brighton that will always find me. It's a little thing, maybe, but it's a true thing for sure.
On Raymond Carver
I'd better start with a nod to my indebtedness to Raymond Carver for the name of this page. It just seems so right, like many of his story titles, like every one of his stories, for capturing a moment and putting it down on the page. If you've read his work, you know what I mean; if you haven't, you're missing out on perfection. This is as good a place to start, right here.