About two years ago, a close friend of mine lost his publishing contract. He had been writing a series of crime novels that appeared to be doing well, but I think he felt that he had exhausted that particular seam and wanted to try something set elsewhere with a different central character. Unfortunately, the new series didn’t sell as well as he had hoped and the publisher didn’t renew his deal. I felt pretty terrible for him, perhaps in part because what had befallen him is something that most published writers worry about fairly constantly, even, I suspect, those who appear to be virtually untouchable in terms of sales and critical kudos. It only takes a couple of missteps before one finds oneself in a potentially difficult situation, and publishers are notoriously unsentimental about their authors once sales begin to plummet.
I suppose I’m more than usually aware of this at the moment as I’m reading through the copy edited manuscript of the next book, The Book of Lost Things. (The copy edit, incidentally, is the version of my manuscript that has been checked for errors and inconsistencies and has also been annotated with instructions for the typesetter. The next stage is the proof, which looks like an unbound edition of the final book and offers a final chance to catch errors before publication.) Last year, when I was touring The Black Angel in the United States, I was asked in a bookstore what my next book would be about. I explained The Book of Lost Things as best I could, and a reader came up to me afterwards and told me that he had no intention of reading it, that he had no interest in any book of mine that wasn’t a mystery, and when I got back to what he thought I should be doing he’d consider parting with his money for what I wrote.
Now apart from possibly requiring a lesson or two in diplomacy, the reader in question was quite within his rights to say what he did. Just because I write something doesn’t automatically mean that anyone is going to want to read it, and if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool mystery buff then you may not want to read something that isn’t a mystery, even if it’s written by a writer whose previous work you’ve enjoyed. Nevertheless, a response like that from a reader is going to send a shiver down the spine of even the most well-adjusted of writers.
Suppose, when the book appears, that everyone feels that way, or at least enough people that sales plummet and a noise that sounds suspiciously like thin ice cracking comes from beneath one’s feet? What then? Perhaps it would be better to stick with the stuff that works and sells right from the start. After all, I get paid less for writing non-Parker books than I do for Parker books, so it actually hurts me financially to take a creative risk. In fact, I didn’t take an advance at all in the UK for Nocturnes because I was worried about sales and I didn’t want to make it an unattractive proposition for my publisher (and also, to be truthful, I wanted to take a little pressure off myself, for if the book didn’t do well then I hadn’t taken the publisher’s money and it would be less likely to go down as a blot in the copybook of my career. Such are the things about which a writer worries . . .)
The problem is, of course, that it’s impossible to progress and take the easy option. We develop by trying new things, not by doing the same ones over and over again. In addition, while I love writing the Parker books and have tried, in my way, to make each one different from the last, there are some themes and stories, some avenues of exploration, that are just not suited to that structure: hence most of the stories in Nocturnes, and the writing of The Book of Lost Things. These departures also allow me to stretch writing muscles that have not been used during the writing of the Parker books: I can experiment with voices, with points of view, with other genres. I can learn different skills that may be applied, in turn, to the Parker books, enabling me to return to him with fresh eyes and some new weapons in my armoury. In that way, taking time out to try to experiment with other forms contributes to keeping the quality of the Parker books as high as my skills allow.
(I’m also fortunate in that there is a loyal core to my readership, or so it seems. Nocturnes sold far better than anyone expected, myself included, and it’s been heartening to see some of the responses to my remarks about The Book of Lost Things on my website. All writers should be so lucky, I sometimes think . . . )
But there is still that fear, that nagging voice that sometimes sounds like one’s own but at other times emerges from a little man in an American bookstore. Why take the chance? Why not stick with what’s working, even if the quality takes a bit of a tumble along the way? Not an enormous tumble, not enough to make readers feel cheated, but a tumble nonetheless. I’ll have more money in my pocket. I’ll probably have bigger sales. A couple of people may complain that the book wasn’t quite as good as the last but, hey, there’ll be another one along next year and perhaps that one will be better. Whole careers have been sustained by that kind of reader optimism. There will be no real risk involved. It’s a sweet deal, so why mess it up?
The answer: because I have to. Last week, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s slim, wise little book, A Man Without a Country. Towards the end, he recounts a conversation that he had with the graphic artist Saul Steinberg.
“Saul,” Vonnegut asks, “are you gifted?”
Steinberg doesn’t answer for a moment, then says: “No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
I don’t know that I’m an artist. I think most creative work aspires to the condition of art, but that’s not the same thing at all. (Secretly, most creative people would like to believe that they’re creating art but probably suspect that they’re not.) But I do recognise that struggle, that refusal to take the easy road, that need to risk failure because without the risk the thing isn’t worth doing at all. In the end, like James Lee Burke says, you have to learn to ignore both the catcalls and the applause.
You have to go with your heart.
This week John read:
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
The Planets by Dava Sobel
The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin (uncorrected proof)
Desperation by Stephen King
Doctor Who: A Critical Guide by Kim Newman
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
and listened to:
Espers by Espers