Sunday, April 30, 2006


This week, I have been consumed by guilt. A pile of books and manuscripts has built up in the corner of my office, all of them with letters attached requesting a supportive quote for the work in question. Over the last few years, more and more have started to arrive, some from writers whom I’ve met, others from editors hoping for a boost for one of their acquisitions, but I find that I have less and less time to read them, which means I am constantly falling behind. I picked up one book proof recently and saw that it had been sent in February, with the novel in question due for publication in May. I suspect my quote may be a little late by this point, but I wish the author well.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to be asked, and it’s good to be able to give a bit of support to other writers. I suppose it’s an indication that I must be doing something right if there are editors and authors out there who believe that a quote from me might prove helpful. Then again, a friend of mine told me last week that a mutual acquaintance had stopped him in a bookstore and complained vociferously to him about one of the books I’d blurbed, to the point of hauling him over to the shelf and pointing out the offending quote on the cover. So there you have it: one of my quotes may help to sell a book, but there’ll be complaints afterwards.

The first book I was ever asked to blurb was written by a former journalist turned novelist. I wasn’t terribly keen on the book. The setting was very evocative, but the plot left a little to be desired, and I had figured out the identity of the killer before I’d even finished my first cup of coffee. I mulled over whether or not to give a quote, and eventually asked my American editor for advice. She pointed out that others had given me quotes and, unless I had grave reservations, it might be nice to return the favour to another writer, so I did. I provided the quote, and it was used.

And I never heard anything back from the author involved. I was a little surprised. Maybe that was how things were done in publishing, but it seemed a little rude not to say thank you. After all, I’d never met him. I was under no obligation to read his book. It wasn’t even published by one of the houses with which I was involved. I recalled that after my first book, Every Dead Thing, was published, I had sent short thank-you notes to the three authors who had offered me supportive quotes: Jeff Deaver, David Lindsay, and Julia Wallis Martin, none of whom I had met at the time. But, in this case, there was no acknowledgement of the gesture. It had been, quite literally, a thankless task.

In the years since then no writer has failed to send at least an appreciative e-mail in return for a quote, which helped to restore my faith somewhat. The problem now is that there are more books arriving in the hope of being blurbed than I really have time to read. Well, that’s not quite true. I could read them all but it would start to feel a bit like homework. At a rough count, five books that I’ve blurbed have been published already this year, with at least two more to come. That’s quite a lot, I think, and for each manuscript or submitted novel I read, I have to sacrifice time that I might have spent reading those books on my shelf for which I’ve paid my own money, books to which I’d rather like to get around before I die.

Glancing idly to my right, I find the following books on my shelf, all purchased in the month of April and all, so far, unread: Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish; The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood by James Mottram; Pig Island by Mo Hayder; The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick; A Spy By Nature by Charles Cumming; The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe; Set Up, Joke, Set Up by Rob Long; and, as of yesterday, Muscle by John Hotten, The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne, and The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain. In addition, I’ve received two uncorrected proofs for free - Jeff Deaver’s The Cold Moon and Karin Slaughter’s Tryptych - and a copy of David Mitchell’s new novel, Black Swan Green, from my British publishers.

Then there are all of the books bought prior to April (bought, if truth be told, prior to this year, and some of them bought in the last century) that I haven’t yet read. What of them? What of my ambition to read every Dickens novel at the rate of one a year? These are books that I really want to read, not books that I feel I should read, or that someone else would really like me to read.

I also seem to receive a lot of crime fiction. That’s understandable; after all, it’s what I write, and therefore whatever value a blurb from me might have is likely to be greatest in that area. Yet, looking back over the books that I’ve read so far this year, most are not crime novels. My reading tends to be much wider than that. In fact, I’m now less likely to read a crime novel than I was, say, two or three years ago. I still love reading mysteries, and there are fellow crime authors whose books I will always devour, but there is more to books than this one genre. In fact, some of the books I’ve been most pleased to support in recent times - Luis Urrea’s wonderful The Devil’s Highway, Shane Duffy’s gripping, moving Wednesday’s Child - have been non-fiction works.

I also don’t want to become a “blurb whore”, the general term of opprobrium for those authors who can’t seem to say no to a request for a quote. If my name starts appearing on the cover of every second book published then it’s probably going to reduce whatever small value a gesture of support from me might have. Then again, it’s hard to say no. I was talking to a publishers’ rep in a bookstore recently. She pointed to a newly published novel that had an appreciative quote on the cover from a famous female writer. “She gives one to everyone because she wants them all to like her,” remarked the rep. I’m not sure that I want to be liked that much (or even, given my character flaws, that there are enough blurbs in the world to buy that degree of affection) but neither do I want other writers thinking that I just don’t care, or that I’ve become one of those jackasses who won’t give a quote for fear that it might help potential opposition.

It seems to me that the whole area of blurbing requires UN-levels of diplomacy. Suppose that you’re given a book by a fellow writer, perhaps one whom you know well, one whom you like and admire, and the book just isn’t very good: what do you do? One author friend of mine refuses to give blurbs to writers whom he knows personally, but it’s a little late for me to institute that policy, and anyway it avoids rather than confronts the issue to hand. In the end, all you can do is keep quiet and hope that the author doesn’t press the issue, or that the unmentioned book doesn’t become the elephant in the corner at all future encounters between the writers involved.

So the "unread" pile remains. Other books will inevitably be added to it, and I’ll get around to reading some of them, but I’ll never be able to read them all. I know that writers will feel snubbed, and editors will consider me rude, but what can I do? I only have so many hours to spend reading, and there are so many books. I even hope to write a few more myself, given time.

Apologies in advance, therefore, for not getting around to reading everything. Still, I wish you all only the best. Mea culpa.

This week John read

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux
Old School by Tobias Wolff

and listened to

Music for Airports by Brian Eno
St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Salesman

The question most authors dread, I think, is “Where do you get your ideas?” Most of us don’t know, and the ones that do know are probably better off not telling anyone else. The second most dreaded question, at least for me, is “What is your new book about?” Explaining the essence of a book to someone in the space of a couple of minutes, or sometimes less, is quite hellish. Not all books can be compressed into a single sound bite or high concept, and it rarely does them any favours when an attempt is made. After all, how would Joyce have sold Ulysses in a sound bite? (“It’s about a guy wandering around Dublin for a day. It takes him a long time.” “Er, no thanks, James.”)

Still, in order to sell books an author is often required to come up with a simple summary of a work, mainly for media outlets as radio and TV in particular have limited patience with, and limited time for, the writers who are shoehorned into the available slots. Sometimes, too, he or she may be asked to stand up in front of a room full of booksellers and, in the shortest time possible, try to convince them to support a book that many of them will not have had the chance to read yet. Booksellers may sell books, but someone has to sell the books to the bookseller. Increasingly, it helps if the author is prepared to assume some of that burden.

Last week, for example, I was in London for a dinner. I was one of perhaps six authors in attendance, and my fellow diners were buyers and booksellers from the Ottakar’s chain of stores. I have a particular fondness for Ottakar’s and their staff, and the fact that the future of the chain is in doubt (both W H Smith and Waterstone’s/HMV have been tipped as potential buyers) made me feel a little guilty about trying to flog my new book to them. After all, they have other things on their minds, like whether or not they will still exist in their current form in a year’s time, or if they will all still have their jobs. While the financial analysts discuss market shares and profits, the potential human cost of such a take-over rarely gets mentioned. People’s jobs are at stake.

There is also an element of self-interest to my concern. Ottakar’s have been very supportive of me and my books (as have, to be fair, the other major chains) and if it disappears there will be one less outlet for my work. I also like a lot of the people who work for the chain. I don’t see them often enough to call them friends, but I enjoy meeting them and spending time with them. They’re good people. They love books, and like most people in bookselling they don’t get paid enough for what they do. I want things to work out well for them.

Anyway, the dinner was the first time I’d been asked to try to explain a little about the new book, The Book of Lost Things, to booksellers, and I found it really difficult. After all, it’s not like the books that I’ve written before. To begin with, it has a child at its heart, yet it’s not a children’s book. Younger readers can, I hope, pick up the book and enjoy it, but I think an adult will read it in a different way. In fact, it was carefully constructed to offer quite different experiences to adults and adolescents, and it’s probably only in the very last chapter that the nature of that difference becomes clear. It’s a book suffused with loss, but adults and children perceive loss in similar ways. When I was a child, I feared loss, particularly the loss of my parents, but it was still largely an abstract concern. I can clearly remember being told of the death of my grandfather yet being more worried about whether or not I would still be able to go to school that day as there was to be a party to celebrate the end of term. I loved my grandfather, but I was very young and couldn’t quite conceive of a world in which he would be absent forever.

As an adult, I still fear loss, but I have already begun to lose those whom I treasure. My father is dead. Relationships with people whom I have loved have faltered and then disintegrated. I have become aware, in a very real way, of my own mortality as well as the mortality of those whom I hold dear. That transition, that growing awareness of the nature of the world, began during my early adolescence. I wanted to capture that dawning sense of the unpredictable, sometimes cruel reality of existence, as well as the inevitability of loss, in The Book of Lost Things, but to balance it with an understanding of the importance of loyalty, of selflessness, of honour and of love in making that existence tolerable.

Finally, I wanted to communicate my belief in the power of stories to shape our perceptions of the world. A debate has sprung up in the literary pages of some British newspapers concerning a new book entitled Twelve Books That Changed The World by Melvyn Bragg. The books chosen include The King James Bible, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the first Book of Rules of Association Football, but there are no novels among the twelve. The decision not to include a novel has attracted some criticism, but I think Bragg was probably right. Novels and stories change individual lives, transforming the reader’s view of the world, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but it would be hard to find one novel that had a similar impact to any of the books on Bragg’s list.

The Book of Lost Things is about that transformative power of stories and fictions. David, the adolescent at the centre of the book, is drawn into a world created from books and stories, and in the process becomes part of a story himself. He both forms the world in which he is forced to exist, and is formed in turn by it. Two quotations begin the book. One is from Pablo Picasso, and it reads “Everything you can imagine is real.” The other is from Friedrich Schiller: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.” In one way, the book is an examination of the truth, or otherwise, of those assertions.

All of these things I tried to explain over dinner to an audience of sympathetic listeners, but in the end I probably failed. After all, the only way to understand the true nature of a book is to read it, yet I still have to find a way to communicate its essence if it is to be stocked in stores so that people can have the chance to read it if they choose. I was grateful for the opportunity to present the book, yet also frustrated by my inability to say all that I wanted to say.

Then again, perhaps that is also true of the book itself. In my experience, the book that was in the writer’s head never quite becomes the book on the shelf. Something is lost in the process of putting a form on the idea, or it may be that all fiction is an attempt to define things that ultimately defy definition. Perhaps that is as it should be. After all, if I ever did manage to communicate precisely in a book all that I wanted to say, what would be the point in writing another? It is my failures rather than my successes that keep me writing.

This week John read

Terry-Thomas Tells Tales: An Autobiography by Terry-Thomas
Brethren by Robyn Young (uncorrected proof)

and listened to

The Meadowlands by The Wrens
Wolves by My Latest Novel

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Galley Slave

This week, the galley pages of The Book of Lost Things arrived. The galleys, or page proofs, represent the final stage of preparation for a book before it goes into production. Essentially, each galley page resembles the page of a finished book, and the galleys represent the author’s last chance to check for errors in the text.

Actually, what I’m supposed to be doing is checking for errors in the typesetting rather than making final changes to the text, but in practice most authors do a bit of both, I think, although I’ve heard tales of writers who simply don’t bother to read their galley proofs, assuming that their editors or someone else will do it for them. (In fact, I’ve heard tales of authors who don’t even bother to finish their own first drafts, but that may be a topic for another day.) This explains why readers are sometimes presented with finished books containing howlers in typography and punctuation. It’s less the fault of lazy editing than of lazy writers who think their time is too valuable to spend checking the finished text for errors.

To be honest, checking galley proofs can be a bit of a chore. It’s slow, painstaking work, at least if it’s done properly. It’s really only possible to do a chapter or two at a time before you start paying less attention to detail than you should. The eye is tempted to skim over the page, taking in the sense of the words rather than the individual letters of which they are composed. For example, so far, in just over 120 pages, the only errors I’ve found the are the word “barely” instead of “barley” and a “that” repeated twice in a row. I’ve also made a few changes to punctuation, and I’ve tried to catch the odd repetition of a word in the same paragraph or, rather more rarely, in the same sentence, but it’s been the work of hours. It makes my head hurt.

There is also the temptation to make significant changes to the text, but this is frowned upon by publishers. In fact, my American publishers usually accompany the proofs with a dire warning about the cost of making changes, implying that my house may be held as security to cover the sums involved if I lose the run of myself and decide to rewrite entire chapters. Basically, it costs about one dollar a time to reset a sentence, if memory serves me correctly. Therefore, if I decide to change the word “that”, say, to “this”, then that costs a dollar. “That” has the same number of characters as “this” and they take up more or less the same space on a page, so only the line in question needs to be changed.

Now, suppose I decide that I can’t find a synonym that has exactly the same number of letters as the word I want to change. Worse, suppose an entire sentence has to be changed. That has a knock on effect for the paragraph, so suddenly the cost of making the alteration has gone up to perhaps ten dollars. It may even affect the page, bringing the total up to thirty dollars, or the chapter, which brings us into the hundreds. So I spend time counting the letters in the words I want to change, and then I try to come up with a perfect combination of alternative words using a similar number of letters and spaces in order not to increase the cost of the alterations. In practice, I always end up costing my publishers a little at proof stage, but I imagine the total is probably less than a hundred dollars.

Again if memory serves me correctly, the publisher will usually cover the cost of altering about ten per cent of the book. After that, the writer picks up the tab, although the mind boggles at the crisis of confidence that would make an author change so much of a book at such a late stage.

The fact that the text has been set is one of the reasons why reading the galleys is both easier and more frustrating than tackling the proof read version (the copy of my original manuscript that has been marked for the printer and checked for most errors, which then forms the basis for the galleys) . On one hand, there really is a limit to what I can change at this point, whereas I can make as many alterations as I choose to my own manuscript so I tend to agonise over it more. On the other hand, it is as close as I will ever come to reading the finished novel in the form that the reader will see it, and I now have to live with what I’ve done. The book has taken shape. It is like cement that has already begun to dry in a building that is nearing completion. Now is not the time for the architect to begin fretting about the size of the windows. It’s a little late for that.

Still, there may be parts that I might wish to rewrite although, to be honest, the book is probably as good as I can make it at this point. In six months, when I’m reading the galleys again for the paperback version, I may be inclined to look at it more critically, but for now I am reasonably content to let the book go.

In a sense, this book has been getting more and more distant from me with each stage in the movement towards publication. When I am working on a book, I don’t print it off until the day before it’s due to go to my editors and my agent. For me, it’s still a fluid entity when it exists only on the computer screen. I can change it, cut it, extend it, rework it. It is still unfinished, still in the process of construction. When I eventually print it off, it is as if I have committed to the book in that form, and after that changes get harder and harder to make. I will usually move on almost immediately to the writing of the next book, and part of my brain will already be thinking about the novel that will follow that one. This book is done. There are new books to come.

So checking the galleys is arduous, but necessary if I am to try to keep the inevitable errors to a minimum. And errors, as I have mentioned before, are the bane of an author’s life. Perhaps that is the most difficult thing about reviewing the galleys: the knowledge that this represents the final opportunity to catch mistakes, combined with the certainty that some, despite my best efforts, will inevitably slip through and make it into the finished book. As John Updike once wrote: “The moment when a finished book or, better yet, a tightly packed carton of finished books arrives on my doorstep is the moment of truth, of culmination; its bliss lasts as much as five minutes, until the first typographical error or production flaw is noticed.”

At least it’s not just me.

And I’ll bet John Updike reads his galleys too.

This week John read

magazines and newspapers (it was one of those weeks)

and listened to

Swagger by The Blue Aeroplanes
Boulevard De L’Independence by Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra

and went to see

Morrissey live in Dublin.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Wall

I have never run a marathon. I suspect, somehow, that I never will. I’ve never been enthused by the notion of pushing my body to that extent, and I’m not a big fan of running for no particular purpose. Don’t get me wrong: I go to the gym. I spend so much of my time sitting at a computer that if I didn’t go to the gym someone would end up cutting me out of my chair in the not-too-distant future, hacking away with a saw as the chair arms dug painfully into the rolls of fat at my belly and my thighs lay compressed like great wads of pale dough and . . .

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. I do worry about these things, you know.

Anyway, I’ve never run a marathon, but I have some concept of what marathon runners “the wall”. As most of you are probably aware, it’s that point at which the runner feels that he or she just can’t go on, when energy seems to dissipate and the legs begin to feel like lumps of iron. The urge to give up is incredibly strong, yet most runners struggle through it. They know it’s coming up so they prepare themselves mentally for it. It’s harder, I imagine, for first-timers. They don’t know what to expect, even though they’ve been warned about it, so when they hit it the shock is probably quite considerable.

I can’t speak for other writers, but there is a wall that I hit during the writing of every book. The point at which it occurs varies from book to book, although it’s usually around the halfway stage or just beyond it. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the process. Progress slows. I find all kinds of distractions to keep me occupied rather than face my desk and the empty computer screen. My office suddenly becomes very tidy. E-mails assume massive importance. I listen intently for the arrival of the postman so I can deal with my mail. Yet, in the end, I still have to turn on the computer and eke out at least a thousand words a day. That, or give up and start all over again.

You’d think that, by now, with eight books written, those doubts would have become less intense. After all, I’ve been through it before. I know that I’ve had these concerns about other books and in the end those books have been written and published without bearing any obvious scars from the turmoil that went into their creation. But there is always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have to try to find the right path again.

I attended a public interview with Michael Connelly a few years back, in the course of which he told the audience that he had experienced just such a dilemma during the writing of his novel Void Moon. He had been forced to scrap tens of thousands of words after realising that he had written himself into a creative dead end, and had no choice but to go back to the beginning and find an alternative path. At least he had the confidence to do that, based, I imagine, on the experience of writing the eight or nine novels that preceded Void Moon. A first-time novelist faced with the same difficulty might have greater difficulty coping with that moment when all seems rather lost. I suspect that’s why a great many would-be novelists abandon work at about the 40-50,000 word mark, because that is typically the stage at which doubts begin to set in, the point at which a new idea becomes potentially more compelling than the current one.

I’ve been trying to remember the circumstances of the writing of Every Dead Thing, my first novel. Did I encounter similar difficulties in writing that book? I must have, although it seems so long ago now that I’ve largely forgotten most of the day-to-day details of its creation. There was less pressure then, I suppose. There was nobody waiting for the book. I had signed no contracts, made no commitments. Delays hardly mattered until it began to near its end, and even then I was compelled less by outside agencies than my own desire to finish it after years of work. Now there is less time for mistakes, and a false start could mean postponing publication of a book for six months, even a year, with all of the difficulties that would then present for my publishers.

Anyway, this week I hit the wall with the current novel. It’s a Parker book, to be called The Unquiet. The doubts began creeping in on Thursday, and became a full-blown crisis by Friday morning. Even writing about it makes me feel a bit uneasy, as though by confessing the problem I’ve given it substance and made it more real. Still, I forced out those thousand words yesterday. They weren’t good, and I doubt that they’ll survive into the finished novel, even in a heavily revised form, but I wrote them. I kept writing. And on Monday morning I’ll start writing again - a thousand words, maybe a little more - in the hope that I can work through this.

What I have learned from those eight books is that if I were to abandon a novel unfinished then I think it would be the kiss of death for my writing. Better to see it through, even if it does prove to be a false step and never sees the light of day, than to toss it to one side without a conclusion, because if I begin giving up on the writing of a book when it gets difficult then it could prove to a be a habit that’s hard to break.

I’ve had these doubts before. They will pass, they will pass . . .

This week John read

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Cell by Stephen King

and listened to

The Decline of Country & Western Civilisation by Lambchop
At War With The Mystics by The Flaming Lips

and saw

The Drive-By Truckers live in Dublin.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Hoff

I had dinner with David Hasselhoff a couple of weeks ago. Seriously, ‘The Hoff’, star of Knight Rider and Baywatch and subject of one of the best actor/ agent jokes known to man.

David Hasselhoff to Agent: You know, I’m tired of being known as David Hasselhoff. From now on, I want you to refer to me only by my nickname.
Agent: No hassle, Hoff.

Great, isn’t it?

Actually, to tell the truth I only was in the same room as him at a dinner thrown by my publishers for the London Book Fair, but that doesn’t sound quite as good as “I had dinner with the Hoff” and provides limited scope for casually dropping references to it into my day-to-day conversations. (“As I said to David Hasselhoff . . .”, for example, or “How David Hasselhoff and I laughed!”)

As my publishers are releasing the Hoff’s autobiography later this year he was the guest of honor at the dinner, which was attended by a handful of other authors and the various buyers and international sales people who ensure that the writers can continue to feed themselves. These affairs are usually pretty enjoyable. After all, it’s no chore to spend an evening with people who deal with books for a living, especially when there’s wine flowing, and marooned as I am in Dublin I sometimes feel a bit cut off from London literary life so it’s nice occasionally to dip a toe in the water.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that authors are a bit unnecessary at showcases like the London Book Fair. It’s a business event, dealing with the buying and selling of books written and books yet to be written, and authors don’t really have much to do with the business end of things. By and large, we just tend to get in the way, and I suspect the odd author event at the Fair is just an excuse to allow tired book people to sit down for an hour without someone trying to flog them a catalog’s worth of volumes or demanding some unreasonable amount of cash for a cup of coffee and a scone.

My beloved agent occasionally reminds me of things that I’ve said in the past, but which I don’t actually remember saying. As some of these things are quite intelligent I suspect that he has me confused with somebody else, but I’m happy to take credit where credit isn’t due. Anyway, my beloved agent recalled recently that I once told him of how there comes a point in the publishing process when the book that I’ve written ceases to be mine and becomes instead the property of the publishers. It ceases to be “my” book and becomes “their” book.

I don’t mean that just in a contractual or a legal sense, although that’s obviously true as well, but rather that it becomes their baby. It goes from being a collection of words upon which I’ve worked for a year or two and then submitted to being something in which a great many people at the publishing house have to invest time, effort and energy if it’s not to die a death on the shelves. They need to develop a sense of ownership of the book. Sometimes, if it’s the right book, they may get incredibly enthusiastic about it. They may even love the book as much, if not more, than the author, because their relationship to it isn’t quite as complicated and riven as the relationship between an author and his book. They want it to do well, not merely because it means money earned for the company but because they genuinely want people to read it and to enjoy it as much as they do.

(An aside: I’m always taken aback by the enthusiasm for books that still exists in publishing. There is a certain amount of cynicism sometimes in the way the press writes about the publishing industry, but the truth of the matter is that most of those who work in it don’t earn very much money and are involved mainly because they love books. The same goes for book selling, although we all have horror stories about bookstore staff who seem to treat books the way they would tins of beans or rolls of toilet paper. In general terms, though, the book business doesn’t pay particularly well for most of those who work in it, and those who persevere do so because they have a genuine love for books and writing.)

But back to that sense of the book going from being my book to their book. At the point where that occurs, it’s probably a good idea for the author to take a step back from the whole process. Nothing that the author can contribute at this stage will be remotely helpful. The cover has been dealt with. The jacket copy has been decided upon. A publication date has been marked. Most of all, the book is written. Although I hate using pregnancy and birth metaphors, it’s a bit like that moment when the nurses and doctors take the new-born baby away to check that it’s healthy and to clean it up a bit and make it presentable to the world. Mum and dad are just going to get in the way if they start poking at various bits of machinery, asking “What does this do?” and “Why is it making that noise?” The impulse to do it may be there, but it’s probably best to resist it. You have to figure that they’ve done this thousands of times before, and they probably know what they’re doing.

(And please don’t bury me beneath a sea of messages pointing out that doctors don’t always know what they’re doing - because I realize that it’s just a generalization and everyone makes mistakes - or telling me that it’s crucial that the baby is not away from its mother for a single moment of the first year, because I know kids who were raised that way and they’re still at home. At 40.)

So when does it become my book again? That’s harder to answer and, when I tried to explain how I felt about this to my beloved agent, I don’t think he quite believed me. You see, the strange thing is that it never quite becomes my book again. My book was the one upon which I worked at my computer, the one that nobody had read yet. From the moment I handed it over to my editor, it gradually grew more and more distant from me. I find it hard to associate the process of writing with the small, neatly bound volume that eventually ends up on the paperback shelves in the bookstores. Writing it was messy and frustrating, with false starts and dead ends. It was pieces of paper scribbled with notes, and research books that went AWOL at crucial moments. It was cups of coffee and hangovers and long nights. Most of all, it was fluid. It was always in the process of changing, of developing, almost like a living thing.

The book that ends up on the shelf will, I hope, bring something of that experience to the reader. For him or her, it is a world waiting to be explored, with characters that will, if I have done my job well, come to life on the page, and with themes that may have something of value, however small, to say about the world and the people who inhabit it. But that’s the reader’s experience, not mine. For the writer, it is a finite thing now, no longer fluid, no longer capable of change. I will already have moved on to the next book, taking the story one stage further, and my relationship to the published book will continue to be a distant one. It is no longer my book, not really. My publishers too will have moved on to other books, allowing this one to tick over, and while they will still want it to do well there will be new works, and new authors, to guide through the various stages of publication.

But for the readers, the process is only beginning. At that moment, at the instant when they open the cover and begin reading, it becomes their book.

And that is as it should be.

This week John read

Legends by Robert Littell

and listened to

A Blessing & A Curse by The Drive-By Truckers
Garden Ruin by Calexico