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