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


hrhg said...

It's oddly comforting to know that a writer as talented as yourself still has problems explaining/summarizing his work. Makes we hopefuls feel less alone when we try to stammer out something.

(Although it does give rise to the sneaking suspicion that mumbling vaguely is never really going to go away, is it? Sigh. (wry grin))

Sean V. Lehosit said...

I think any writer, no matter what success level knows exactly what you talking about. How do you describe a few hundred pages in a sentence or two, that is crazy, plus when the question is sprung on you without any time to put together a decent sounding synopis, it's a true time to panic haha.

anne frasier said...

john, even your blog has a lovely cadence. :)

JT Ellison said...

With a few short keystrokes, you show why you're the smartest writer out there. Your insights are invaluable.
I remember the night I met you in Nashville. I tried to give you an "elevator pitch", those dreaded two or three sentences to encompass the story. I failed miserably, and was heartened by your response that after some time, it would come naturally. I still struggle with brevity, but I have faith that it will come. Thank you for giving us a window into your world.