Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Research

I've spent the last week trying to fill in the research blanks on The Unquiet, the Parker novel that should, God willing, be published in 2007. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy research, in part because The Book of Lost Things was such a different novel and its research, old folk tales and some World War II stuff apart, centered more on my memories of my own childhood than anything else.

I brought with me to the US the initial draft of The Unquiet. I imagine it would be almost unintelligible to anyone who tried to read it as a coherent narrative. My first draft tends to be a little rough. There will be inconsistencies of dialogue and character. Some characters will appear in the early stages only to disappear later, their failure to manifest themselves once again left entirely unexplained. Some things seem like good ideas at the start, but quickly prove to be distractions from the main thrust of the book, and as soon as that realisation hits me I tend to let those elements slide.

I don't fret too much about how untidy the text may be (although, in my darker moments, I wonder what might happen if I didn't live to finish the book and someone else, for whatever reason, decided to piece together whatever was left behind. I wish them luck. I mean, I've written it, and sometimes even I'm not entirely sure that I always look forward to trying to put all of the pieces together). After all, there's nobody looking over my shoulder, and my main aim is to get the plot and characters from A-Z, even if that means bypassing Q and R entirely, and occasionally having to loop back to P just to reassure myself that I have a vague notion of what I'm doing.

I'm always curious about how other authors do their research. I know quite a few who don't bother too much about going to the places featured in their books. I suppose they feel that it is, after all, fiction, and a fictitious street in a real city doesn't have to capture too much of the reality of the city itself. To be honest, I sometimes see their point. After all, I've never been to Boise, so if I read a novel set there I'm likely just to take the author's word for what it's like. Even citizens of Boise itself might be likely to give the author an occasional "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the odd lapse as long as he or she doesn't locate Boise in, say, Alabama, or have its inhabitants extolling the virtues of morning dips in the ocean.

On the other hand, I really feel that I have to know a place to write about it, even if my knowledge is never going to be quite as deep as those who have lived there all their lives. The Unquiet is set very much in Maine, almost as a reaction to The Black Angel, the plot of which spanned continents and hundreds of years of history. A portion of it is set in and around the town of Jackman, which lies just below the border with Quebec. (As someone remarked to me over dinner, it's where Americans go to throw rocks at Canadians.) I've been up to Jackman a couple of times now, and each time I learn a little bit more. On this visit, I made a 400 mile round trip in a day just to talk with a lovely lady from the town's historical society, and it was worth every minute of the journey.

Along the way, I passed a museum, one that I had never visited but which had always aroused my curiosity. I took a little time out to visit it and, in the process, discovered a little nugget of Maine history which corresponded perfectly with a significant part of the plot of The Unquiet. I would never have encountered it had I not taken the time to travel and explore.

Perhaps I'm fortunate to have the luxury of being able to poke around in a place far from home, to walk to the library of the Maine Historical Society and spend a day requesting old books and manuscripts, following up one story after another, slowly tracing the history of people and places that seem at once alien yet strangely familiar. Most of what I find I won't use - in the past, perhaps particularly with Every Dead Thing, I was reluctant to throw away research that I'd painstakingly amassed, but now I think I'm learning to keep only the good stuff, to separate the wheat from the chaff - but everything that I've seen or read about helps to make the people and places in question more real to me, and in that way I hope I can make them real to those who read my books.

Now I'm heading for home, with a notebook jammed with jottings and a folder packed with photocopies and newspaper cuttings. I will sit down at my desk, go back to the start of the draft, and slowly begin to rewrite. In a sense, the hard work is done. I know that I have the skeleton of a novel. Now it's time to add flesh to it.

Oh, and a little blood. Just a little. . .

This week John read

Pig Island by Mo Hayder
Bradenburg by Henry Porter

and listened to

Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs
Cannibal Sea by The Essex Green
Living With War by Neil Young

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Man Out of Time

Someone told me recently that she couldn't do what I do for a living. She didn't mean that she couldn't imagine writing for a living; rather, she meant that she would hate to feel that she was constantly living in the future. It took me a moment to see what she meant and, although it had never bothered me before then, I thought about what she had said and started to realise that she was right.

I am currently researching The Unquiet, a book that will not appear on bookshelves until April or May 2007, at the earliest. I have been having meetings with my various publishers about The Book of Lost Things, which will make its first appearance in September of this year. If I glance at my diary, I find that my movements and whereabouts are pretty much mapped out from the middle of August until the middle of December.

I will try to deliver The Unquiet by the start of September, as the touring and publicity commitments will probably prevent me from getting much writing done for a good three months after The Book of Lost Things hits the shelves. But even while I'm touring that book, I will be thinking about the book to follow The Unquiet. I will be letting it simmer, hoping that my unconscious will do some of the groundwork while I talk about one of its predecessors. If it is to be published in the first half of 2008 - which may not be possible, given that I will be publishing and publicising two books in the space of six or seven months - it will have to be delivered by October 2007. Already, I am thinking nearly two years in advance.

The woman in question asked me if I ever thought about what I had achieved, and I had to answer no, not really. I tend not to dwell on it. Perhaps I believe that the books written are less important than the books yet to be written, but that's not true, not really, and neither is it fair on those books. Each one has been a stepping stone to the next, and each has been as good as I could make it at the time. Yet still I tend not to look back on them in the way that she meant.

She asked me if I had ever read one of my own books. I explained that I read each one a number of times while preparing it for publication, from reviewing my own manuscript to checking the final pages for errors. She clarified the question, asking if I had ever read one for pleasure. I told her that I had never done so. I could not explain why. I think I am afraid of what I might see in them. Would I only see the flaws, the elements that I wish I could change? And would I be unusual in that? I think not. I suspect a great many writers would prefer not to review their own books in such a way. But I think perhaps the woman was right when she said that there was something a little sad about that.

So I'll keep looking to the future, to the books that I hope to write. Maybe there'll come a time when I'll look at the copies of my books on the shelf in my office and feel something more than a strange mingling of stifled pride and gnawing doubt. Maybe someday. But not yet.

This week John read

Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith

and listened to

It's Never Been Like That by Phoenix
Cost by Patrick Phelan

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lost in Translation

Last week, I was singing the praises of translators, a group of people whose work on behalf of other authors tends to be underestimated at best and, more frequently, entirely ignored. This week, partly because I was travelling around the UK discussing crime fiction and partly because of what I had written earlier, I was reminded of something translation-related that has been bugging me for quite a few months now.

As those of you who follow such matters will already be aware, the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain decided some time ago to disqualify books in translation from competing for the Gold Dagger, the main prize awarded each year by the CWA for the best crime novel. To those of us with a slightly cynical bent, it seemed that the main reason why this decision was made was because translated novels have been doing rather well in the Daggers in recent years, and ruffling some feathers in the process. After all, it’s hard enough to win a Dagger without Johnny Foreigner coming along and spoiling the party. Lots of nice British and American authors, who speak and write proper English, would rather like a dagger for themselves, not to mention the whopping £20,000 cheque that will find its way into the pocket of the victor in 2006.

The final straw came in 2005 when the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason won the Gold Dagger for Silence of the Grave. (Actually, he should have won it in 2004 for the superior Jar City, but then Al Pacino should have won an Oscar long before he got one for the dreadful Scent of a Woman. At least, in both cases, an attempt was made to rectify the earlier mistakes.) Splendidly, the CWA announced that the award showed that crime in translation was gaining mainstream recognition, before immediately withdrawing that recognition itself by disqualifying translations. Really, you have to admire that kind of brazen hypocrisy.

Anyway, the decision to exclude translations led to a lot of odd statements being made in an effor to justify what was, in the end, a dubious piece of business. For example, Val McDermid - usually a fairly sensible type - offered her support for exclusion by pointing out that if Peter Hoeg’s rather wonderful Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow had been read in its American version rather than its English version, then it might not have seemed so wonderful after all.

Now there really are only three appropriate responses to this. The first is “Huh?” The second is to enquire just where exactly she acquired her degree in comparative literature. The third, meanwhile, is to wonder exactly how much Danish she speaks and reads to enable her to make this kind of judgement. Curiously, McDermid was also one of those who provided approving quotes for Silence of the Grave. She described it as “a fascinating window on an unfamiliar world”, albeit the type of window that she and her colleagues were apparently happy to see closed in order to facilitate the future marginalisation of foreign authors.

Robert Richardson, the CWA’s vice-chairman at the time and now its chairman, had this to say of the decision in the Guardian newspaper: “British crime writers have always recognised the quality of foreign crime fiction. However, the CWA has decided that this is the right time to bring our rules into line with the Man Booker and Orange prizes. The opportunity to win our Gold Dagger will still be open to crime writers from all over the world - as long as our judges are reading the original text, not a translated version.”

So that’s all right then. All you have to do to qualify for the Gold Dagger, or the Duncan Lawrie Dagger as it is hereafter to be known, as a nod to its generous sponsors, is to learn English. It’s a doddle, really. Frankly, these foreigners should have thought of it before. Perhaps they could learn to sing “God Save the Queen” while they’re at it.

And why, precisely, is it necessary to follow the lead of the Man Booker and Orange prizes? What has that got to do with anything? Why not instead follow the lead of the Edgars, the US mystery awards, or the IMPAC awards, both of which operate a far more inclusive policy? In the end, would the issue even have arisen if, in recent years, translated works had not had an impact on the Daggers out of all proportion to their UK sales? Basically, if foreign writers hadn’t started winning the Dagger, then I rather suspect that they would have been quite welcome to keep competing for it. After all, everybody likes a plucky underdog, especially if he talks a bit funny. As someone pointed out, the decision to exclude foreign writers because they happened to be successful was a little like FIFA announcing that Brazil would no longer be entitled to compete in the World Cup because they were making most of the other teams look bad.

The exclusion of translations also raises new questions about the value of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger. After all, most writers would like to feel that, if they win a prize, they have done so by allowing their work to be judged alongside the cream of their fellow authors. By refusing to acknowledge translated works in the main competition, the CWA has diminished the achievement of winning its premier award. Creating a second award, however valuable, for books in translation just isn’t good enough. The issue is not money, but marginalisation. For as long as this situation persists, the Dagger presented to the winning author will be slightly tarnished by the circumstances of the victory.

Sorry to be coming to this debate so late, but it sometimes takes a while for these things to annoy me sufficiently to compel to put my objections in print, and I noticed that a great many of my fellow writers had chosen to remain diplomatically silent on the issue. (After all, £20,000 is not to be sniffed at, and we wouldn't want to offend anyone, would we?) At least I had time to think about it which, given the fact that the CWA announced the exclusion of translated works 24 hours after giving the Dagger to Indridason, is more than can be said that august body. And if they had been considering it for longer, then how could they announce, after giving Indridason his prize, that they were in favour of mainstream recognition for foreign writers? The two positions are, frankly, incompatible, and everyone involved in the exclusion decision should hang their heads in shame.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not a member of the CWA which, handily, saved me the trouble of resigning in protest.

This week John read

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

and listened to

Surprise by Paul Simon
Just Like The Fambly Cat by Grandaddy
Everything is Green by The Essex Green

Monday, May 08, 2006

Found in Translation

Last weekend I paid my first visit to the Prague Book Fair, and there was an enormous queue of people waiting when I arrived to sign copies of the Czech translation of The Black Angel. The line stretched right around the corner from the signing area, easily a hundred or more people in length, and as the signing progressed more readers joined it, so it seemed like it would never end. There were men and women, children and older people, all moving slowly and patiently across the floor of the fair, their newly purchased books held firmly in their hands. It was an author's dream.
It was the queue from book heaven.

Unfortunately, it wasn't for me, but for Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president and, according to a recent poll, the most beloved Czech in the country's history. Arriving to sign your book in Prague at the same time that Vaclav Havel is meeting his public is a bit like arriving in a night club in Hoboken, New Jersey in, say, 1965 in order to sing a few songs, only to find that Sinatra has scheduled an impromptu concert across the street. You're just not in the same league.

Thankfully, there were also people present who liked my books, and I passed a very pleasant hour signing and chatting, flattered to be sharing exhibition space with a writer and statesman like Havel, and touched by the kindness of my Czech publishers, the Buchal family, their staff, and my Czech readers.

It is quite an extraordinary thing to see one's book in translation.
After all, I never quite expected to see myself published in English, so to travel to another country and find my books being made available to readers in their native language never ceases to amaze me. I wish I had a better command of some of those languages so that I could express my gratitude to everyone involved, from the publishers to the individual readers. I'm always a little embarrassed that all I can say in most languages is "Hello", "Thank you", and "Two more of the same, please." I guess they're the essentials, but it's small consolation.

I have been fortunate enough, though, to meet some of my translators, and in every case I've felt humbled in their presence. My books would not exist for readers as far afield as Croatia and Russia, China and Japan, without the willingness of translators to take my work in hand and render it intelligible to those whose language, culture and background are often completely different from my own.

The translation of novels is an underappreciated art. I think it's
sometimes assumed that it's usually possible to translate directly from one language to another, but when it comes to fiction in particular, or poetry, it's actually a much more complicated affair. Not everything is directly translatable. Sometimes, not even the title makes sense when translated into a foreign language. My German publishers ran into this problem with my first novel, Every Dead Thing, which just didn't translate well from English to German. They opted instead for The Black Heart, which is quite possibly a better title than the original and involved a fairly close reading of the novel in order to come up with it. And that's just the title! Imagine the questions that arise over nuances, or over words and expressions that simply have no direct equivalent in, say, Japanese or Greek.

To translate someone else's work requires a certain willingness to set aside one's own ego, to use one's talents to further the work of another writer while recognising that many readers may take those efforts for granted. It's hard work, and may take many months to complete, yet how many of those who read the finished work will take the trouble to glance at the copyright page in order to discover the identity of the translator? Not enough, I suspect.

It's often the case that translators are published writers themselves. For example, my lovely Czech publisher was signing her own book at the fair an hour or two before I was due to sign her translation of my work. Had she been free, it would have been fun to have invited her to sign with me, and it would have been nothing more than she deserved for enabling the book to exist in its Czech form. Similarly, my beloved Bulgarian translator is a poet and, according to those who have read me in Bulgarian, brings some of that poetry to his translations of my work. My brilliant Italian translator, with whom I share similar tastes in music and books, is about to publish his second novel. In English. I sometimes doubt my ability to communicate in my own language, so to meet someone who is equally at home with two or more tongues makes me feel rather ashamed.

These are all enormously talented individuals, each of whom brings
something distinctive to my books. Theirs is not simply an act of translation but an act of creation, for the book that results is subtly different from the novel that previously existed. In time, perhaps I'll be given the opportunity to express my gratitude to each of them in person. For the present, though, I'd just ask you to glance at the name of the translator the next time you read a book published in translation, for without the work of the world of the book would remain closed to you. It's the least we can all do.

This week John read:

Contact Zero by David Wolstencroft
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

and listened to:

Czech popular music (!)