Sunday, July 30, 2006

On Experimentation

I recently formed part of a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I’m not sure that it was an entirely satisfactory experience for all concerned, to be honest. The panel was entitled “Unique Voices”, which might have been part of the problem as I couldn’t quite see what was unique about any of those involved in it. That probably sounds a lot more negative than it is meant to, as each of the writers involved (myself, I hope, included) had something to offer in terms of the quality of their work and their commitment to the genre. No, the problem, as I saw it, was in the description of us as ‘unique’, because we weren’t.

One of us was a lesbian and had a lesbian detective as the central character in a number of her novels. Unique? Um, possibly not. Maybe unusual, but hardly unique either because of her own sexuality or the sexuality of her character unless, of course, one had led a very sheltered existence and lesbians counted as a form of exotic life on a par with rare butterflies and near-extinct birds. Similarly, another panellist was Australian, and hence his unique status will probably have come as something of a surprise to a) other Australian crime writers and b) other Australians.

It was all rather strange. I tried to put my difficulty with the panel into some kind of coherent form, but I don’t think I succeeded very well (which led to the chairman, the wise and tolerant Marcel Berlins, to enquire, rather understandably, as to what I was “bitching” about). In a nutshell, though, I think it could be summarized thus: I felt that it reflected badly on the degree of experimentation in the genre that the rather modest variations that the various panellists were performing in the course of our work could somehow be regarded as ‘unique’. There, I wish I’d managed to put it that simply at the time.

I suppose I feel that, as crime fiction has become more and more a part of the literary mainstream, its popularity has not been matched by a great deal of experimentation. There is, I think, a reluctance to take chances, whether that takes the form of fusing genres to create new hybrids, or experimenting with form or language, or anything that deviates from the rather traditional narrative structures that seem to be the norm in the genre.

I’m not sure who, if anyone, is to blame for this state of affairs, assuming anyone agrees with me. The writers, perhaps, for not pushing themselves? The readers, for favoring sometimes bland mainstream work over more experimental work at the margins, for wanting to be entertained instead of challenged? The publishers, for seeking variations on familiar themes, for favoring the series over the stand-alone, for, to put it simply, giving readers what they want?

Then again, it may be the case that no blame should be ascribed to anyone. Writers write to be published. They want to be reasonably successful in order that they can continue to be published. Readers are a rare enough breed as it is (especially when one considers that a ‘high volume reader’, in trade parlance, is someone who buys five books a year) without criticizing them for wanting to pass their reading time in whatever way happens to please them most, and we should be grateful to those who buy any books at all. And publishers have a duty not only to art (and, cynicism aside, publishers generally feel better about publishing good books than bad books) but to the shareholders and to the bottom line financially. Publishers succeed by selling books, and the more books they sell the more successful they are.

Perhaps I was - and am - playing devil’s advocate to some degree, but there is a part of me that feels crime fiction thrives on a ‘more of the same’ ethos, and that there is a sneaking conservatism at work that is in part a product of the genre’s own ubiquity and success in recent years. (From a personal perspective, I have learned by now merely to shake my head in bemusement and move on when I read criticisms of my work that are based on a belief that even the slightest hint of the supernatural has no part in the mystery genre, as though it should have been preserved in aspic at some point between the birth of Sherlock Holmes and the death of Poirot. The mere fact of my existence seems to cause a great deal of irritation to critics of that stripe, and I have to say that pleases me no end, as I tend to have little time for poor critics who would prefer no experimentation at all to experiments with which they disagree.)

At the closing session of the Harrogate festival, I conducted a public interview with Jeff Deaver, in the course of which he spoke of his recent novel, Garden of Beasts. It is, I think, his best book, but it probably sold less than any book he has written since he found mainstream success, and it crashed and burned in the U.S. It wasn’t because it was a bad book, far from it, but it wasn’t like his other books. He deviated from his own formula, choosing to write a historical thriller set in Nazi Germany instead of a contemporary thriller set in America, and he suffered for it. During the interview, he admitted that the experience had probably made him more reluctant to experiment, and I felt that was a shame. I had enjoyed reading Garden of Beasts and seeing another side to Jeff’s writing. Perhaps, in time, he’’ll reconsider, for it’s important that writers with some commercial clout should take the odd chance, that they should try to introduce a little edge to the mainstream and foster an environment conducive to a little experimentation.

For if they don’t, then who will?

This week John read

The Harsh Cry of the Heron (uncorrected proof) by Lian Hearn

and listened to

All For Nothing, Nothing For All by The Replacements

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Average Day

The question I get asked more than most ("Where do you get your ideas from?" and "When is the next one coming out?" aside) is, "How do you spend your day?" In the beginning, I used to be a little defensive in answering it, because I wasn't entirely sure how I spent my day. Admittedly, I wasn't sitting around in my vest watching children's television, or napping until midday, but I never seemed to get quite as much done as I should have and, anyway, it wasn't like I had a real job so explaining it was harder than I thought.

Also, if I added up the time I spent actually writing, it often didn't seem to come to very much, even though I didn't get a great deal else done in the interim. So, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm going to try to explain exactly how I spend a working day, within reason.

I have an office at the top of my house. At the moment, it's serving as a kind of storeroom as well for assorted copies of my books packed in boxes, bits of electrical equipment (I have a new scanner and phone, but I'm mildly terrified at the prospect of trying to set both up together, so I've been putting it off for a while and now it won't get done until August.) and most of the paperbacks I've accumulated over the years and haven't been able to part with. My desk is large, and vaguely V-shaped. It faces a wall, with a Velux window above it, so I can't get distracted by a view of anything but clouds and the edge of my chimney. It also gets rather warm at this time of year, so working there is a little less pleasant than in winter.

I write in silence. I can't listen to music when I work. At the moment, I have painters redecorating the house, so I'm trying to tune them out. When I was writing The Black Angel, the same men (they're great, incidentally, and I like them so much I have to force myself not to spend time nattering with them over coffee at the kitchen table) were retiling my bathroom and installing an en suite, and for various reasons I ended up working for weeks at my dining room table. It wasn't ideal. I like my office space. I don't even write very well when I'm travelling. I had always thought that writers could write anywhere, but I'm not like that. Where writing is concerned, I'm a creature of routine. It's part of the discipline, I think.

This morning I was at my desk at nine, a large cup of coffee to hand. I had been away for a few days, so I performed my usual default displacement activity, which is dealing with email. There were just under 200 messages, some of them junk, but most requiring at least a short answer. There were also two sets of email interviews for The Book of Lost Things, which took me about an hour or so to do. By then, it was close to midday.

I'm just about to start another draft of The Unquiet, but I have to travel again this week, so today I'm going to spend much of my time transferring the draft on to my laptop and making a backup copy to bring with me, just in case. I'll also put the draft on a little 1GB micro drive. I'm paranoid about losing it, I think, or of making lengthy changes only to discover that they haven't been saved. I'll try to assemble a folder of notes as well, as I have some idea of what needs to be added to parts of this draft. Two or three new chapters will also have to be written, and I don't want to start them while I'm away only to discover that I left the notes at home.

On an average day, though, at this stage in the writing, I would try to get two or more chapters revised. Progress quickens as the rewriting process goes on, simply because there's a little less to change each time. By the time I usually stop at 1.30pm or 2pm, I'll have done at least a chapter, perhaps more if there were few changes to be made. I'll then stop and go out to the gym, or simply ramble off to have a cup of coffee and read for a while. Still, I find it hard to concentrate on reading at that point in the day, probably because my mind is ticking over on my own work. I think I take a break largely because it would be counterproductive not to do it, so I just have to find ways to fill the time until my batteries have recharged enough to enable me to get back to work.

After an hour or two, I'll return home and sit at my desk again. I'll answer the emails that have arrived in the interim, then try to tackle another chapter or two. I stop if I feel that I'm skimming, or that I'm just trying to file away another chapter as 'done' in order to make myself feel better. By 6.30pm, maybe 7, I'll try to finish up for the day, but sometimes I'll feel the urge later to do some work, often a minor thing that has just struck me and that I'm afraid I'll forget to do otherwise.

And for the rest of the time, I worry. I think writers are usually either writing or thinking about writing, and there's very little other stuff in between. At certain points in the process, I can't even enjoy a trip to the movies, so distracted will I be by my own work. It's not so bad now, as the lion's share of the new book is done, but I know it will begin again soon as I try to figure out what to do next.

And that, I suspect, will form the substance of next week's column . . .

This week John Read

Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish

and listened to

Damaged by Lambchop (promo copy - it's quite superb, probably the band's best work yet)
Nineteeneighties by Grant-Lee Phillips

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Blockbusters

Just a short post this week, as I've spent the last seven days revising The Unquiet and I'm developing a relationship to my keyboard that bears disturbing similarities to a prisoner's relationship to his ball and chain.

Actually, to be honest the last couple of days haven't been so bad. I had deliberately left the last three chapters of the book unwritten, in part because I had been researching in Maine and wanted to revise earlier sections of the book while that material was still fresh in my mind, but also because I was reluctant to 'finish' the book just yet. With thirty chapters written, I knew how it was going to end, and was quite looking forward to putting those final touches to it.

Mind you, had my plane gone down in the meantime the discovery of the unfinished novel would have been rather frustrating for my agent and my editors. I wonder would someone have been tempted to finish it for me and, if so, would that person have come up with a similar ending to the one that I eventually added this weekend? It's an interesting thought. The book's ending was quite clear to me, but someone else would probably have come up with something very different from a reading of the earlier chapters. The Unquiet is a very ambiguous book, and Parker does not get all of the answers that he might have wished for. Instead, he is left to posit a number of possible explanations for what has occurred, each with evidence to support it but not enough to offer a final, definitive solution. In that sense, the mysterious 'other' assigned to complete the manuscript would have found a number of potential endings available without any sense of which one the now-deceased author had considered most appropriate. The fact that I have lived long enough to finish the book will, therefore, probably come as good news to my publishers, saving them a lot of agonizing and head-scratching.

There was slightly less welcome news for me this week when one of the English newspapers announced that this autumn would see the "Battle of the Blockbusters". Apparently, rather a lot of high-profile books are being published this autumn (or this Fall if you're reading this on the right hand side of the road). John le Carré, my compatriot Roddy Doyle, William Boyd, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris all have books ready to appear, and all sorts of mystery writers have books on the horizon. (And in case you're wondering why those authors have been mentioned by name while the mystery writers have not, I am simply following the lead of the Bookseller magazine in England which has filed The Book of Lost Things under "Literary, Historical and General". So there.)

This issue of when a book should be published is one that concerns publishers, authors and booksellers a lot. January used to be a quiet month, and therefore a good time to slip out books that might otherwise have been lost in the summer or Christmas rush, but then so many publishers spotted that it was a quiet month that it ceased to be quiet at all, and now I really don't think there is a 'good' time to be published. Nevertheless, this autumn promises to be particularly busy and it's given me one more thing to worry about as the publication date for the new book approaches. There will be a lot of big authors competing for space on bookshelves and bestseller lists, on review pages and in shop windows, and I don't want my little book to get swamped in the rush.

There's nothing that can be done now, of course, except to hope that it holds its own, and that maybe those who enjoy it will tell others, thereby giving it some freedom from the vagaries of lists and press coverage. In the end, books live or die by the recommendation of readers, by one reader suggesting it to another as worth exploring. Newspapers, bookstore promotions and bestseller listings all help, but ultimately it is the ordinary reader who will decide a book's fate.

And that, of course, is as it should be.

This week John read

Cold Moon by Jeffery Deaver

and listened to

Don't Let The Stars Keep Us Tangled Up by Cortney Tidwell
Another Fine Day by Golden Smog

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bond and I

I've just finished reading Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, a kind of cultural history of post-war Britain seen through the eyes of a James Bond fan. It was occasionally interesting, if rather long-winded, but it was deeply marred by bad grammar, eccentric punctuation, and some cringe-inducing misspellings that, had they occurred in a schoolboy essay, would have resulted in immediate and lengthy detention for the culprit.

Some of the errors were just bewildering. The following sentence can be found on P159: "Even passing minor villains like the Mexican would-be assassin in Goldfinger, with his single, immortal line, 'You like pretty girl - go jig-a-jig' (managing to convey in six words an entire squalid personality), have a truly Dickensian air." Now which six words might they be, exactly? The sentence to which he is referring has, even allowing for my poor mathematical ability, eight words, or seven if one is being pedantic and counting the two uses of 'jig' as one word. Perhaps 'a' is not being counted as a word, which might - I stress 'might' - allow us to make up the requisite six, but the sheer effort involved in trying to work out a formula by which that sentence could claim to be true rather spoiled the act of reading it to begin with.

I don't usually criticise books in this way - after all, I've confessed to the fact that errors creep into every text, my own books (hell, even these blogs) included - but there were so many in this book that the experience of reading it began to feel like being hit over the head with a small hammer every couple of pages. Mr Winder, you might be interested to learn, works in publishing, and the book is published in the UK by Picador, an imprint that has built its reputation on literary fiction and quality non-fiction. Nevertheless, nobody - not Mr Winder himself, and not his publishers - seemed to feel that it was worth the effort to properly edit The Man Who Saved Britain. It cost me €22 in hardback, and for €22 the least somebody can do is make sure the book is presentable to the reading public.

The reason why I bought this book was because, as a boy, I was a big fan of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. Fleming was the first author whose books I devoured, seeking them out in second-hand bookstores and sales of work, usually in battered Pan paperback editions with often fabulous covers. (My particular favourite was the cover of Thunderball, which had two holes bored into it to resemble bullet wounds in skin. As a bloodthirsty nine-year-old boy, there were few greater pleasures than to be able to poke my fingers through those two wounds. And you wondered where my books came from . . .)

In particular, and this is one of the few areas in which Mr Winder's book becomes less of an apology for liking Fleming in the first place and more of an attempt to engage with the reasons for his popularity beyond the shores of England, I was fascinated by Fleming's villains. I had never before encountered creatures so grotesque: Goldfinger, Blofeld, Irma Bunt (Blofeld's lesbian sidekick in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice), From Russia With Love's Rosa Klebb, with a poisoned blade in the sole of her shoe . . . They were like ogres and trolls from fairy tales, and were often, truth be told, much more interesting than the Bond of the books.

True, I haven't read the Bond books for many years, and Mr Winder's book imbued me no great urge to return to them, although I can't quite figure out if that is a flaw of The Man Who Saved Britain or of Fleming's original novels. I expect that it's a little bit of both. To be honest, I can't recall very much about the books at all beyond their villains, and I suspect that even those memories are coloured somewhat by the films that followed. I do seem to remember that a lot of the women in the Bond books had some minor physical disability: a boss eye, one leg shorter than the other, that kind of thing. As a pre-teen boy, I expect that whatever such shortcomings in the Bond women suggested about their creator probably went over my head, although even then I can recall being vaguely aware that there was something, um, unpleasant underlying a great deal of Fleming's work.

But those wonderful villains stayed with me, and I think they influenced me when I came to create some of the vile creatures who inhabit my own books. Characters like Pudd, Brightwell, Faulkner and Adelaide Modine share some of their ancestry with Fleming's creations. After all, most writers, if they are honest, will confess to being, in part, the sum of the writers whom they themselves have read. I have frequently admitted the debt that I owe to Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke. Fleming's influence is less pronounced stylistically, but is no less important for that, especially given the pleasure (if that's the right word) that a lot of readers have taken in the villains who have cropped up in my books.

Some years ago, I interviewed James Lee Burke for the Irish Times. Burke is another writer who seems to enjoy using grotesques as villains, and one of the questions that I asked him was why he portrayed them in this way. His answer was illuminating, and put into words something that I had only felt, but could not express adequately, in relation to my own characters. Burke said that he believed there were some individuals who were so morally corrupt that their corruption found a physical expression. It was a perfect, concise reply and I thought, yes, that's their appeal. It was probably their appeal for Fleming too, although he is less interested than Burke or I in the roots of that corruption. Still, Fleming planted that seed in my imagination, and for all the shortcomings of the books and the movies, I am grateful to him for that. I suspect that it probably accounts for my continued affection for his greatest creation and for the fact that, despite its own editorial shortcomings, I rather enjoyed Mr Winder's book . . .

This week John read

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder

and listened to

Bande a Part by Nouvelle Vague
To Find Me Gone by Vetiver
Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake
(and Midlake's second album, Van Occupanther, once again, because it's simply superb)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Note on Distraction

I'm currently midway through a new draft of The Unquiet, the next Charlie Parker novel. At this point in the writing, progress slows a little once again. I find that I can only really concentrate properly on revising one chapter each day. If I do more than that, the revisions to the second chapter suffer. On the other hand, time is pressing, so I am trying to do more than one chapter each day, recognising that some progress is better than no progress at all, and it will make the next draft that little bit easier. Still, there is a always a nagging voice telling me that I should be doing more . . .

Then again, life seems intent upon providing welcome distractions and, although I'm reasonably disciplined, I am quite happy to do other things if the opportunity arises. Hence last weekend, when I should have been slogging away at my rewrites, I was in Barcelona, courtesy of my lovely Spanish publishers. Two days of that trip were justified by publicity for the Spanish edition of The White Road (El Camino Blanco, for all you linguaphiles out there), and let me tell you now that the Spanish press ask kind of difficult questions. It's an indication, I think, of the seriousness with which they approach genre fiction, and crime fiction in particular. None of the reporters seemed to have any doubt that mysteries were capable of tackling big themes and that viewpoint was reflected in their questions. Frankly, at one point I openly admitted to wishing that I was a bit smarter so I could provide answers that did more credit to the questions, which moved from issues of race and history, through moral philosophy, and on to the existence of God. The interviews were challenging, and kind of exhilirating, the pleasure dimmed only by my pathetically poor Spanish, an obstacle which required the presence of a very tolerant interpreter to overcome.

Of course, this is just a pathetic attempt on my part to explain away as work a splendid five day break in the sun. Okay, so I did my interviews over two days, and gave a talk at a fabulous little bookstore called Negra y Criminal, but none of those duties hardly counted as work in any real sense, and the event at Negra y Criminal in particular was an unalloyed pleasure. Yet I have to hold up my hand and say that the two days that followed passed in a blur of Gaudi, Picasso, and lots of football and tapas. There, I've admitted it. I feel better for that now. I've let you all down, I know, by not sweating over a keyboard. I'd like to say right now that I'm sorry. I'd like to, but I can't.

But there are other distractions that I can perhaps justify a little more easily. My British publishers are setting up a microsite (a mini-website) to go with The Book of Lost Things, and I've become quite fascinated with the process, in part because it involves deconstructing the book, something that I've never done before in quite this way. Essentially, I've gone back and found the originals of the tales that inspired sections of the book, as well as the little bits of Greek myth, Roman history and British poetry that David, the child at the heart of the novel, uses to create the alternative world into which he is drawn. The originals will sit alongside sections of the novel on the website, and I'll try to explain the connections between the two, and why certain stories and images were chosen over others. In a sense, the creation of the site has enabled me to examine the way in which the book itself was created. In turn, I'm learning a little more about myself as a writer and recognising how decisions that seemed somehow "natural" at the time, for want of a better word, were actually the product of a complex unconscious process. How could it have been otherwise, I suppose, in a book that is so personal to me, and in which so much of my own childhood (and adulthood) has been mined to bring it into being?

Over the coming months, I'll be writing newspaper articles on the links between fairy tales and childhood trauma, and on the importance of David's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to the book. I'll continue to add to the microsite, and to my own website. I'll also continue to write this weekly piece, for it too is a distraction of sorts, but not all distractions are counterproductive or unwelcome. They help to give me a little distance from the book on which I'm working, to put it into perspective, and this column, like the deconstructive process for the microsite, has given me insights into my work by forcing me to examine, and to put into words, things often left unsaid. For that opportunity, and for taking the time to read this column, thank you.

This week John read

Last Ditch House (manuscript) by Shane Dunphy
True Grit by Charles Portis

and listened to

He Poos Clouds by Final Fantasy
Espers II by Espers
No You Won't by The Walkabouts