Monday, August 28, 2006

On Departures

The interviews for The Book of Lost Things have commenced in earnest, and the common theme seems to be the word 'departure', as in, "This novel is something of a departure for you, isn't it?" (Actually, 'departure' is much better than the word 'brave', which has also cropped up once or twice. Having the decision to write TBOLT being described as 'brave' is slightly worrying, as it brings with it the unspoken words ". . . but foolhardy", evoking images of the Charge of the Light Brigade, or very cold chaps announcing that they plan on leaving the tent for some time.)

I suppose that, for me, the new novel doesn't seem like a complete departure, but instead part of a natural progression. After all, I've been using the story-within-a-story framework since Every Dead Thing, and the fascination with folk tales and fairy stories that comes into bloom with this new book has also been present as far back as that first novel. What, after all, was Adelaide Modine but a version of the wicked witch, the evil stepmother, the consumer of children? In Dark Hollow, that link to folk tales was made even more explicit, and it has since found further expression in a number of the stories contained in Nocturnes, particularly "The Erlking" and "The New Daughter".

Thematically, too, The Book of Lost Things echoes earlier books. The search for an absent parent, and the idea of redemption through sacrifice, have both been present in a number of the previous novels (and, in the case of the latter, underpins them, especially the Parker books). Finally, it is, at heart, an anti-rationalist book, and if there is one thing for which my novels have been consistently criticized within certain sections of the mystery community, it is for their refusal to adopt an entirely rationalist approach to crime fiction.

That's not to deny that TBOLT is, in many ways, a very different beast from what has gone before it, but I suppose I see it in terms of being the next stage in a gradually developing body of work, each book of which has been dependent, to some degree, on the preceding books.

I had a discussion with my Beloved Agent a month or two ago, and he was talking about my freedom, relative or otherwise, to pursue new directions in my writing. He advised me not to use this freedom to do "small things", and I suspect that he was, in part, referring to Nocturnes, which was a collection of small things. And yet Nocturnes is, for me, one of the most important books that I have written in terms of my development as a writer. It allowed me to experiment with a range of voices and forms, to explore different modes of storytelling, and through it I was able to progress. I finished The Black Angel, which was being written and researched contemporaneously with Nocturnes, and makes use of so much of what I learned from writing those stories, and to produce The Book of Lost Things, which is, I think, the best book that I've written. Certainly, it's the novel that, once finished, was closest to the book that I had envisaged in my head before I began writing it, the Platonic ideal that exists in every writer's head but that is virtually impossible to replicate in practice.

What I'm trying to say, and what I've attempted to explain to interviewers, is that 'departure' implies a kind of isolation from what has gone before, and The Book of Lost Things, although different from my previous books, simply doesn't feel like that to me. It is the next step in an ongoing process, and there are mysteries at its heart, but they are not the mysteries of killers and criminals. After all, there are other mysteries worth exploring too . . .

Finally, before I forget, I've picked some winners for the 'List of Lost Books' competition that we were running on the website this month. Can I just say that I found the entries fascinating to read, and we're going to look at the possibility of creating a permanent, dedicated page for them on the site that can be updated with new entries. I've found four or five books that I now want to read simply because of the passionate recommendations that people made.

Anyway, I ended up choosing three entries. The signed proof will go to Heidi G (A Haunting Reverence), while signed first editions of The Book of Lost Things will go to Mark B (Pale Gray for Guilt) and Jesoni (The Devil's Door Bell). As for why I picked those entries, well, I think I was fascinated, in each case, by either the story behind the book's discovery, or, as in Mark B's case, the teasing out of the whole concept of 'lost books'. If those three people would drop the lovely Jayne a line with details of their address, and whether or not they'd like a dedication on their books (although I'd advise Heidi G to leave her book as is), then we can send them off ASAP. Thank you to all who entered. Even if you didn't win, you've managed to turn new readers on to your beloved books!

This week John read

The Religion by Tim Willocks (well, started it!)

and listened to

A Lazarus Taxon by Tortoise
Writer's Block by Peter, Bjorn and John

Sunday, August 20, 2006

It Begins

This week, the first finished copies of The Book of Lost Things were delivered to my door. Well, I say 'delivered', but I was out at the time so the delivery man heaped all of the boxes into my dustbin and rolled it up to my front door. Everyone's a critic these days.

It's always slightly anticlimactic to receive the finished book. I sometimes feel that I should be doing something to celebrate the arrival of a new novel, but instead I just put a copy on the shelf in my office and, well, that's it. I didn't even open this one for fear that an error would leap out and slap me in the face. The new book was simply added to the line of old books, and thereby became an old book itself. As I've said in the past, I tend to feel slightly disengaged from the finished, ready-to-sell book, and anyway my attention, at the moment, is focused on trying to finish the next book. There really isn't time for self-congratulation.

I'm also aware, though, that the next stage of the process is about to begin. Already, I'm juggling tour schedules, blanking out days in my diary for press, fielding requests for signings, and generally accommodating myself to the fact that the next few months will be spent traveling and talking, with all of the pleasures, frustrations, minor triumphs, and slightly less minor disappointments that come with promotion.

I find myself preparing for interviews in my head at odd times of the day, asking myself the questions that I'm likely to be asked by journalists and trying to come up with sensible answers. It's a form of madness, one step away from talking to oneself, but there is no point in going into interviews cold and unprepared. I need to be able to explain myself and the book that I have written, and that requires putting some thought and effort into what I'm going to say.

Similarly, I try not to repeat myself when I talk in bookstores, so I have to prepare fresh material for each book. I'll juggle thoughts, anecdotes and bits of research in my spare time, seeing how they fit together and, gradually, knitting them into a routine that bears some semblance of coherence. The first test of this is likely to be at the Edinburgh Festival next Saturday. The last time I was at the festival I read a short story instead of speaking which, in retrospect, wasn't a good idea. I don't think I was quite as confident about speaking then, and I was a little overwhelmed by the festival's reputation and prestige. I hope to do better this time.

While all of this preparation is going on - fielding phone calls, making final decisions on scheduling, writing articles for newspapers to promote the novel - I'm still making the final adjustments to The Unquiet. It's now on its fifth draft, with another to go before my editors see it. It has almost come together, which is fortunate because its delivery date is looming.

And then the whole process will begin again . . .

This week John read

On Being Born and Other Difficulties by F. Gonzalez-Crussi

and listened to

Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble
Hotel Vietnam by Blue Asia

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The List of Lost Books

This column is a little early this week, and will be quite short. Basically, we're running a competition to give away a very rare signed hardback proof of The Book of Lost Things. Publishers don't usually do hardback proofs, but Hodder & Stoughton did 90 numbered editions of TBOLT, and we have one of them on offer this week.

To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is nominate a "lost book", a book that may not be very well known but that means a lot to you. I mean, you may have liked The Da Vinci Code or The Silence of the Lambs, but they hardly qualify as 'lost' books, or titles that could do with a little more exposure. We'd prefer you to pick something a little less well-known and, in one paragraph or, if you prefer, ten paragraphs, to tell us why this book matters, and why you think others should read it.

I've been thinking about this myself, and I suppose I'd go for Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, or maybe i: sixnonlectures by e.e.cummings, or Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme, or even Lost in Music, Giles Smith's fabulously funny book about growing up with popular music. The problem didn't lie in coming up with 'lost' books, but in limiting my selection to just one. Thankfully, I don't have to narrow it down. You do.

The closing date for receipt of entries is August 25th, and we'll announce the best one in this column the following week. Just go to competition, and good luck!

This week John read

Set up, Joke, Set up, Joke by Rob Long
The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

and listened to

Bach(!) and assorted candidates for the next Voices From The Dark CD

Sunday, August 06, 2006

On Music

The first record I ever bought was “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. EMI. Plain white cover. Off-white label. I think this gives me a certain credibility. Even at the age of nine, I knew what I liked.

Mind you, the first single that was ever bought for me, quite possibly at my own request, was “Two Little Boys” by Rolf Harris. I’d like to stress that I rarely listened to it and found it cheesy and emotionally manipulative, just like Shirley Temple movies or bad renditions of “Old Shep” (actually, all renditions of “Old Shep”). I’d like to stress that, but I can’t. I seem to recall that I rather loved “Two Little Boys”, and when the chorus came in that second time, after one former little boy has rescued the other former little boy from the battlefield, well, that was a choker. I’m feeling a little weepy just writing about it.

I bought books before I bought music, but I listened to music long before I read books. Music and books were my first loves, and my affection for both remains undimmed. True, there has been the odd falling out over the years. I was forced to read Francis McManus’s dreadful Men Withering while in school in Ireland and it put me off books for a good three months. (Even the title makes your heart sink. Men Withering: it sounds like some form of sexual dysfunction. “Sorry, doc, got a touch of the old ‘man withering’. You couldn’t sort me out with some of those little blue pills, could you, and maybe a subscription to Granada Men & Motors?”) I still haven’t listened to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica the whole way through, and every time it crops up on one of those 100 Greatest Albums Ever polls I feel like I’ve failed a test. I have similar problems with nu-metal, although that’s excusable on the grounds that it’s rubbish.

Nevertheless, music and books have been my near-constant companions through life, so that when I came to write my books it probably wasn’t too surprising that music would find a way into them too. After all, the central character in most of my novels, the private detective Charlie Parker, isn’t far off my own age, and it seemed natural that he should share my tastes in music, just as he shares my views on most other matters.

In fact, the very first page of my very first book, Every Dead Thing, contains a musical reference. Parker is listening to the radio as he drives, and recognises a tune as “early REM, something about shoulders and rain”. The song is “Perfect Circle” from the album Murmur, a title that is particularly apt as the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible throughout. Even Michael Stipe’s fellow band mates confessed that they didn’t know what he was singing about most of the time. With this in mind, it’s not surprising
that Parker mishears the words. (According to various lyric web sites, the shoulders are actually high in a “room”, not in the “rain”. Not that it makes any difference, frankly.)

I’m not unusual in using music in my books, especially as a crime writer. Pick a modern crime novel written by any male between 30 and 70 and I suspect you’ll find musical references of one sort or another, some of them admittedly a little more hackneyed than others. Personally, I always feel my hackles start to rise when a detective spends a lot of time listening to the blues. Nobody spends a lot of time listening to the blues, except perhaps blues musicians, and to be fair that’s because they have to play it. It’s depressing, and if you listen to more than a couple of songs in a row it all starts to sound the same. Don’t get me wrong, it has it’s place, but using it in crime fiction as some kind of signifier is the equivalent of buying a black dog and calling it Blackie. Jazz can be a bit problematical for the same reason: its evocation of noir can seem just a little too contrived. John Harvey tends to handle it well, though, as does Michael Connelly. Handled badly, the use of jazz in crime fiction leaves the reader feeling like he’s trapped in a Woody Allen pastiche, and we’re talking late-period, unfunny Woody, not funny, Sleeper-era Woody.

Classical music, meanwhile, brings with it a whole new set of problems. Take Inspector Morse, for example. Classical music became an integral part of the Morse experience, particularly when the novels were adapted for television. Unfortunately, it was pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the kind of music Classic FM plays in the early afternoon when it doesn’t want to frighten the elderly. The music contributed to the creation of a comfort zone: it was familiar, a bit sad, and you could hum along to the best bits. Morse was right up there with crumpets and The Archers and Gardeners’ Question Time as a quintessentially English experience, nicely done but almost entirely without an edge. The music also reflected the emasculation of Morse. In Dexter’s early novels, he’s a seedy, vaguely dislikable character, prone to losing himself in pornography and not above noticing the shortness of the odd schoolgirl’s dress. By the time Morse died, he was like everyone’s favourite bachelor uncle: a bit of a curmudgeon, fond of a beer, but still likely to slip you a tenner at Christmas and on birthdays. He was Morse-lite, backed by classical-lite.

Popular music arguably provides more fertile ground. George P. Pelecanos, one of the finest modern chroniclers of American urban life, soundtracks his novels with classic soul, funk, even Ennio Morricone themes, the latter reflecting his later novels’ links with the western, the genre that was itself the precursor of modern crime fiction. After all, is there really much distance between Shane, the lone gunman who arrives in a small farming community and rights its wrongs for no reason other than the fact that it is intolerable for him to turn his back on them, and Ross Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer who says “I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter.”? Arguably, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest marks the most obvious point at which the two traditions merge, and it’s no coincidence that his short, bloody novel of rival gangs being played against each other should have inspired a gangster version (Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing) and a western (Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars) as well as a samurai interpretation (Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo).

But we digress. The point is that the music in Pelecanos’s books is a reflection both of his own inner life and the inner life of his characters, the society in which they live, and arguably the roots of the genre itself. It’s there for a purpose, and is an integral part of his work.

Music, too, infuses the work of Britain’s most popular crime writer, Ian Rankin, starting with the titles themselves and their nods to The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Cure (The Hanging Garden) and even Antipodean nearly-made-its The Mutton Birds (The Falls). Titling books after familiar songs is an easy way to signal a particular type of reader. Someone who gets the reference is perhaps more likely to pick up the book than a potential reader who does not. It’s a way to make the book stand out on the shelf, as well as giving an indication of an author’s personal tastes. Again, if those tastes match the reader’s own then another connection has been made.

Needless to say, this works better if the author’s tastes have a certain kudos. There is an element of showing off when male writers make references to music, a display of their perceived credibility. There are sound reasons why no male author has yet seen fit to name a book after, say, a Michael Bolton b-side, or a Kajagoogoo song. There is also the question of aptness: the decision by the hard-boiled Newcastle-born crime author Martyn Waites to name his most recent novel The Mercy Seat after Aussie gloomster Nick Cave’s tale of execution by electrocution is unlikely to raise expectations among muso readers that the book fails to fulfil.

Women, on the other hand, are less snobbish about the use of music as signposts in book titles, leading to books named after old disco hits and Abba songs, even if the references often don’t extend beyond the cover. The songs chosen, though, do say something about both the age of the author and the potential market that the book is aimed at. After all, the title of a novel named after a 70’s disco hit is perhaps less likely to resonate with a 20 year old girl than a book named after a Pink song. Similarly, Rankin’s Cure reference gives an instant clue as to both his own age and the age of those at whom the title is aimed.

But what is it about crime writers, particularly male crime writers, and their fascination with music? When Rankin set about putting together this year’s BBC Radio Four series Music To Die For, an exploration of the links between crime fiction and music, he had real difficulty finding women to contribute. They simply did not appropriate music for their books in the same way that their as their male peers.

Young men, I think, use music to define themselves in a way that young women do not, or at least not to the same degree. Music becomes a pointer towards fashion, a central topic of conversation, a way in which one can judge oneself against others. A certain type of man - and I may well be one of them - will allow that fascination to continue into adult life. (That type is pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones who, when they first arrive in your house, head straight for your record collection and begin dividing it into piles of the acceptable and unacceptable, quietly tut-tutting along the way at more shocking errors of musical taste.)

Also, we have now entered an era where large quantities of music are easily transportable for the first time. Most of these writers are also products of a generation for whom that music is available in greater quantities than ever before, and is accessible with greater ease. We have moved from unwieldy vinyl to tiny boxes capable of storing 10,000 songs. We are not longer at the mercy of DJs, or tied to the record player in the corner. From the Walkman to the iPod, we have reached a stage where we can virtually soundtrack our own lives. If we can do that for ourselves, then it’s hardly surprising that it should filter into the lives of the characters in our books too.

But why does crime fiction provide a natural home for these musical references? Well, crime fiction has always had a fascination with what G.K. Chesterton referred to as the poetry of urban life. It is closely linked to the workings of the society that it chooses to explore, from the mechanisms of law and order to the petty crooks on the streets. It has an acute awareness of changes in culture, and uses them to give its novels a sense of raw immediacy. Crime fiction cherry-picks from film, music, television and politics. More than any other type of genre fiction, it engages with the reality of the world around it in all of its messy glory.

Yet the songs chosen, the music used, can sometimes have a far deeper link to the action of the book than merely acting as a lure for readers or a means of mutual congratulation on shared good taste. Music, selected and used carefully, can deepen one’s understanding of a character, a scene, a dilemma.

In my third novel, The Killing Kind, Parker faces the choice that most private detectives face at some point in a crime novel: whether to turn his back on a case and leave an injustice uncorrected, or to take it on and risk having violence and emotional trauma visited upon him. While he debates this question, he puts a CD into the player in his kitchen. The album is Wrong-Eyed Jesus by Jim White, and the song that begins to play is called “Still Waters”. The lyric that Parker hears as he works through his problem goes like this: “Well don’t you know there’s projects for the dead and there are projects for the living/ But sometimes I must confess I get confused by that distinction.”

It’s Parker’s dilemma in a nutshell, yet the song simply plays in the background. At no point does Parker acknowledge its aptness, or imply that it affects the choice that he makes. That’s for the reader to pick up on.

The difficulty in using songs lies in giving the reader a sense of the auditory in a literary context. Put simply, how can you let someone hear a specific song when they’re reading a book? The answer, and it’s often an expensive one, is to use lyrics, for the use of which the songwriter will normally demand payment. Another solution, also expensive, was the one I used for The Black Angel. I put together a selection of songs that were important to the Parker novels and gave the CD away with the book and at signings. Artists like The Walkabouts, Lambchop and The Blue Nile allowed me to use their music, and I hope the compilation gave readers got a chance to experience the books, and the songs that influenced them, in a new way. Strange to say, though, I think I got more pleasure from hearing someone say “You know, I’ve just discovered The Triffids/ The Go-Betweens/ Red House Painters because of your CD” than I did from hearing that they liked the book.

And, sad fan boy that I am, Kate Bush was on that CD too, which brings us full circle.

But at least it wasn’t Rolf Harris.

This week John read

The Ruins by Scott Smith

and listened to

The Weed Tree by Espers
Folk Off! (compilation)