Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Good Day

There are good things and bad things about being a writer. In truth, the good things far outweigh the bad, and the bad are generally things about which it is churlish to complain. I realize that I am immensely fortunate to be doing what I do for a living, so that even when I have relatively bad days I acknowledge that they are far better than even the best of days in some of the other jobs I have had. (Nevertheless, it is reassuring, sometimes, to recall James Thurber's wonderful observation that "even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.")

On Sunday, I flew from South Africa to London, and from London to Dublin. I had three hours at home to shower, change, and pack some clean laundry, then returned to the airport to fly to New York. I tried watching Season Two of Deadwood on the DVD player of my computer during the Dublin-New York flight, but started dozing towards the end of the first episode. I think I got to my hotel at about nine o clock that night. I had a bite to eat, then fell into a deep sleep. Only my alarm clock woke me in time for a telephone interview the next morning.

That day, as for many of the days over the preceding week or so, albeit with a new sense of urgency, I fretted over what I would have to do that evening. At seven-thirty, or thereabouts, I would step on to a stage at New York's Symphony Space to interview Stephen King in front of an audience of hundreds of fans and the representatives of the publishing house that I share with him. I didn't want to make an idiot of myself, and, more to the point, I wanted to make King look good. No, strike that: he would make himself look good, just as he has done for the past three decades or so. I just didn't want to get in his way while he did it.

So I thought, and worried, and thought, and worried some more. At about 3.30pm I went back to my hotel room, sat down, and began compiling a list of questions. At 5.45pm, I arrived at the Symphony Space, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. Better early than late, I had thought, although perhaps not quite that early . . .

At 6.45, King arrived.

I think that, over the hour or two that followed, I did my best. I was helped immeasurably by the fact that King was just as I might have wished him to be - polite, funny, self-effacing - especially given the fact that I had been a fan of his for about a quarter of a century. He even signed my books, all twelve of them. (I know, I know: it's not the done thing for writers to present to a fellow writer copies of books to be signed, but I've never subscribed to that belief. I was a reader, and a fan, of a great many writers long before I became a published writer myself, and I have never quite managed to shake off that fan boy element of my personality. In fact, I hope that I never do.)

True, perhaps I tried too hard with some of my questions, and I am still kicking myself 24 hours later over the fact that I confused the words "ambiguous" and "ambivalent" in one of my interrogations (I plead nerves), an error that King corrected without comment. Yet all through the interview, and for some time afterwards, a small voice in my head reminded me that this was probably as good as it was going to get. I was interviewing a writer whom I had long admired, and whom I had long wanted to interview, in front of a sympathetic audience. This was a writer whose work I had begun reading before I even entered my teens, and my boyhood self could never have imagined that, one day, he would be sharing a stage with this man.

After the interview was concluded, I went to the Delta Grill on Ninth Avenue. I ordered a bottle of Abita Reconstruction Ale, and a Margharita straight up, with salt. I sat at the bar and recalled the first interview that I had been fortunate enough to conduct with a writer whom I had long admired: James Lee Burke, in his house in Montana in 1999. Burke was one of the writers who inspired me to become a writer myself. I will always be in his shadow, yet it is a shadow in which I am happy to dwell. King, I realize, is another such writer.

To hell with Harold Bloom, I thought, who decried the decision to award one of America's highest literary honors to King in 2003. I doubt that anyone ever became a writer because of Bloom or his ilk. I think that Bloom is an intelligent, perceptive, valuable critic, but in his criticism of King he was guilty of literary snobbery. King deserved that award (and Lisey's Story, his latest novel, stands as a riposte to those who would contend that he is a poor writer, for it is a beautifully written book) and I was proud to spend an evening in his company.

I finished my Margharita, and started in on the beer. This, I said to myself, has been a very, very good day . . .

This week John read:

Promise Me by Harlan Coben
On Writing by Stephen King
Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became A National Obsession by Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing

and listened to:

Immortal Memory
by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy
Under the Skin by Lindsey Buckingham

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Letter From The Editor

There is a brief lull in the touring schedule for The Book of Lost Things, so I have a chance to catch up with my mail, at least until next Friday when the whole thing begins again in South Africa and then the US. (I know, I know, it's a tough old job, but I'm bearing up manfully. . .)

One of the letters awaiting me comes from my editor, and relates to The Unquiet, the Parker book to be published in May 2007. Basically, I sent off the manuscript of the next book a day or two before I began touring, so copies of it landed on the desks of both my British and American editors, and my agent, in early September. Since then, I've been running around promoting BOLT, so, apart from a brief conversation with my lovely British editor at the launch in London, during which she indicated that I was unlikely to be cast out of Hodder & Stoughton's offices and invited to try my luck elsewhere just yet, this is the first official response to the next book.

I always have difficulty letting a book go, mainly because I feel that it forever remains open to improvement, and given another week or so I might, just might, manage to attain perfection, or at least manage to put a little more distance between the manuscript and gross imperfection. I've spoken before about that brief period when the manuscript is in transit between my desk and the desks of the three individuals mentioned above, who are the first to read anything that I write. For that 24-hour period (and that is how long it is, as my British editor in particular tends to read my new book almost as soon as it arrives, a devotion to duty that I find at once both flattering and rather frightening), I enjoy a sense of relief and disconnectedness that may be akin to the out-of-body experiences sometimes described by those who have found themselves hovering above their corporeal selves during complicated surgical procedures. For now, the book is out of my hands. Its fate lies elsewhere.

I read my editor's letter with a certain degree of trepidation. I know that she is pleased with the book, but that doesn't mean that changes are not required. The problem with changing a book after it has been delivered, I find, is that the sense of disconnectedness described above never entirely goes away. By printing off the manuscript and submitting it to the scrutiny of my editors, I have effectively admitted that I am done with this book, cosmetic alterations apart. In my mind, I am already moving on to the next book, a book that, I hope, will be better than the last one. Returning to a manuscript once it has been submitted feels to me like a step backwards, or a return to the scene of the crime. I am no longer in that mindset, and it's difficult to find my way back into the book once again.

There is also a part of me that, in the event of significant criticism, would like to erase my editor's memory of the book, apply all of her suggested changes, and then resubmit it as an entirely new work, now significantly closer to that much desired perfection. It strikes me that handing over a manuscript sometimes feels like handing over homework, and I always want an 'A' for my written work.

Thankfully, the letter is very kind and generous (and I should add that even on those occasions when my editor has found problems with a manuscript, the criticisms have been couched in such a diplomatic way that I find it hard to tell if they are criticisms at all or merely slight differences in perception). There is only one minor clarification required in the plot, although I have no doubt that, when the manuscript itself arrives from the copy editor, there will be other suggestions to be dealt with along the way, and I would be wise to take them on board, for my British and American editors, and my agent, enrich my books immeasurably with their insights. The novels would be poorer creatures without their help.

Still, somehow I have contrived to get away with it yet again. In May 2007, God willing, my ninth book will be published. Now it is time to start work on the 10th. . .

P.S. The website for The Book of Lost Things has been significantly expanded, and readers can now download free screensavers and desktops, as well as read extensive notes exploring the background to the various stories and myths used in the book, and the original versions of those myths and tales. Please let us know what you think!

This week John read

Lisey's Story (uncorrected proof) by Stephen King
Imperium by Robert Harris

and listened to

Universe by Sebastian Tellier
Sam's Town by The Killers
Live A Little by The Pernice Brothers