Friday, December 21, 2007

The Response

My American and British editors have now read, and offered their opinions on, THE REAPERS. The manuscript went out to them last month and, as is usually the case, my British editor read it first, and then my American editor followed with her response a little later.

Waiting to hear what they think of a manuscript does nothing to contribute to a stress-free lifestyle on my part. As I've said before, I have a nagging fear that I'm a bit of a fraud, and that the latest novel will be the one that at last exposes my fraudulence and ineptitude to my editors. That fear is compounded when a book deviates in any way from what has gone before, as THE REAPERS does. It's not quite an 'entertainment', to borrow Graham Greene's description of his less tortured novels, but it is lighter than, say, THE UNQUIET. As soon as it went out to the editors, and my agent, I think I began tensing for the blow to come.

As it happens, though, no blows have landed. Both of my editors - and my beloved agent - seem very happy with the manuscript, and have sent it straight into production. That doesn't mean the book is already rolling off the presses, but it has gone to copy editors, and when the copy edited manuscripts are returned to me they will have my editors' comments included. There will be problems to be addressed, questions to be answered, but I won't have to tear the book apart, and tear my hair out in the process.

It is a relief. While my editors are delicate about such matters, and diplomatic in their approaches, I'm certain that, were there significant problems with my manuscript, they would let me know, even to the extent of postponing publication if necessary. (In fact, I asked one of my editors that very question, and she made it quite clear that I didn't have some authorial 'get-out-of-jail-free' card if problems arose.) It was reassuring to hear. Sometimes I will read a book by a big-name author and wonder just how much editing was done, if any. It doesn't do the author any favours in the long run, even if it allows him, or her, to do a little less work in the short term.

So now I have a worry-free Christmas, relatively speaking. Actually, that's not true. Instead of worrying about THE REAPERS, I'm just worrying about the next book instead. I'll probably make a start on it over the Christmas holidays, as my diary for next year is already filling up and I'd like to get a little writing done before I start travelling again. I think I even have a title for the new book, although it may change as the writing progresses. I'm quite looking forward to writing it. Although Parker figures in THE REAPERS, it's not told from his point of view. It will be good to inhabit his consciousness again. Troubling, but fulfilling . . .

This week John read:

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

and listened to:

Kurr by Amina

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

To Be, or Not To Be (A Classic)

I've been wondering what constitutes a 'classic' of fiction. I hasten to add that this isn't some random problem to be addressed, in case readers are entertaining visions of me seated in my smoking jacket, puffing on a pipe and thinking 'deep' thoughts as a matter of course. I don't own a smoking jacket, and I don't think I'd have the patience to smoke a pipe. (My grandfather was a pipe smoker, and seemed to spend large portions of his day either preparing to light his pipe, or trying to keep it lit, but very little of it actually smoking the pipe itself.)

Anyway, the question of when, or why, a book comes to be considered a classic arose in the context of the book I have just finished: Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. The novel in question, which deals with the building of a cathedral, among other things, is adorned on its front cover with the words 'THE CLASSIC MASTERPIECE', which would seem to indicate that someone, somewhere, even allowing for the usual overenthusiasm of publishers, feels that The Pillars of the Earth is both a classic and,indeed, a masterpiece.

Now I had never read a Ken Follett novel before this one. In fact, my only knowledge of Ken Follett is that he is the archetypal 'champagne Socialist', a wealthy supporter of the British Labour party, and that he wrote The Eye of the Needle, which was made into an okayish film starring Donald Sutherland. I picked up The Pillars of the Earth because I'd seen the media coverage of its recently published sequel, and because I'm kind of a sucker for a good historical novel.

And here's the thing: The Pillars of the Earth is a well-researched, very entertaining read. I flew through its 1100 pages in under a week, and, the odd scene of rape or attempted rape apart, enjoyed it immensely. But is it a classic? Well, no, I don't think so. Follett isn't the world's greatest prose stylist, and some of the characterisation is a bit perfunctory. If a book is truly to be considered a classic, then issues like prose style and characterisation come into play. It's not enough simply to be able to tell a good yarn. Classic, or masterpiece, status demands something more than that.

Is it a masterpiece? Well, that's a different matter. A masterpiece,in the context of art, is an artist's greatest piece of work. As I've said, I haven't read any otherbooks by Ken Follett, so I can't say that The Pillars of the Earth is his greatest achievement. From what I've read about the novel, and Follett, I suspect that it is. If he's proud of it, he has good reason to be. It's a fine read.

I'm just wondering if The Pillars of the Earth actually needs to be a
classic. It does what it does exceptionally well. It keeps the reader turning the pages. I now know a lot about cathedral building: not enough to attempt to build one myself, obviously, but I understand a little more about the thinking behind the construction of cathedrals. I also know that I'm very grateful not to have lived during the period in which the novel is set (roughly the middle of the 12th century). I also recognise that, at some point in the future, I'm going to read the sequel, and I'll probably thoroughly enjoy that too.

But it seems to me that the urge to confer classic status upon The Pillars of the Earth rather does Follett an injustice. It raises expectations that the novel itself simply can't fulfill. This is not War and Peace. It is not Bleak House, or Vanity Fair, or any one of the other books that spring to mind when the words 'masterpiece' and 'classic' are used to refer to a work of fiction. I just don't think it's in that league, but then very few books are.

The use of the terms 'masterpiece' and 'classic' in the context of The
Pillars of the Earth
also suggests a certain inferiority complex on the part of one or more people involved with the publication of the book, although not necessarily Follett himself. It's clearly not enough that the book is gripping, and well-researched, and eminently readable. It has to be something more than that, something greater. Its status must be elevated, even if that elevation threatens to undo the writer, and the novel, in the process. That seems to me to be a bit of shame . . .

This week John read:

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

and listened to:
Going to Where the Tea Trees Are by Peter Von Poehl (one of the best 'lost' records of the year, I think . . .)

Sunday, November 25, 2007


This week has been spent attempting to get to grips with the script for the proposed film of The Erlking. I've never attempted a script before, and it's been a frustrating task at times, largely because my way of writing isn't easily compatible with the process of putting together a script, and a film.

Initially, I wrote an outline set in England shortly after WW I, a period that I find fascinating, as someone on the discussion forum pointed out recently. As I
said in my reply to that posting, I think my interest may be due in part to the sense that this was a country in shock, trying to come to terms with a loss of innocence, perhaps, as well as the more immediate loss of a generation of young men. Anyway, the outline incorporated a number of the other stories from the Nocturnes collection, told as tales within tales.

That version didn't quite work. I'm not sure why. It was interesting, but it wasn't The Erlking, and something of that story's mood was lost in the translation.

The second version returned the original short story to its fairy tale
roots. Essentially, it took up the tale two generations' later, and again included some of the other stories from Nocturnes, but this time they were integrated a little more smoothly into the overall narrative. The outline was 16 or 17 pages long, and included snatches of dialogue, mainly for my own benefit as they allowed me to move the story forward. I sent it off to the various parties involved in the film, and then the problems started.

When I write a novel, or a short story, it is an essentially solitary exercise. I write alone, with no input from others along the way. I slowly write a first
draft, usually over a period of six months or more, and then go back to the beginning and start rewriting. I do this, over and over, until the agreed deadline for the book is imminent, and then I deliver it to my agent and my British and American editors. They are the first people to read it, and only then will anyone else start to have any input into the book.

Other writers approach the process of writing, and delivering, a book
differently. Some will deliver a manuscript after only one or two drafts, trusting in the editing process to sort out any problems at an early stage. I know of one very famous writer who finishes a chapter and sends it out to his editor the following day, so that the novel arrives in bits and pieces, and is edited along the way. Another writer of my acquaintance will deliver very rough, even incomplete, chapters to her editor, so that a strong degree of intimate collaboration between writer and editor occurs.

The difficulty with scriptwriting, or any other aspect of film making, is that it is merely one part of a whole, and a whole that is very much dependent upon
co-operation and collaboration between a number of different people, each with his or her own views on what the finished artefact should resemble. Basically, the writer isn't the sole creative arbiter right from the start. There are a lot of creative people involved, and creative people have opinions. Thus, scriptwriting invites 'notes', which are suggestions from the producers or others about how the script should proceed.

So, shortly after I sent out the initial outline, the notes began to arrive. I was a bit bewildered, to be honest. I hadn't even written the script yet, merely suggested an outline, and already that outline was being tugged in all sorts of (sometimes contradictory, I felt) directions. It was like being presented with editor's suggestions based on a first draft, but that, as I've already said, isn't the way I write. It wasn't that the notes were bad. It was just that the whole idea of being guided at such an early stage, however well-meant that guidance might have been, was utterly alien to me.

Okay. Hand on heart, I also didn't really understand the notes. My bad. I tend to respond better to very specific suggestions, like the notes my editors, or copy editors, scribble in the margins of my manuscript: 'What does this mean?' ; 'Should this be mentioned earlier?'; or, my particular favourite, courtesy of an older American copy editor: 'What is a Siouxsie and the Banshee?' By contrast, the notes on the script were very general. They also, when I tried to think about them, appeared capable of being summarised as: 'We like this, but why don't you do something completely different instead?', which wasn't entirely helpful.

I made an executive decision. I decided to ignore the notes. That sounds more arrogant than it is meant to be, but the notes had caused me to freeze up.
All work on the script ceased as a consequence. I returned, instead, to The Reapers, and a writing process that I understood and with which I was comfortable.

But with The Reapers delivered, I decided to return to the script, but not to the notes. Over the last week, I've worked on it in assorted coffee shops (and here I should give a hearty round of applause to KC & Peaches, which is a very lovely coffee shop/ wine bar/ restaurant at the top of Pearse Street in Dublin, close to the canal. If you happen to be passing that way, be sure to drop by.) and the first draft proper is almost complete. On Monday, I'll probably send it off to Lawrence, a bastion of goodness in a harsh world, who is destined to direct the film should the script find approval (Lawrence directed the short film on Sedlec that appears on my website). We'll meet on Wednesday evening to discuss it (oh, and to watch the Liverpool game) and, with luck, he will have liked the direction in which I've gone.

Mind you, then the notes will start again. Oh dear. And it was all going so well . . .

This week John read:

Fawlty Towers by Graham McCann
Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

and listened to:

Tacks, The Boy Disaster by Tacks, The Boy Disaster
Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Mirrored by Battles

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


THE REAPERS was sent off last week, accompanied by the usual feelings of relief, concern, fear and, well, general looseendedness. (I am a writer, and therefore I feel free to make up words and impose them upon the language.)

The book is, as I've said here before, a little different from the ones that have gone before it, although I would hope that each book has been a little different from its predecessors. It's lighter in tone, and more straightforward than the usual Parker books, mainly because the action is not seen through his eyes. We learn a lot about Louis, but not very much about Angel. That will probably be another book, written somewhere down the line. I'll probably post a section of the book on the website over the coming weeks. (I know, I know: I'm such a tease . . .) In the meantime, the final UK cover is available to view here.

What happens now? Well, my editors - UK and US - will get back to me at some point to let me know what they think of the book. My UK editor is always the first to respond. She received the book on Wednesday, and I would be surprised if she hasn't already read it, which means her initial comments will probably arrive today or tomorrow. My US editor usually takes a little longer. I think she just likes to keep me on edge. It's a cruel Southern thing.

I always experience a vague sense of unease at this point, a nagging suspicion that the book may not be very good and my editor is, at this very moment, struggling to find a diplomatic way to tell me, one that won't send me off the deep end and have me looking longingly at high cliffs, jars of pills, or razor blades and bathtubs. I don't want to deliver a bad book, and I don't think that I have, but, then again, I'm a very poor judge of my own work. I keep waiting to be caught out, to be branded a fraud. Like a lot of writers, I think, I'm always alert to the knock on the door from someone who has been sent to inform me that a terrible mistake has been made by my publishers and, as I have always suspected, the people who hated my work were right. At that point, my furniture will be seized, my house repossessed, and proceedings set in train to get back all of the money that has been paid to me in error.

I tried to explain some of these fears to my editor when last she was in Dublin. They're pretty constant, although they're not crippling. Nevertheless, they may contribute to the fact that my pleasure at completing and dispatching a novel never lasts very long. Relief is a feeling that dissipates quickly.

So what to do now? Well, I'm hampered slightly by the fact that my house is filled with builders, plumbers and painters, and that no room is actually fit to work in at present. My notes and research books are in boxes, and my desk computer is on the floor of the spare room. The first quarter of the script for THE ERLKING is stored on it, but I don't think I can get to it for a day or two. There's a short story that I quite fancy writing, so I think I'll do that. With luck, I'll be able to start on the next novel in December. It will be a Parker book, I think, although there's an idea for a standalone set in the 19th century that has been nagging at me.

Then again, there's email to check. Maybe my editor will have written to me. That would be good.

Or, perhaps, bad . . .

This week John read:

Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

and listened to:

The Distant Future by Flight of the Conchords
Chrome Dreams II by Neil Young
Sojourner by Magnolia Electric Company

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Fourth Draft

. . . or is it the fifth? I've kind of lost count by now. Whichever one it is, I started it today. Actually, I probably started it last week, when I arrived in the US, but I was dipping into the draft, changing dialogue and the odd setting. But this evening, after checking into my hotel in Portland, I went back to the start of THE REAPERS and began adjusting the prologue, then moved on to the first chapter. That's a proper rewrite. Anything else is just dabbling.

I've said it before, but I wonder if there isn't an easier way to write a book. Again and again I encounter fellow writers who produce perfectly good books by submitting their first draft to their editors. Perhaps they just have their act together, whereas I do not. (I'm not fishing for compliments here. I just genuinely believe that there are authors out there who have a clear picture of the book they want to write set in their heads from the start, so that the first draft is less exploratory than it is in my case.) Anyway, THE REAPERS is coming together, even if does begin with what feels like a lot of bloodshed, some of it at the hands of Angel and Louis.

A month ago, I received an interesting email, through the lovely webmaven, Heidi. It was from a woman who expressed some concern at the direction that she felt THE REAPERS was taking, judging from my occasional posts. She liked Angel and Louis, she said. She liked their humor. She was uneasy about the possibility thate her impression of the characters might be undermined by what was about to happen in subsequent books, and THE REAPERS in particular.

I thought of that email again as I was revising the first chapter. In this draft - and, to be fair, in every draft since the first - Louis is particularly cold-blooded in the way in which he deals with a set of potential adversaries. So too, to be fair, is Angel, even if he has some qualms about their actions. To me, it seemed like the natural response that these two men would have to a particular situation. They are, after all, killers, and one of the themes of THE REAPERS is the psychology of killing. I've been doing a lot of research in that area, and it's been fascinating, in a disturbing way. That research, I think, has informed (if not influenced) some of the actions of Angel and Louis in the novel. In other words, as I delved deeper into the psychology of killing, I found that the way in which I was thinking about Angel and Louis matched the reality of certain responses to the act of killing in, for example, warfare, and among soldiers.

Nevertheless, the lady's very thoughtful email raised an interesting question about the nature of a reader's relationship to characters of whom he, or she, has grown fond, and the writer's duty, if any, to those responses. It's a situation that only really arises in certain forms of genre fiction. As I think I've written before, mystery fiction is unusual in the strength of its dependence on recurring characters. Literary fiction, by contrast, uses them to a lesser degree, so much so that the latest Philip Roth book has attracted more attention than usual, I think, precisely because it represents the "last ordeal" of Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring alter ego in Roth's fiction.

Yet, by contrast with mystery fiction, Zuckerman has hardly figured at all in Roth's work. Only crime fiction (and, to a lesser extent, certain types of sci-fi, fantasy, and romantic fiction - or, to lump them all under one umbrella, genre fiction) returns again and again, on an annual basis in most cases, to a single character or set of characters. That is part of its appeal to the reader, and it is hardly surprising that a bond develops between the reader and those fictional characters, one that is frequently very loyal and affectionate. The dilemma for the author is: to what degree should he or she be influenced by that bond? The answer, to be brutally frank, is not at all, even at the risk of alienating some of those readers in the process. The writer has to be true to the characters, in bad things as well as good, otherwise they have no meaning.

So, in the course of the most recent draft of THE REAPERS, Angel and Louis behave in a way that is open to a number of interpretations, not all of them favourable, yet each represents a facet of their characters. Similarly Parker, by being seen through the eyes of an outsider, an observer, emerges as a far more enigmatic and disturbing individual than perhaps he does when his actions are explained in his own voice, but that too is not being untrue to his nature. The fact of the matter is that the way in which we want our favourite characters to behave is not necessarily the way in which they should, or would, behave, given our knowledge of their natures. They may be invented, but they are human, and they are duty bound to behave as human beings would do, or else they have nothing worth hearing to say to us about our existence.

It's now midnight where I am. Strangely, I am writing for the sake of writing. In a sense, none of this seems terribly important. Susie, who contributed regularly to the forum, passed away last week. I had hoped that she would get the opportunity to read the draft of THE REAPERS when I returned to Ireland with it, because I thought she would enjoy doing that, but it was not to be. I met her only once, after a signing, with her husband and a friend from the US. We had dinner. She was a sweet, funny, courageous human being.

May she rest in peace.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Guns, Guitars, Groceries . . .

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Middlebury, Vermont as I write this. There are, I must admit, worse places to be. Actually, I think I might have been in some of them yesterday: a succession of gloomy towns in upstate New York, doused by freezing rain, each one blending into the next through the windshield.

This is the last research trip for The Reapers. The book is due to be delivered in a month’s time, and I have the draft on my laptop, with a backup on a little portable hard drive. In some ways, it’s been a frustrating week. Someone who was due to act as a guide for a location in one section of the book couldn’t make it, so I went over the ground again on my own. I’ll get a friend to check the details later, just to make sure I haven’t got something hopelessly wrong. The weather has been pretty foul, so I’ve been trudging around with my hood up, trying to discern details through the murk. My little hardback notebook is filling with scribbles, some written while said notebook has been balanced precariously on the steering wheel. (I know, I know: I should use one of those portable recording devices, but I’d feel like an idiot, and a bit of a knob, talking to myself in the car.) I had hoped to set myself up in a rented condo in Portland for ten days, but the condo is only available for three days at the end of my trip, so I’m going to be moving three times in a week, shuffling from hotel to inn to apartment, which isn’t ideal. I’ve also had to cancel my appearance at the Guildford festival in the UK next week. I need to stay here and finish what I’m doing. If I leave early, the book will suffer. It’s the first time I’ve ever backed out of a commitment like that, the only time in almost a decade as a writer, and I feel bad about it, but I don’t seem to have a choice.

In the meantime, I’ve been rewriting as I go: in motel rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, trying to make the adjustments while what I’ve seen is still fresh in my mind: roads, buildings, the colors of the trees, the landscape that will be transplanted into the book. I’m reading a history of the Adirondacks, with Robert Harris’s The Ghost acting as my light relief. At a rough calculation, I’ve driven 700 miles in 48 hours. I’m seeing a lot of the country, albeit mainly through glass.

None of this, I hasten to add, is like working for a living. It’s constantly interesting, and by retracing the route that will be taken by Angel and Louis, and others, in the book, I’ve been able to improve what has already been written, I hope. It also gave me the pleasure of visiting Dick’s Country Store and Music Oasis at Churubusco, New York, which may be the most unusual store I’ve encountered in a very long time. Dick’s, for those of you unfamiliar with it, boasts that it has “500 Guitars and 1000 Guns”. I didn’t count them all, but that seems like a pretty good guess: Dick’s sells groceries, guns, and guitars, all under the same roof. It’s a one-stop shop for a particular type of shopper, I suppose. Louis and Angel visit it in the book, and even they’re a bit nonplussed. I bought a T-shirt. In fact, I bought a couple. I may even give one away in a competition for the nice members of my website a little closer to publication.

Now I’m off to find a place to sleep for the night. Time to move on . . .

This week John read

The Ghost by Robert Harris
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

and listened to

What is Free to a Good Home? by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeletons

Sunday, September 16, 2007

First Kiss

This week I provided details of my first kiss to a newspaper. In the interests of full disclosure, and in the hope that it may provide an opportunity for others to unburden themselves of a similar trauma, I'm reprinting my confession below. I'd like to say that I've got better at the whole kissing thing since this happened. I'd like to say it, but I'm not sure that it would be true . . .

My first kiss took place during a schools disco at the Olympic Ballroom in Dublin. It's usual in these cases to add "which, unfortunately, is no more", but as the whole first kiss experience was so awful, I'm actually rather pleased that the Olympic Ballroom is no longer standing. If someone hadn't knocked it down then I'd have been forced to find a way to do it myself, if only so I wouldn't have to look at it and be reminded all over again of the whole affair.

It wasn't the fault of the girl in question, I hasten to add. She was, as I recall, perfectly accommodating. In fact, she was more than that: she was positively keen. As I circled the dancefloor looking for a likely candidate, she said "Hello". I went around a second time, and she said "Hello" again. After a third circuit I gave up and thought, okay, you'll have to do. I was no looker, I hasten to add, but arrogance and ignorance are a powerful combination, especially when you add rampant hormones to the mix.

After about thirty seconds of Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson - and, God, I hate that bloody song, along with Hello by Lionel Ritchie, which was the next song - I made my move and simply attached myself to her, like a limpet. I'm not even sure that she had time to draw breath. Frankly, she could have died under there and I wouldn't have noticed. I was like a ferret down a rabbit hole. At last, I thought, after years of drought, there is water to drink. Or maybe it was drool. Kissing is kind of hard the first time, and a bit messy.

Eventually, presumably when she realised that she was in imminent danger of blacking out, she detached herself, gasping, and said, "Don't you even want to know my name?"

Crikey, where were my manners?
"Uh, okay," I said. "What is it?"

And she told me. I can still remember it, to my shame. When the slow set ended, we parted, and I never saw her again. Anyway, Pamela, if you're reading this, I'm terribly sorry. Kind of grateful, but terribly, terribly sorry.

This week John read

To War With The Black Watch by Gian Gaspare Napolitano, translated by Ian Campbell Ross

Inside the Tardis by James Chapman

and listened to

Kurr by Amina

and saw

Prince and David Sylvian live

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Home Stretch

The whole process of publishing The Reapers has stepped up a gear, as it usually does at this time of year. The first version of the UK cover has been presented and, apart from a minor problem with one of the illustrations that can easily be solved, it looks good. I think I present some difficulties for my publishers as I deliver my books a little later than they might ideally like, and therefore they have to base their initial cover designs on whatever I tell them the book is about rather than the book itself. There is always time to tweak once the manuscript is delivered, but I feel certain that, in their hearts of hearts, the good people in the design department spend a lot of time cursing me.

I do try to help by suggesting potential themes, but I suspect that such abstractions only hinder them further. They really are a very tolerant bunch, as it's not like they don't have other titles to worry about. In fact, given the number of books published by both Hodder & Stoughton, my UK publishers, and Atria, my US publishers, every year, it's amazing just how many fine cover designs their respective designers manage to come up with. The pressure on them must be quite intense. After all, they are the publishers' first line of attack in the bookstores: bad books can probably sell more on the basis of a good cover, but the sales of a good book will suffer if its cover can't quite live up to the contents.

In the meantime, another draft of the book itself has been completed as of today. It's still some way from finished, but in theory it could now be read from beginning to end while making some kind of sense, if the reader could find a way to forgive assorted inconsistencies, wrenching shifts in tone, and characters whose names change for no apparent reason halfway through the plot. I suppose that may be why the odd error seems to sneak through in each one of my books. It's a consequence of the way the books are written and the way in which I regard them: as narratives that are open to constant alteration and development. The more you rewrite, curiously, the more likely it is that mistakes will creep through. It's a Catch 22 situation with which I've had to learn to live.

Then again, I met an author during the summer who had not even begun his new book, and it was due at the start of October. I reckoned that left him with a window of four months in which to write it, which suggested a novel that would be delivered to the publishers in the form of a first draft. It's quite possible that it would be an excellent first draft, but I can't write that way. Sometimes, I wish I had that clarity of vision; that, or less of a perfectionist streak that will always, ultimately, be frustrated. As things stand, I've been working on the actual writing of The Reapers since the autumn of 2006, excluding any time spent mulling over it prior to actually typing the first words (and even they have changed in the interim). I keep thinking that there must be an easier way, but I just can't seem to find it.

Still, at least The Reapers now has a beginning, a middle, and an end that, to be honest, was a little surprising to me. Then again, that's one of the pleasures of not planning the novels down to the last detail: in the process of writing them themes begin to emerge, so that what might have begun life as an aside in the first chapter becomes, by the end, the basis for the book's defining moment. Maybe I'm a little more optimistic about the novel than I was earlier in the year. As this draft has proceeded the book, I think, has become more interesting. What began life as a light novel has assumed darker overtones. It will be an odd read, I suspect. I remember a British critic once commenting on Angel and Louis to the effect that she believed I found them funnier than they actually were. In fact, I've always been ambivalent about them, and that ambivalence finds its fullest expression in The Reapers. It becomes clear that they, along with Parker, the Fulcis, and Jackie Garner, are damaged individuals, and anyone who enters their sphere of influence believing otherwise is deluded. And so, as the book develops, their banter becomes a kind of denial of reality, a means of distancing themselves from the damage that they inflict upon others.

Then again, maybe I'm just thinking aloud here. Tomorrow, I will go back to the prologue and start rewriting again from the start, and I know that the book will change still further over the course of the new draft. By the time the novel is eventually delivered to my publishers what I have written above may have ceased to have any relevance, and may serve only as a pointer towards what might have been. Nevertheless, this is where the book currently stands, and this is how I think of it.

For now.

This week John read

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke

and listened to

Marry Me by St Vincent
A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile (in preparation for a discussion of the album on RTE Radio 1 this Wednesday, September 5th, as part of "Drivetime with Dave" from 7pm. Listen live at

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Doubting Stage

There comes a point during the writing of each of my books when I start to doubt the worth of what I'm doing, and The Reapers has reached that point recently. I should be used to it by now, I suppose. It is, I think, the writing equivalent of the marathon runner's 'wall', where it seems easier to give up than to go on.

Even now, on my tenth book, I can't quite understand where this doubt comes from. Neither does it get any easier to deal with, although at least I am familiar enough with it at this point to realise that it's a natural, if difficult and debilitating, part of what I do. Progress slows, and it's hard to force myself to sit at my desk and work for hours when my confidence in what I am doing has been shaken. I look for ways to trick myself into persisting: this column, for example, or a travel piece on Taiwan that I've written for The Irish Times. I write something easier in the hope of dissipating some of the fog that hangs over the larger project to hand when I turn to work on it.

To be fair, despite the difficulties of the last few weeks (not all of them related to writing) I've kept to the schedule I set myself after I finished touring. I took a few days off to try to get my house in order and ensure that all of my bills had been paid, then returned to the book on August 1st. Each day, I decided that I would work on a chapter, revising and rewriting, sometimes adding in a whole new chapter if there was a gap in the narrative. My plan is that by the start of September I will have a start-to-finish draft and can then set about fine-tuning it. In theory, I should be on Chapter 21. I'm actually on Chapter 18, but given the fact that I spent Sunday watching Man Utd being beaten by Man City (yay!) followed by Liverpool being robbed of two points by a referee who should have been wearing a mask and holding a gun (boo!) I can account for at least one of those lost chapters.

Today, somebody posted a 'Discuss The Reapers' thread on my website, from which I'll stay away. I don't want to know what people expect from it, or even what they'd like to see, mainly because I suspect the book will not be quite what readers might be anticipating. (It goes back to a piece of advice James Lee Burke gave me, one that I've quoted here before: "You have to learn to ignore both the catcalls and the applause.") There is no supernatural element, and most of it is seen through the eyes of a minor character from the earlier books, the mechanic Willie Brew. It's a less tortured novel than those in the Parker sequence, frequently lighter in tone, and the prose is less elaborate. When Parker does appear, we seem him as others, and Willie in particular, see him: a distant, slightly unnerving man in whom goodness and a violence born of grief struggle for supremacy. In that sense, although it is primarily an Angel and Louis novel, it serves as a companion piece to the Parker novels, and is set after The Unquiet. Structurally, meanwhile, it juxtaposes Louis's past and his present situation, which means that I've been writing twin narratives at times and trying to find the places in the story where they can overlap.

And that's probably as much as I'm going to say about it for the time being. Now, having tricked myself into writing a few hundred words, I'm going to move on to Chapter 19. Slow, steady progress: it has worked before and, God willing, it will work again . . .

This week John read

Don't You Know Who I Am by Piers Morgan
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

and listened to

The Reminder
by Feist
Of Stars and Other Somebodies by The Silent League
Life Embarrasses Me on Planet Earth by Seventeen Evergreen

Friday, August 10, 2007

My Desk

This is just a short post, in advance of a long rant to come. I had a film crew in my house today, putting together shots for a documentary that may come to fruition over the coming year. They were filming in my office, which was not quite what it might have been, given that my house was up for sale - and was subsequently sold - while I was touring. (It was considerably neater, for a start.) But it did force me to view my workspace through other people's eyes, so I thought I might describe it as, when I move, the space in which I have written at least six books will cease to be . . .

1) Pine desk, with large screen Apple computer, a lamp to the left, a printer to the right.

2) A framed Kinky Friedman display, comprising an 'Elect Kinky Friedman Justice of the Peace, Pct 1, May 3, 1986' poster - signed 'For John - from a Texas Jewboy to an Irish Catholic. See you in hell.' - and a Kinky Friedman handkerchief, both souvenirs of the first author interview I ever conducted. I recall that my friends and I took him out drinking the following night, and made him run for a bus, cigar in mouth. I think it took a toll on his health . . .

3) A framed poster of Akira Kurosawa's 'Ran', his adaptation of 'King Lear'. Fantastic poster - armed riders crossing a battlefield littered with corpses - but the film, like the play, goes on a bit when it comes to Lear's death. (Clearly, I have a limited career as a Shakespeare scholar . . .); and a signed copy of Johnny Cash's album 'At Folsom Prison', because some people are just legends.

4) A signed copy of Thin Lizzy's 'Johnny The Fox', because Phil Lynott was great but blew it in the end.

5 A framed, signed image of Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign poster for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. (Its companion piece, also signed, is a Woody Creek caucus poster announcing that "There is some shit we won't eat . . .") Hunter S. Thompson made me want to be a journalist, but also made me realize that you can't be a journalist by imitating Hunter S. Thompson.

6) To the left, a bookshelf, filled with assorted paperbacks and greeting cards, as well as a fluffy green Cthulu doll (much more interesting and amusing than the Lovecraft stories that inspired it - sorry, Lovecraft fans); a teddy bear in Liverpool strip from the lovely Jayne, who runs the discussion forum; a masked flying monkey in a cape that screeches when it hits an object; two greeting cards, one of which depicts Lassie attempting to rescue a drowning man, and being told to get help, following which Lassie sees a psychiatrist; assorted notes and research notes for The Reapers, including extensive details of sportsmen who have been accused, or convicted, of crimes; and a shredder, in case the cops or the revenue raid me.

7) Another bookshelf, filled with research books, including enough books on killing and disguising the act to raise the eyebrows of even the most accommodating of cops, should that raid ever happen; a 'PARKER' Mustang license plate from Maine, a gift from the spectacularly decent Jordan clan; and an oar from Eagle Lake, a souvenir of the research for 'The Killing Kind'.

8) A disguised filing cabinet, also in pine, dominated by a TV/ VCR/ DVD that I never use; a Sherlock Holmes chess set from an ex-girlfriend, even though I'm not smart enough to play chess; books on prostitution and human trafficking (research, officer, honest!); a signed Liverpool F.C. jersey (from Gerard Houllier's final, desperately disappointing season); signed photos of Ali and Hank Williams; a signed 'Raging Bull' poster (never hung); a sad painting of a couple in the aftermath of an argument, the girl sitting on the floor with her head in her hands, the boy at his desk, a cat between them, the painting bought in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a student exhibition.

9) More shelves, these ones containing the only indication in the house that I might be an author, as they hold a copy of each one of my books, whether in English or translation, as well as copies of all of Ross Macdonald's books, to remind me that I'm not really very good after all.

10) Signed vinyl records above the shelf, including a signed Kris Kristofferson album ('Jesus Was A Capricorn'), also signed by Rita Coolidge, and a signed copy of Japan's 'Quiet Life', because I was a teenager once. There is also a signed Willie Nelson/ Merle Haggard album ('Pancho and Lefty') because some other people are also legends.

11) A couch.

12) A rug.

13) An air conditioner, largely unused.

15) A skylight.

16) A lot of books that I haven't read, and some that I have.

Pretty soon, I'm going to have to leave this office. I'll do so with a certain amout of regret. My best work - so far - has been done here and I suppose that I worry, in the superstitious way of writers, that when I move out I will leave my best work behind me. I hope that it isn't so. This room has been good to me. It was the first room that I furnished and equipped to serve as an office, an acknowledgment that, for better or worse, I was going to be a full-time writer, and this would be the space in which I worked. Every book since/ including 'Bad Men', I think, has been written or completed here. I will be sorry to depart. I can only hope that I can make a space for myself in my new house, and that whatever talent I have will accompany me there. After all, it would be rather worrying if the purchaser took occupancy of this space, looked around and thought: "Funny, I suddenly feel like writing a book . . ."

This week John read

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and wondered why it took him as long to read as Dickens's Our Mutual Friend , without similar rewards . . .)

and listened to

Themependium by John Barry

Fur and Gold by Bat For Lashes

Monday, July 30, 2007


Gosh, it does seem like a long time since I've written one of these. Actually, it seems a long time since I've written anything at all. While in New Zealand during the second month of touring, I sat on the bed of my guest house one day and tapped out a thousand words, but it was mainly to demonstrate to myself that I could still write. I missed my routine, and my office, and I'm not very good at snatching time to write while travelling. So, when the tour came to an end in Taiwan last week (a lovely place, and lovely people), I decided that, rather than continue to travel (it's curious that, tired though I was, the urge to keep moving persisted. I guess travel is like a bug, after all . . .) I decided to return home to real life, or real life insofar as my life seems to consist mainly of sitting around and making stuff up, which isn't very real at all.

So today is my first day back at my writing desk, in my little office, surrounded by my books and notes. I wrote a new prologue for The Reapers, and revised a couple of chapters. It was a relief, to be honest. I was afraid that I would sit at my desk and find that my mind was a blank, or that I would still be yearning for strange countries and new people, for a novelty that is alien to any routine.

Touring is a strange existence. I stay in nice hotels. People are exceptionally kind. (I was met with a bunch of flowers by the manager at my hotel in Taipei, which admittedly doesn't happen very often, but it was just one example of a great many kindnesses that were shown to me in Taiwan.) Readers come along to get their books signed, and they say nice things about me to my face. If I'm lucky, I get some time to wander by myself in a new city. I get taken to dinner a lot. There are interviews for newspapers, radio, and television, and the interviewers treat me as though I have something interesting and sensible to say which, sometimes, I do, although sometimes I think I just pretend to be interesting and sensible, and I worry that, if I have to try very hard to be interesting and sensible, am I actually very interesting and sensible at all?

So, after two months of not doing things that are very mundane, it can be difficult to return to the nuts and bolts of what I really do for a living, which is write. It was hard, in a way, to sit down at my desk this morning. Dumb, I know, and nothing worthy of any sympathy, but suddenly I was faced with the reality of a book that I had left unfinished in May. True, I had been thinking about it for two months, and new elements and plots had revealed themselves in that time, but now, once again, I had to deal with the practicalities of writing it.

I engaged in displacement activities: e-mail, the myspace stuff that had built up over two months. I considered sorting out my receipts from the tour. I spoke to my postman, then spent too long opening my mail. Then, at last, I opened the file marked 'The Reapers'.

There are two strands to the book, one dealing with the present, the other dealing with the past of Louis. Both come together, in the end, or they will if I ever get to the end. Sitting down this morning, I thought: where do I begin? The past, or the present? Do I try to pick up where I left off all those months ago? Do I try to make a new start? Do I try to finish what was begun, or do I return to the beginning and start over?

I went back to the beginning. I wrote a new prologue. I took the second chapter and joined it to the end of the first. It may not stay that way, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I read the third chapter, and made some changes. It needs to be longer, but it reads okay. I'll add to it in subsequent drafts.

It's now 3.30pm. I've made a start.

And, you know, it wasn't so hard after all . . .

This week John read

The Seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith

and listened to

Our Love to Admire by Interpol

Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Journalism, and Interviewing Authors

This week, I get asked by a journalist how it feels to be interviewed about my books, given that I occasionally put on my journalist's hat to interview other writers about their books. I give my usual answer, which is that it's a little awkward. I tend to assume three roles in that situation: the subject (the writer being interviewed), the journalist (the journalist doing the interview), and some strange intermediate role somewhere between the two, where I look objectively at both people in their respective roles and find fault with each.

Unfortunately, the journalist who poses the question is on somewhat dodgy ground, as he confesses that he hasn't read my book. As always, a little part of me inevitably switches off when I hear that. The nature of the interview changes. To be fair, I don't expect every journalist or interviewer who speaks to me to have read the book I'm publicising, or even any of my books. When it comes to short radio or TV spots, it's the exception rather than the rule to encounter someone who has actually read the book. It doesn't really matter, as my role in that case is just to fill a few minutes of what might otherwise be dead air, and I try to be as general and as light-hearted as possible. It's usually early in the morning, and I tend to view entertaining weary commuters or those at home as welcome challenge.

A newspaper or magazine interview is a different matter, though. It takes longer to conduct, and reading such an interview is a less passive pursuit than listening to three minutes on the radio, I would argue. On a personal level, though, I tend to feel a sense of disappointment when a journalist makes such a confession. It's not that I find myself particularly interesting; at this stage, there can be few people who find me more boring than I find myself when it comes to discussing my books. I'm not even a very interesting person. I live a pretty normal life, all things considered, when I'm not touring, and touring bears little or no relation to my real, everyday existence. (For a start, I don't get a clean gown every morning when I'm at home, and there are no chocolates on my pillow. On the other hand, if I wake up in the night at home I know immediately where the bathroom is, and run no risk of walking into a wall or attempting to relieve myself in a sink . . .)

No, it's more that I wonder about the relationship between the journalist in question and his/ her craft. The subtext, when one is told that the journalist hasn't read the book, is that he/ she was just too busy to read it, and that the writer should simply be grateful that he is being interviewed at all. That may even be true, but what, then, is the point of the interview? I would no more interview an author whose work I hadn't read than I would attempt to describe a piece of music that I hadn't heard, or discuss a film that I hadn't seen. Professional pride, in part, wouldn't let me, but also I know that I would have nothing worth saying. That was as true when I was a struggling freelance, grateful for any work, as it is now. I would spend a week preparing for the interview, often reading not just the latest book but any other books I thought might help to fill the gaps in my knowledge. If I thought it would help, I would browse the cuttings files (in those pre-Internet days). I might even make a start on the piece (itself a flawed exercise, as it's a virtual admission that one has already begun to form an opinion of the author before interviewing him or her). Inevitably, I would throw most, if not all, of that pre-written material out. If I did not, I would doubt the value of the final piece.

Recently, an interview with me appeared in a major newspaper. I was quoted extensively, but none of the quotes were mine. The words used bore little or no resemblance to what I had actually said. Instead, "my" words were what the journalist presumably wished that I had said. I wondered if the tape recorder had broken down. I wondered if my words had just been unspeakably dull, too mundane to even waste ink and paper upon. And I wondered if, perhaps, the journalist just didn't care enough to transcribe them properly.

Transcription is tedious. Listening back to an interview one has conducted is time-consuming. Again and again, journalists cut corners. At least, they do with me. My bad, I guess. I really must be dull. When I've conducted my own interviews with writers, though, I've always been very careful to quote them accurately. I consider it polite, I suppose. It's also a courtesy to those who read the final interview. If they're interested enough to read it, they should be allowed to read the writer's own words, not mine.

So I don't think the interview with the journalist who didn't read my book will be particularly enlightening. I did my best, but there was a limit to how much ground I could make up on the initial lack of interest. Then again, I may come out sounding much more interesting than usual as a consequence. It's hard to tell.

Yesterday, there was a rather different interview. The journalist had read the book, and we ended up discussing whether or not I was a liberal, as The Unquiet is a political novel with a small 'p', I think. (I am liberal, although that word tends to have different connotations in Europe than in the US. Many of those accused of the sin of liberalism in the US would barely qualify as mildly conservative in Europe.); the nature of the US criminal justice system; the chaining of children in US juvenile courts in 27 US states; the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction; British supernatural writers of the early 20th century; and a host of other topics that were linked, either tangentially or thematically, to my work. You didn't have to read my book to be interested in them, but you did have to read my book to be able to raise them to begin with.

I can't stress this enough: I'm not very interesting. My books may not be very interesting to everyone. But I hope that some of the issues they raise are interesting to people. It's why I write: to communicate things that seem important to me, or to explore them and, in so doing, come to some kind of understanding of them. I don't beat people over the head with the issues they raise (and it's curious to me that even raising them has left me open to attack in the past, as though the mere suggestion of discourse is unpalatable to some), and I recognize that a great many of my readers may not view them in the same way that I do, but I have faith in the fact that they are intelligent people, that they can make their own decisions about such matters, and that they understand that books are a forum for ideas as much as they are a conduit for storytelling. I read people with whose ideas I may disagree, for if I did not read them I would be less enlightened about the ways in which others view the world, and I would be guilty of a level of intolerance that I find abhorrent in others.

I still wish that journalist had read my book, though. Heck, he might even have liked it . . .

Since yesterday, John has read

Blaze by Richard Bachman

Friday, June 29, 2007


This week marked the halfway point on the tour - 29 days down, 29 more to go - and the shift from the US to Australia. The first half has been an interesting experiment in how much travel, etc. a body can take before it begins to exhibit signs of distress. The answer, it appears, is roughly 28 days, because meltdown has begun.

In part, the US was to blame. The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Australia was how much more pleasant and easy it is to travel by air here. They are still security conscious, but without the paranoia and borderline xenophobia that is so much a part of the way in which visitors to the US are treated now. In the US, this came to a head for me in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was hauled out of the security line and accused of altering my passport. The cops got involved, and calls were made to some unknown individual far away. The words "What's the ETA on that?" were used, and without irony. I had become, as if by magic, a serious security threat. Mind you, I didn't know this at the time, as nobody had bothered to tell me why I had been singled out. Still, there was nothing to do but be patient and polite. Getting bolshy gets you nowhere. In fact, it may even invite what is generally referred to as the Gloved Welcome, an intimate exploration of one's dark and private places without even the benefit of dinner or a quick snog beforehand.

Eventually, as my departure time loomed, I offered to try to clarify whatever the issue in question was if someone would be polite enough to give me a clue as to its nature. It was pointed out, after a lot of whispered consultations, that my signature was not actually part of the passport itself, but had been affixed separately to the relevant page. Ergo, I had altered my passport.

Not ergo, but er, no. In Ireland, we fill out a form for our passports, I patiently explained. We provide sample signatures. One of those signatures is then clipped and sealed inside our passport. See? The three - count 'em - police officers and the two TSA people looked at the passport again. "Sounds reasonable," said one, but he appeared to be in the minority. Another went through the ETA thing again. I was told that I could go to my gate, but I could expect to be stopped from boarding depending upon the outcome of the telephone conversation. It was suggested to me as I left that all such problems could be solved if passports were homogenised, which is code for making all passports in then world look like US passports. Given the current state of the US passport system, where people are queueing overnight like refugees fleeing a collapsing society in an effort to obtain what is a fairly basic yet essential document, this was a pretty risible proposal, but I kept that view to myself.

Anyway, that was about it for me and the US. Too many flights, and too many 16- and 17-hour days. My body is starting to rebel. I have managed to tear something in my neck hauling my bags from hotel room to car to check in desk, and from baggage claim to car to hotel room. I felt it rip the way paper rips. At the moment, I'm freezing it with spray, but the spray wears off, and at night I don't sleep as well as I'd like. I'm not much good for anything after about nine o'clock, and this weekend had to bow out of meeting some nice people for a bite to eat in Melbourne. I went to bed instead. I feel like an old person.

My temper is also a little shorter than it once was. Actually, it's a lot shorter. Yesterday, I arrived in Adelaide to find that my hotel room was like a sauna, and my window only opened about an inch. The heating was locked to almost maximum, and nothing I did with the control panel seemed to alter it. I called down to find out how I could turn it off, and was told that the front desk didn't have the manual.

"Manual?" I asked.
"Manual," came the reply.
"Is it that complicated?"
"I don't know."
"We could send up an engineer."
"An engineer?"
"An engineer could probably fix it."
"But I just want to turn it down."
"Have you tried pressing the on/off button?"
"Did it work?"
"I'll send up an engineer."

But the engineer didn't come. I had a reading to go to. I decided to take a shower. I showered. When I got out of the shower, I dried myself. Seconds later, I was damp again. I felt like a hothouse flower. I tried fiddling with the control panel again. Nothing. I tapped it. Still nothing. I tapped it really hard. With my fist.

The LCD display immediately disintegrated, and a substance like squid ink spread where once little symbols had gaily frolicked.


Curiously, though, the system was still pumping out superheated air. Bugger.

And at that moment, with perfect timing, there was a knock on the door. I arranged my towel artfully around myself and answered the knock. A smiling engineer stood before me, ready and willing to help.

"Problem with your heating?" he asked.
Oh dear. "Er, I've decided to live with it."
"You sure?"
"Oh yes, quite sure."
He looked a bit disappointed. One minute, I thought. If you'd just arrived one minute earlier . . .

After a short examination of my options, I decided to confess. In a way. On my way to the reading, I told the desk clerk that I'd tapped the screen of my air con system a little too hard, and now it wasn't working. I looked upon this explanation as a euphemism rather than an outright lie. When I returned, the desk clerk gave me a funny look, and the entire display unit had been replaced. I wonder what the engineer thought. It was still too hot, but I decided to leave well enough alone. After all, I'm not Russell Crowe . . .

On the upside, the Adelaide event was incredibly well-attended, and the bookseller/ reader evening in Sydney was a joy. The book has been doing well in Australia, better than any of my other novels, and the Australians are kind and easygoing and touchingly hospitable. This is still a very nice way to earn a living. I wish I had a little more energy, but at this stage I should just be grateful for the energy that I do have. Tomorrow is a day off, the first in quite a while that hasn't involved some form of travel at the very least. I plan to read, and drink decaf coffee, and work on my anger management skills.

Mind you, that heating system was asking for it.

This week John read

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (uncorrected proof)
The Sleeping Doll by Jeffrey Deaver

and listened to

Giu La Testa (soundtrack reissue) by Ennio Morricone
Easy Tiger by Ryan Adams

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On Writing While Travelling

Today I get asked one of the most frequently posed questions during tours: do I write while I am travelling. The simple answer is "No." I am, despite my best efforts, a creature of routine. I know a number of writers who have learned to snatch moments here and there while on tour - sitting on aeroplanes, lying in bed in hotel rooms - but I am not one of them. I need my space: my office, my desk, the knowledge that I have four or five uninterrupted hours ahead of me. I write slowly, and painstakingly. The way I work does not fit into the routine of travel and touring.

There is also the matter of time. Tomorrow, which is Sunday, I will awaken at 5.30 am. On a Sunday. This is not through choice, I should add. The travel agents who booked my flights via my publishers decided on an 8.39 am flight to LA. On a Sunday. I hate to labour that point but, well, it's Sunday. There's no good reason for me to be taking an 8.39am flight, but I am taking it. I need to get up, shower, retrieve my rental car from the garage, drive to the airport (it's San Francisco International), dump the car, take the train to the terminal, check in, and get on the plane. When I arrive, I will pick up another rental car, and try to hit as many bookstores as I can before 6pm, when I will check into my hotel. The list of bookstores I've been given isn't complete, however, so, in addition to writing this little post, I will find the addresses of the chain stores and independents in the LA area and add those that have been missed to my list, as there is nothing more frustrating than to find that one, unawares, been yards from one bookstore while visiting another.

On Monday, there is a 4.50am start, although this one is justifiable. I am doing what is known as a "radio tour". Essentially, this means that stations across the country will call me at my hotel room and conduct live interviews over the phone. There are 16 of them between 5am and 10am. When I received the schedule, I did a second count and there were still 16 of them. On one level, it's a great opportunity: I get to talk to listeners across the nation without leaving my hotel room. On the other hand, it raises certain issues. I need to shower before doing the interviews, if only to wake myself up. I then have to decide if I will do them naked, or semi-naked, or clothed. I know, that's an overshare but, seriously, it's just after 5am on a Monday morning. I'll feel happier clothed, or at least wearing a robe. I suppose I live in fear that one of the interviewers will ask, in a suspicious voice, "Hey, are you naked?" and there will be that telltale pause before I answer, indicating that I am, in fact, speaking as God intended. I am letting it all hang out. On radio. Even I find that thought disturbing.

The other problem is that these morning interviews do not tend to be sedate affairs. Morning shows are designed to keep people awake and listening while they negotiate the freeways. They require hosts, and guests, to be lively and zany, and the only people who are alive and zany at 5am are those that have been driven insane by being required to be lively and zany at 5am. It's a cumulative thing. The only thing moderately interesting about me at 5am is that my hair looks funny and I'm likely to be naked, and neither actually merits the adjectives "attractive" or "interesting" at that hour. Or, indeed, at any hour.

My working day on Monday is unlikely to come to an end until 10pm or 11pm at least. I have a siging in Orange, and then I have to drive back to LA so I can be up early for a meeting on Tuesday morning. That's a long day by any reckoning, and I can't see myself fitting any writing into it. Writing is work, to be perfectly honest. It's work that I enjoy, work that I find immensely fulfilling, but it's work nonetheless. I don't just immerse myself in some river of words and get carried along by the tide. Most of the time, I sweat the words out, sentence by sentence. I'm just not capable of doing that at 4.30 am (or, if I am, I have no intention of finding out) or after midnight having been awake since 5am (ditto).

So I suppose I'm feeling a little frustrated at the moment. I keep having good ideas about 'The Reapers', the next book, but usually when I'm driving between bookstores. I don't have the time, or the energy, to put these ideas into print, and I know that some of them are going to be lost. I love meeting, and talking with, readers and booksellers, but I know that, while it's part of what I do, it's not the most important element. Without books, I have nothing to discuss. If I'm not writing, then I'm not moving forwards. I am resting on my laurels and that, frankly, isn't good enough. Much as I love meeting readers and booksellers, I think that something has to give in the end. I want to get back to writing. The end of the tour beckons . . .

Friday, June 15, 2007


This story was written as a thank you for my editor's son. I hope it passes an idle few minutes . . .

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Cinderella. She lived with her father, who doted on her and spoiled her. There was never anybody to tell Cinderella that she was not the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most darling girl ever to set foot on this earth, and so she came to believe that this was the case. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, rather awful.

Then it came to pass that her father met a woman, whom he married, and this woman had two daughters, and they all came to live with Cinderella and her father in their big house on the hill above the town. Now the two daughters were not as beautiful or as perfect as Cinderella. In fact, they were distinctly plain, and one of them had a left eye that was not quite level with her right eye, which made her look like she was standing on a slight slope. The other sister was a little overweight, and was perhaps too fond of fudge and ice cream for her own good, but she was a good natured soul, as was her sister.

Cinderella decided to call them her ugly stepsisters, on the grounds that, if they were not quite ugly, then they were at least uglier than she, and whenever she had the chance she would tell people of the two dreadful girls who lived with her, who were not as lovely as she and never would be, and of their wicked, wicked stepmother (who was not, in fact, very wicked at all, but merely felt that Cinderella was a spoiled little brat, and treated her as such when she misbehaved).

Three years went by, during which Cinderella did no housework at all, and spent her time complaining to her friends, her father, and anyone else who would listen (including the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, who worked in the same building and felt that it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a nursery rhyme about them) of how terrible her life was. Eventually, a vote was taken in the house, and Cinderella was presented with a choice by her family. Actually, it wasn't much of a choice at all: Cinderella would have to make up for all of the housework that she had not done, which was calculated as at least two solid weeks' worth of cleaning and cooking and tidying. She could do a little every day, or she could take on the burden of all of the cooking and cleaning in the house for one week, after which her debt would be forgiven. She was also to be grounded until all of her work was done, which meant that she would miss the prince's ball, a fact that caused Cinderella to stamp her feet and cry, and generally act like quite the little madam.

Well, Cinderella decided to complete everything in one week, because she was that kind of girl, but in fact she did nothing at all. She just sat in the cellar, and moaned and cried, and complained about her cruel treatment at the hands of her dreadful family. After two days had gone by, a passing good fairy heard her cries and woes, and being a trusting soul, believed every word that Cinderalla told her. When Cinderella brought up the fact that she was not being allowed to go to the ball that evening, the good fairy provided her with a beautiful gown, and changed a couple of harmless mice into coach horses, and transformed a pumpkin into a coach that smelled unpleasantly, and not entirely surprisingly, of pumpkin, and was a rather virulent shade of orange. She also gave Cinderella a pair of glass slippers to wear. In truth, the slippers weren't very comfortable, but Cinderella decided that perhaps it might be wise to keep quiet about that fact, as she didn’t want the good fairy to think that she wasn't a deserving cause. Neither did she complain about the midnight curfew imposed by the good fairy, as she knew that nice girls didn’t stay out beyond midnight, and she wanted to be thought of as a nice girl, even if she wasn't one.

That night, Cinderella danced and danced, and caught the attention of the handsome prince. He spent the final hour dancing with no one but Cinderella. He fell in love with the mysterious young woman, but before he could ask her name the clock began to strike midnight and she fled, leaving behind a glass slipper with a vicious heel that had bruised the prince's toes a number of times as he danced with the unknown beauty.

A search commenced. The prince and his men went from village to village, and house to house, trying the slipper on the foot of every young woman that they found, but none fitted. After three days, they came to the house of Cinderella, and found her in the cellar, not doing very much at all. The prince placed the slipper on Cinderella's foot, and it fitted perfectly. Great celebrations ensued, and even the stepsisters joined in, so pleased were they that they would soon be rid of Cinderella forever.

The prince and Cinderella were married, and they lived happily ever after.

Except they didn't. They lived happily for about three days, until the prince discovered that Cinderella wasn’t a very nice person, whereupon he returned to her father's house with the awful girl in tow.

The prince knocked on the door. Cinderella's father answered. He took in the prince and his daughter and understood immediately what had happened. Still, he pretended to be surprised, if only for form's sake, but he wasn't really surprised at all.

"Um," said the prince. "I don’t really like this one at all. She's nasty and lazy, and smells faintly of pumpkin. I wonder if I might swap her for one of the others?"

And so the prince divorced Cinderella and married the sister whose eyes were not quite level, and they did, in fact, live happily ever after, even if the prince sometimes got a bit of a headache from trying to stare into both of his wife's eyes at one.

As for Cinderella, she used her father's money to open a store selling uncomfortable glass slippers.

It went broke.


This week John read

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (uncorrected proof)

and listened to

Ongiara by Great Lake Swimmers
Armchair Apocrypha by Andrew Bird

Tuesday, June 12, 2007



Up at 5am to get to airport. This is the first day of what will be a 57-day tour, which is very long indeed. As it also covers a number of climate zones, I have been forced to pack for both summer and winter. My case resembles something that Scott of the Antarctic might have hauled along with him if he had planned to take a vacation in Aruba once the nasty cold stuff was out of the way.

On to Heathrow from Dublin, then to Philadelphia which, despite being the city of brotherly love, is sometimes not the friendliest of places. True to form, as soon as I pick up my bags a customs official eyes me up like a lion spotting a wounded gazelle, and then he's on me. I am hauled out of the line and questioned. I open my bags and he is mildly curious about why I have 300 cds in one of them. I point out that they will be given out free at signings, but he's not convinced. Apparently, he thinks I'm going to join those guys outside the subway stations in New York who sell pirated DVDs and Asian porn.

He goes off to consult someone, but he's made the terrible error of abandoning his prey. Immediately, another customs guy scents blood, and sidles up to ask how much booze I have in my duty free bag. The temptation is obviously to reply by asking if he hasn't got better things to do. Hell, there are people from far-off places hauling massive trunks through his customs gate that look like they might be ticking, or dosing people with enough plutonium to make them glow in the dark. I have cds, chocolates and a bottle of whiskey. As a potential offender, I make Paris Hilton look like Professor Moriarty.

Eventually, I am allowed to proceed, after a note has been added onscreen to some file with my name on it, which is a little worrying. It seems like the first step on the road to Guantanamo. I deal with the surly car rental guy, negotiate horrible Pennsylvania traffic, and drive for nearly three hours to get to Camp Hill, PA, the site of my first signing. Check into hotel, shower, then dash to mall. By now, I have been awake for 17 hours. I'm slightly delerious when I get to the mall, and find that I can't remember names and seem to be babbling more than usual. The lights seem too bright and it's very warm.
Drinks after, then fall into bed at 11.30pm, almost 24 hours after I first awoke. I think I may have tried to fit a little too much into one day. In fact, that would be a lot for two days.

My birthday. Spend most of it driving to New York and getting mildly lost once I leave the Holland Tunnel. Still, make it to rental office in time to avoid surcharges, but still pay enough for one day's rental to buy a car of my own. My editor's assistant calls to say that everyone is looking forward to tonight's signing and reading, and that the world and its mother is coming from my publisher's offices. Gently, I'm forced to tell her that the store, although wonderful, is rather small, and there may not be room enough there for the world's mother, let alone the world. After a rethink, it's decided that I'll be left to my own devices.

It's sunny, so people are standing on the street outside Black Orchid, the bookstore in question, when I arrive. Thankfully, there are people inside as well, and an orderly queue has formed. There's beer and wine, and familiar faces, and some people who've come along before, and everyone is very sweet. (Hi, Lawliss42!) Afterwards, I celebrate my birthday with four friends. It is, all told, a nice way to spend a day.

Busy day. A photographer - the legendary Jerry Bauer - comes to my hotel to take my photograph. He took pictures of Samuel Beckett, Patricia Highsmith, Gore Vidal - heck, just about any author worth naming - as well as many of the Hollywood greats. I feel a little inconsequential by comparison. We spend two hours talking and drinking tea, and I feel honored just to listen to him tell stories. Unfortunately, Book Expo America is calling, and we have to leave things at Roman Polanski. It's a discussion I’d dearly like to continue at another time. Those little moments when I meet extraordinary people whom I might not otherwise have encountered make me very grateful to be doing what I do.

Off to the Book Expo, the big American book exhibition, which is in an enormous west side conference center that appears to have disabled its own air conditioning. It's unspeakably warm. Attend a lunch for independent booksellers who are, as always, interesting, kind people. Turns out prizes are being awarded but not, as usual, to me. Instead, we are informed that the writers are being divided into those who are being 'honored' and, well, the others. I ask a bookseller if this is code for 'winners' and 'losers' and she confirms that, yes, indeed it is. I start to feel a big 'L' forming on my forehead. So the authors' names are called out (after a warning to the audience not to applaud us, in order to save time) and each of us stands up in turn so that people can see what we look like. It is excruciatingly embarrassing, especially since our names are called at random, so it's like waiting for a sniper's bullet to hit. Most of us just stand and look awkward as we are described to the crowd, although one author chooses to stand on a chair and wave, which I feel is a little excessive, as well as making him look like someone frantically trying to attract attention on the deck of a crowded ship. Edmund White, who does not stand on a chair, does get a round of applause, though, and rightly so. It would be a sad day if someone of his literary stature had to stand and simply be stared at. He seems like a nice man. If he won a prize, he'd probably give it to me out of pity if I asked, crossing "Edmund White" out with a crayon and scribbling my name on it instead.

Dinner that night at Rockefeller Center. As I'm a last minute parachute job, due to some confusion about my commitments, I masquerade as a female author. I'd like to think that I do a good job, in my masculine way. I'm not very hairy, which helps.

More BEA stuff, this time my formal signing. Not as many people as expected ask for a copy that isn't dedicated. Books signed at BEA are notorious for turning up on eBay soon after the event, so writers are a little happier when people ask for a dedication. It means that they want the book for themselves. Others, though, are meant for libraries, which is great too, while some people just collect signed books, which is fine as well. Still, I think most authors appreciate being asked to dedicate a book. It turns off that little voice in our heads that makes us wonder if, somewhere, someone out there isn't silently hoping that our plane goes down in the near future, thereby adding immeasurably to the value of his signed books.

Bookstore signings today. This is easier said than done. In the US, author signings are usually done while accompanied by an escort but, while most are okay people, I don't really see the point of having an entourage when I enter a bookstore, and I can find my way around most cities with a map and/ or a GPS. I will also never forget the author escort who asked if it would be okay with me if he came along to my signing to hear me talk, because he was interested in what I had to say. And then he charged me for his time.

I'll just write that again. He charged me. For. His time. Even though he asked if he could come along at the end of the day. I almost admired the brass on his neck when the bill arrived, even as the experience soured me considerably on the whole process.

Nevertheless, US booksellers are generally a little perturbed when an unaccompanied author arrives in the store, and at least once or twice each week a bookseller will discreetly check my author photo against my physical appearance, usually with unfavourable consequences for the way I look in person. ("Hey, that author photo is kind of old . . .")

I take time out to go to the Whitney with my friend Joe to see the exhibition of art from the Summer of Love. It's all very, um, groovy.
I think Joe, who is a little older than I am, may be having flashbacks. There's even a little cushioned room where you can watch light shows. All the Whitney needs is some guy selling dime bags, a couple of naked hippies and a vague fug of doobie smoke to make the whole experience complete. Somehow, it reminds me of Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who had Vietnam flashbacks even though he'd never been to Vietnam. That takes some doing, although the exhibition does give a good sense of just how Stills's confused state might have come to pass.

Five days gone, and I'm already starting to ache a bit. I'm also not much good for anything after about ten-thirty at night. Five days. Only 52 to go. The countdown starts here . . .

This week John read

Crusade (uncorrected proof) by Robyn Young
That's Me In The Corner by Andrew Collins
Deep Storm by Lincoln Child

and listened to

Keren Ann by Keren Ann
Boxer by The National
Book of Bad Breaks by Thee More Shallows

and nearly wept when his iPod spontaneously erased his entire library of 11,000 songs.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Publication Week

Today is officially publication day for The Unquiet. I fly to Birmingham to talk with a book group, but first of all I have to sign books at Dublin airport. Joe O' Connor is there at the same time, signing copies of Redemption Falls, the sequel to Star of the Sea. It strikes me that, in his nice suit, he looks like an author. I, on the other hand, don't. He seems to be autographing his books. I look like I'm vandalising mine.

Book group goes well. My publisher sends a driver, Adam, to pick me up and drive me down to London. Adam is a Manchester United fan, and United are playing that night in the Champions League semi-final, second leg. Adam admits he would quite like to be watching the match, but a job is a job. We drive to London listening to the match, and as United concede one, then two, then three goals, poor Adam ends up hunched further and further over the wheel, as though he's being slowly deflated. When we reach the hotel, United now roundly defeated, I suggest to Adam that I did him a favour by enabling him to avoid watching the game. Adam looks even unhappier than before. I like Adam.

Run around London. Do an interview for the London Independent. The interviewer, a nice man whom I've known for almost a decade now, is the first person that day, but not the last, to mention that I'm going grey. Feel rather sad. Dinner that evening for journalists, buyers, friends to celebrate publication of the book. Hear nice things said about me and wonder if this is what it might be like to attend one's own funeral service.

More London stores. Do an interview with an immensely kind journalist from the South China Morning Post, which lasts an hour longer than it was supposed to thanks to a glass or two of wine. We talk books and music, and I'm rather pleased with how it's gone until I realise that a button on my fly is undone. Oh dear. I talk at Borders on Charing Cross Road, then take a few people out for a drink. Wonder if I am an alcoholic, then decide that I don't drink enough to be an alcoholic. Then again, what's enough?

Grotesquely early start. Drive around the south of England signing books. Finish up in Windsor, which is very nice if very English. Always feel I should moderate my Irish accent when I'm in places like Windsor and Tunbridge Wells. Then again, we Irish don't blow stuff up anymore, so people aren't as frightened of us as they once were.

Bit hungover. May be an alcoholic after all, but at least I'm a functioning one. More driving around. More signing. Have no idea how well the book is doing, but do know that there are a lot of copies around. Worry if that's because nobody is buying them. It's the eternal worry of writers: if you go into a store, and they have loads of copies, you figure it isn't selling, and if you go into a store and they only have a few, you figure they haven't ordered many. Writers are 'glass is half empty' kind of people. Sometimes they are even 'what glass?' kind of people.

More bookstores. Spend the night in Southampton, which is very quiet. Eat alone in a nice Indian restaurant and read my book. It's nice to have a night alone somewhere during the tour. When I tour, especially in the US, I seem to be out with booksellers and friends every night, and I miss having a little time and space to myself. Then again, I'm not on tour to have time and space to myself, as that would rather defeat the purpose of the exercise. There are not, after all, many touring recluses . . .

Even more bookstores, then a trip to the warehouse to sign 1000 copies. Jodi Picoult holds the record for signing, I believe: 1500 copies in one hour, but I suspect her signature was just a squiggle by the end. I am determined to beat her, and manage to get all of the books done in 37 minutes. Leave feeling quite smug, until someone calls to say that we missed 500 copies that were stacked in boxes in a corner, so Jodi's record remains intact. Dinner for booksellers that night, then a long drive to Dorchester. Arrive at the hotel shortly before 1 am, so it's been a 16 hour day. The night porter looks at me funny.

"You here alone, sir?"

"Er, yes."

"You sure."

"Um, pretty sure."

"Funny, that. They've put you in the honeymoon suite."

And indeed it is the honeymoon suite. It has drapes, and a four poster bed. I lie on the bed and feel a bit strange, as I've a pretty good idea what a lot of people were doing in this bed before I arrived.

Even more bookstores, and a lunchtime event at a library attended by five (5) people. Feel my shoulders drop a little, but give me talk and rather enjoy myself by the end of the hour. Everyone is kind, everyone is enthusiastic. Sometimes, you do events which are sparsely attended. It's in the nature of the game.

Get dropped at deserted railway station 90 minutes before my train is due to arrive, due to glitch in schedule. Listen to horrible chav play dance music to her best mate and sleeping child out of a tinny mobile phone. Try to listen to my own iPod to block out noise, but the battery is flat.

Spend 90 minutes quietly seething.

Event in Bristol, which is well attended despite the rotten weather, then dinner after with a fellow author. Feel very grown-up, even managing not to spill food on myself despite my tiredness.

Drive myself for a change, as the reps are otherwise engaged. Usually, I drive myself for most of the tour in the UK, but it's been quite nice to have a rep with me, and to have someone else do the driving. The reps are amazingly tolerant and patient. I'm sure that squiring authors around wasn't in the job spec, but they do it with good grace.

Am given a nippy little BMW convertible, and spend the day trying to do some good for the image of BMW drivers by not acting like a knob. News comes in that, after a half week's sales, The Unquiet is at number 6 in the UK bestseller list. It's sold almost 4000 copies in three or four days, which is a huge increase on my previous books. Cheers me up no end.

Very quiet bookstore signing in Bath that night, but I stay for an hour chatting with the readers who've made the effort to come out. We talk about music, old movies, new books. It's one of the pleasures of what I do, and I think I'm more grateful to them for taking the time to chat than they are for getting their books signed. Nice people.

Early train, then more bookstores. Rushed interview with nice website journalist, then a formal signing at Banbury, and followed by coffee and cake with one of my favourite booksellers. Booksellers are interesting people, and the quirkier they are the more I like them. Telephone interview, then on to Birmingham for signing and more drinks with booksellers. (I begin to see a pattern emerging.) Have one glass of wine too many, but don't realise that I've had until . . .

Ow. Seven am start. Head hurts. No painkillers. Long drive to Lincoln for festival event. Want to die. Stop for tea and toast. Still want to die, but not as urgently. Do event, then straight back into car to race for Manchester and flight home. Eventually get painkillers at Manchester airport. Eat chocolate. Feel sorry for myself. Home for two days, then back to the UK next week to finish tour. After that, I realise I have only eight days at home before heading into two full months of promotion. I am already tired. I am going to be very much tireder . . .

This week John read:

Dalek I Loved You by Nick Griffith

and listened to:

New Moon by Elliot Smith
Everybody by The Sea and Cake

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Music competition

Those of you who receive my 'frankly more irregular than it should be' newsletter will know that I am running a competition to give away one of the signed limited editions of The Book of Lost Things. To be in with a chance of winning, I've invited people to nominate an album of their choice that means something special to them, preferably one that may be a little less well known than the norm, and to attempt to explain to others why it is worth listening to it. Further details are available here, but having thrown down the gauntlet, it seemed appropriate that I should nominate an album as well. (Actually, I may end up nominating two albums over the coming weeks, but it is my web site and if I am not permitted to cheat a little, then who is?)

So my first choice is A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile, from 1984. If that seems like a long time ago well a) it is a long time ago and b) it's not as if The Blue Nile has been unduly prolific since then. The band has released four albums in 27 years, of which two, A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats (1989) are pretty much perfect, while at least two-thirds of Peace at Last (1996) and High (2004) qualify for the same description, which isn't bad going by any reckoning.

I bought A Walk Across the Rooftops on cassette (such innocent times) in a record store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 1989. Hats had just come out, but I had not picked it up, despite the critical acclaim it was receiving from all quarters. I had refrained from buying it because I was broke, which is a pretty good reason for not buying something. A Walk Across the Rooftopscost me $3.99, so I figured I wasn't taking a huge financial risk by buying it and it would allow me to find out what all the fuss was about.

The critic Giles Smith once described A Walk Across the Rooftops as "the noise of someone tapping despairingly on a radiator", but he meant it in a good way. I think. At a time when popular music seemed to be dominated by fly-by-night one-hit wonders and goons in pastel suits hanging off the sides of yachts, there was, and remains, something almost austere, even Spartan, about The Blue Nile's debut, at least at first listen. Certainly, that was how it seemed to me as I walked around the resort of Rehoboth Beach hearing it for the first time through the headphones of my little Sony walkman. There were the taps that Smith had mentioned, and then what might have been the bells of a tram, followed by a synthesized brass sound that could barely summon up the energy to exist at all. Suddenly, the most extraordinary voice emerged to sing the opening lines of the title track, underscored by clear-as-crystal pizzicato and a series of bass notes:

I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .

This was the voice of Paul Buchanan, and though it has changed as the years have gone by, deepening, mellowing, it was already one of the most potent and moving vocal sounds in modern popular music when A Walk Across the Rooftops was released. There is a frailty to it, so that it always seems on the verge of breaking, of collapsing in upon itself, but there is a strength underpinning it that prevents this from happening. It is a voice suffused with humanity. It is soulful in the truest sense of that word.

Buchanan was 28 when A Walk Across the Rooftops appeared, and the age of the group's members is crucial to an understanding of their work. Its three core members - Buchanan, Paul Joseph Moore and Robert Bell - had known each other since graduating from the University of Glasgow at the end of the 1970s. This is a group that emerged fully formed on its debut, a trio of men with life experience behind them, and A Walk Across the Rooftop is adult music. Its memories of rooftop walks on "graduation day" are just that: memories. Its songs speak of adult concerns:

If I tell you, will you listen?/ If I tell you, what will happen? ( “Heatwave”)

She’s crying in my shoulder/ Stay, and I will understand you (“Stay”)

Do I love you? Yes, I love you
Will we always be happy go lucky?
Do I love you? Yes, I love you
But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go
All this talking is only bravado

(“Tinseltown in the Rain”)

Was I an adult when I heard it for the first time? I was getting there, I think. I was 23, and I would graduate from university the following year. That summer, while I was exploring the US for the first time, my father would be diagnosed with cancer. By the time I got home he was too ill to recognize me, and he died shortly after. I had been in love a year or two before, seriously in love, and had seen how these things can fall apart so easily. Now I was with someone else, and I loved her. I cried only once over my father. That was shortly before he died, and I wept on her shoulder in a dark movie theater. To this day, I am convinced that I am the only person who has ever cried during The Silence of the Lambs.

The Blue Nile was the music that soundtracked this period of my life, yet I don't associate it with pain or unhappiness. When I listen to it now, I recall being far from home in a new place, with the sun on my face and a sense that, in the months to come, my life would change, and my destiny would lie in my own hands. And my life did change. By the end of that summer I had endured grief and loss, and had come through it. I moved on to a postgraduate degree in journalism, and thought that I might try to find a way to be paid to write. I parted from the woman whom I loved, although we remain in touch and are good friends. We visited the U.S. together, though, before we separated, and perhaps the seeds of the books that were to come later were sown during that visit. By returning, I seemed to be acknowledging that a link had been forged with these places that was destined to influence my life, or perhaps such is the benefit of hindsight. I went back to Rehoboth, and we played A Walk Across the Rooftops on the car stereo as we entered the town. We visited Maine, where I had worked after Delaware, and Virginia, where a small town in which we stayed provided the basis for a large section of Every Dead Thing. I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .

Unlike many albums from the eighties, A Walk Across the Rooftops hasn't dated. It still sounds fresh and pristine, a consequence of a decision by the Scottish hi-fi manufacturer Linn Electronics to form a record label just to release the album, so impressed was Linn with a sample track recorded by the band to showcase the company's audio equipment. Yet it is no sterile technological exercise in sound manipulation. It is a warm, organic record, its initial austerity gradually giving way to reveal the depth and intricacy of its arrangements, Buchanan's voice complementing the instrumentation, never crowding and never being crowded in turn, the various elements coming together to create seven pieces of music spanning less than 38 minutes that still sound like nothing else ever recorded.

Equally, its lyrical sensibilities remain entirely relevant: these are songs of love and doubt, of hope and experience. I saw Paul Buchanan perform live in London last year, in front of a crowd that could only be described as adoring. As the first notes of A Walk Across the Rooftop's title track began to play, I had to force back tears. If you asked me why, I couldn't explain, but perhaps some of it can be understood by what I've written here. Afterwards, I got to meet Paul Buchanan and shake his hand. I didn't tell him how much his music had meant to me. I was afraid that I'd gush, and I didn't want to embarrass him.

A Walk Across the Rooftops is not an album that yields its rewards immediately. It requires a little time, a willingness to listen, to explore. Hats, perhaps, is more accessible, but I came to it after A Walk Across the Rooftops and, while I love Hats, it doesn't have the same personal relevance for me. A Walk Across the Rooftops is a record for those who have lived a little and who, in doing so, have suffered and lost, but who have never lost hope. They will find kindred spirits here, and their lives will be richer for the knowledge of them.

This week John read

The Terror by Dan Simmons

and listened to

A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile
23 by Blonde Redhead
Steve McQueen reissue (acoustic disc) by Prefab Sprout