Sunday, February 18, 2007

On Reading (and, More Importanty, Finishing) A Book

There is a sense of satisfaction in finishing a book. This has been on my mind for the last week or so, mainly because I'm in the process of reading a book that is going to take me quite a while to read.

Earlier this month, I read Wilbur Smith's River God, which is a long book but a fast read. (It's also filled with sex and violence, but I don't say that as if it's a bad thing. Mind you, I could perhaps have done without the intimate description of a full castration but, like most men, I'm rather sensitive that way.) Anyway, while I enjoyed River God, as I've enjoyed most of Smith's historical novels, the dodgy sex apart, I also felt a degree of satisfaction as I closed the book and put it to one side. There, I thought: another book read, and a lengthy one at that. For a moment, I was one step closer to reading every book in my house, albeit a step forwards that would soon be nullified. River God will probably go to my local Oxfam shop, and there is now a space where it once sat on my bookshelves, a space that can be occupied by a new book as soon as I find the time to amble into one of my native city's many bookstores.

And that, after all, is the blessing and the curse afflicting all those who love books and reading: we will die surrounded by books both read and yet to be read. There will always be one more book that we'd rather like to get through before our God takes us. I have visions of myself on my death bed, knowing that I have only days to live, and sizing up the books on my shelf in an effort to calculate which one I'm likely to be able to finish before I gasp my last breath, performing complex mathematical equations involving length of book, ease of reading, and potential literary value versus entertainment value.

As I am now more than halfway through my biblical allocation of three score years and ten, I suspect that I am going to start doing such calculations sooner rather than later. My awareness of my own mortality will make me reluctant to start long books that I may die before I finish, so I'll probably stick to short-to-medium length pieces of literature. With this in mind, I started reading Dickens's Our Mutual Friend last week. Our Mutual Friend is a very, very long book. It's also ripe, late-period Dickens; in fact, it's his last completed novel, and it's a dense, complex read. At a rough estimate, each chapter is about 5000 words long, and it has 66 chapters. That makes Our Mutual Friend the equivalent of almost four literary novels of average length.

It's also wonderful, of course, a reminder of just how thin and unambitious so much modern fiction really is, but I have resigned myself to the fact that I am likely to be reading it for a number of weeks to come. (To give myself the occasional break to draw breath, though, I am dipping into GUBU Nation, Damien Corless's collection of some of the stranger moments in recent Irish history, which I can heartily recommend to those who would like an insight into why, and precisely how, Irish people are very odd indeed.)

Our Mutual Friend also made me mull over, in passing, the major difference between crime fiction and great literary fiction that uses crime as a catalyst for the action of the novel. There is a suspicious death at the heart of Our Mutual Friend, but the death of Harmon is interesting to Dickens principally because of the ripples (both metaphorical and literal, as Harmon's body is fished from the Thames) it creates in the lives of a great many others. Similarly, Dickens's Bleak House could be regarded, on one level, as a precursor of the legal thriller, except, of course, that the issue of law involved in the case of Jarndyce & Jarndyce is largely irrelevant to the plot of the novel. I wonder, perhaps, if that is what distinguishes the crime novel from the literary novel: the literary novel may sometimes use elements of crime fiction, but it looks outwards from the crime and is under no obligation to return to it. Crime fiction, meanwhile, must always return ultimately to the scene of the crime, and provide some sort of solution to it, however partial that solution may be. It is at once both its principal strength - giving a sense of propulsion to the narrative, a direction that compels the reader towards its finish - and also, arguably, a possible source of weakness.

Ultimately, though, that depends upon our reasons for reading crime fiction to begin with, and to ask it to perform the same task as literary fiction is, perhaps, unfair. That said, I thought George Pelecanos's The Night Gardener was Dickensian in its aim, less interested in the series of murders that inspired it than the impact of those murders upon the lives of a number of individuals. It's interesting, too, that Pelecanos writes for HBO's The Wire, which is similarly Dickensian in its sweep.

Now it's time to return to Our Mutual Friend: rich, challenging, and 142 years old.
Or young.

This week - and for weeks to come - John is reading

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

and listened to

My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go by Aerogramme
Late Night Tales compiled by Nouvelle Vague

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Music Business

This week, we put to bed the CD that will go into Hodder & Stoughton's edition of The Unquiet. The master arrived this morning, and the artwork will go to the printer this evening, all things going well. It was a long haul: the process of clearing tracks began last August, and we've ended up with 15 pieces of music that I think complement the books and, equally importantly, hang together as a coherent compilation.

Music plays a significant part in The Unquiet, so much so that five of the tracks on the CD (entitled Into The Dark) are related in some way to that novel. In fact, the first words in the book come from a song, "When In Rome" by Nickel Creek. They are:

Where can a dead man go?/ A question with an answer only dead men know. . .

and they're acutely relevant to the plot of the book. The other songs come from The National, Sufjan Stevens, The Czars, and The Delgados. Of those, one is quoted from directly, two indirectly, and the final one plays in the background in one scene. I like the idea that readers will have easy access to those songs, and that they might add an extra dimension to the experience of the book.

There is also undeniably a fan boy element to the creation of such a CD, the equivalent of making a mix tape or playlist for a friend, although in this case it's a playlist for 80,000 people, most of whom I've never met. Yet in every case a certain amount of agonizing went into the selection of the songs. It wasn't enough that I liked a song or an artist: the tracks in question had to reflect something about my books, either lyrically or in terms of mood. I also wanted it to be a little more eclectic than the first compilation, Voices In The Dark, which was bound into the US edition of The Black Angel. For that CD, I very much wanted to create a specific mood, one that was slightly melancholic and suggestive of one crucial element of both Parker's make up and the make up of the novels themselves.

Into The Dark, by contrast, has more specific links to the books in many cases, and the tone is more varied. It was - and continues to be - an expensive exercise, but one that strikes me as worth doing. I hope, at the very least, that those who hear the CD will discover some new music, and may then go on to explore the work of the artists in question in greater detail, while at the same time gaining a slightly different perspective on my own work.

I suppose, by this point, I'm always open to lyrics that might work with the books, just as I keep an eye out for snippets of poetry and prose that I can use. There is a kind of resonance achieved, I think, when one form of creative endeavor is successfully linked to another, the two constituent elements forming something that is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Sometimes, a lyric or a line of poetry will spark a train of thought, becoming a catalyst for a development in the plot that previously might not have been considered. For example, the hooded woman in The White Road might not have made her way into the book had I not read T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and recalled a figure "Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded", and it then seemed important to quote the relevant section of the poem at the start of the book.

At other times, an image from a song or poem will so perfectly complement something that already exists in the plot that it would be foolish to ignore it. Eliot is quoted again in The Unquiet, this time in the form of lines from "The Hollow Men":

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men . . .

In this case, the concept of the "Hollow Men" already existed in my mind, but it was Eliot's poem that gave them their name, and a little of their nature.

Something similar happens with songs. It seemed appropriate that, at a crucial moment in The Killing Kind, Parker should have Jim White's eerie "Still Waters" (also included on the new CD) playing in the background, and he notes in passing White's wonderful lyric: "Well, don't you know there's projects for the dead and there are projects for the living/ But sometimes I must confess I get confused by that distinction . . ." That lyric seemed to sum up Parker's dilemna in a nutshell, and so it made it into the novel.

Anyway, the time is fast approaching when both The Unquiet and Into The Dark will see the light of day, but in the meantime a full track listing should appear on my website in April. While it would have been wonderful to include the compilation with every copy of the book in every territory, it would have bankrupted me. Still, 80,000 isn't bad to be getting along with . . .

This week John read

River God by Wilbur Smith

and listened to

Calenture (reissue) by The Triffids
Regard The End by Willard Grant Conspiracy
Into The Dark (master) by Various

Monday, February 05, 2007

And The Winner Is . . .

This week, I was nominated for a prize. Well, not me, exactly (to say that "I" was nominated for a prize makes it sound a bit like I was given the nod just for being me, which would be flattering, if rather unlikely) but The Book of Lost Things, which I wrote and for which I can therefore claim a certain amount of credit.

Being nominated for a prize brings with it a certain amount of trepidation. It's always nicer to be nominated than not to be nominated, but it's also nicer to win than not to win. Being a glass is half-empty kind of person, I suspect that I'll spend the weeks to come perfecting my resigned-but-not-bitter-in-defeat look. Actually, I've had a bit of experience with that one already, to be honest, and not just in the area of literary prizes, so it's not like it will be a stretch.

Every Dead Thing won a prize, the Shamus, in the US, but due to all sorts of confusion I managed to miss the ceremony and was eventually presented with my prize in a bar just before the staff decided to eject everyone, so "handed quickly and boozily" might be more accurate than "presented" in this case. It was still nice to receive it, though. In the UK, a judge on one of the big crime prizes announced that Every Dead Thing would be nominated over his/her dead body. In retrospect, that would have been a fair swap.

A couple of years later I was nominated for a literary prize, but I didn't win it. Rightly so: the winning book was better than mine, so there could be no argument. After the announcement, a very well known Irish critic and literary commentator who was present for the ceremony patted me on the arm and pointed out that I wrote quite well, and perhaps I should consider writing a proper novel. Actually, I think his exact words were "a novel more appropriate to my talents" but it amounted to the same thing. Now such comments are, to borrow a Gary Larson quote, "acid off a duck's back", but at the time I remember feeling a bit hurt.

Meanwhile, the gloss on another potential prize was slightly tarnished when a fellow writer told me that he had agreed to have his name removed from the ballot in order to "give someone else a chance to win". I don't know if the latter was true or not, but the fact that the author in question would even bother to say it revealed a lot about him. Silly sod.

I suppose that what is nice about this prize is that it's for the Irish Novel of the Year. I don't get nominated for stuff very often, and less so in my own country, so a nod of any kind is gratefully received. There is also the fact that I am, and am likely to remain, a genre novelist, even if The Book of Lost Things doesn't quite fit neatly into any genre I can think of. I will rarely find myself in the running for a more general literary prize, and the experience is rather flattering.

But, for now, it's back to The Reapers. And, you know, that's no bad thing either.

This week John read

Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

and listened to

Adjágas by Adjágas
Wincing the Night Away by The Shins