Sunday, March 25, 2007

First Responses

It's always interesting, and slightly worrying, to read the first responses to a new book. They've begun to creep in for The Unquiet, and they all seem positive, which is a relief given that it is a very different novel from both The Black Angel and, obviously, The Book of Lost Things.

I suppose a couple of things have struck me about these responses. The first is that a number of readers have commented on how much shorter The Unquiet is than The Black Angel, when in fact it's almost the same length. I wanted it to 'read' fast, so in that, at least, I appear to have succeeded. It's also a more linear book, with a very particular momentum. Also, it feels less 'cluttered' to me. I think that some of my books have been, at times, a little busy, overcrowded with characters and incidents. Perhaps I was afraid of losing the reader's attention, or it may have been a function of the way that I write, which is quite organic and unstructured. It's actually much harder to write a book that appears relatively simple, or one that unravels at a methodical rate. Or, to put it another way, its easier to fill a 500 page novel with 50 characters than with five.

It's odd, but looking back it may be that The Black Angel is the odd one out in the last four books. Don't get me wrong: I'm proud of that book, and I did exactly what I set out to do with it. I wanted to write a big, sprawling novel that took in different periods of history, that was steeped in myth and religion, and I think it has a very distinct mood and tone that is sustained throughout. But, in retrospect, "The Reflecting Eye", the Parker novella that featured in Nocturnes, seems to me more and more to be an important stage in my development as a writer. (And perhaps that's true of the Nocturnes collection as a whole, although it will never sell as well as anything else that I've done so far.) "The Reflecting Eye" is tight, and (I hope) tense, yet not a great deal happens in it in the sense that there are no big explosions, no whistles and bangs. It takes its time. Even though it is less than 50,000 words long, there is room to breathe.

The Book of Lost Things also seems to me to be a tightly written book. It is no longer or shorter than it should be, and I don't think there are very many wasted words. It, too, has a feeling of momentum. It moves forward, and its moments of reflection seem integrated to me.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I can see a kind of progression there. I learned something from Nocturnes, and "The Reflecting Eye" in particular, and I can see how it has influenced the books that have followed. The Unquiet represents a further step forward, from my perspective, although I appreciate that not everyone who chooses to read it may feel the same way. People have their favourites among the books of any writer, and it may not always be the writer's best book that they choose. Other factors come into play, factors that are entirely personal to the individual reader in question, and that is as it should be, for otherwise it would be a very dull world indeed.

I don't mean this to sound bigheaded, or vain. It's just that, as a writer, I have a fear of treading water, of repeating myself or of not learning something new in the writing of a book, of not moving forward. Perhaps I feel that the momentum and progression that I see in the books is a reflection of my own slow progress as a writer. I think I'm getting a little better at what I do, or some aspects of it at least, which is reassuring. I'd like to be better at what I do. It seems a worthwhile aim to have . . .

This week John is reading

The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (it's another long book, but I'm in a long book mood at the moment. Very good, though, for anyone who has been a bit put off by its length.)

and listening to

Ash Wednesday by Elvis Perkins
We Know About The Need by Bracken

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On CDs and Adding Stuff to Books

This week, I took delivery of my share of the CDs that will go into The Unquiet. There were rather a lot of them in the end, and the courier certainly earned his money helping me to load them into my garage, but it was nice to see them piled up against the wall after all the work that went into clearing the rights. In a couple of weeks, I'll post the full track listing on my website, along with some notes about the individual tracks and why they were chosen, but in the meantime there are some clues on my myspace page.

Quite a number of years ago now, shortly after my first book came out in paperback, a colleague in The Irish Times, the newspaper for which I still occasionally write, stopped me when I was paying a flying visit to the offices and said: "I hear they're giving away free Mars bars with your books", accompanied by the kind of cackle usually associated with witches going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He was referring to a competition that my publishers were running in association with the book, which involved giving away a vintage car. Frankly, I think I'd nix a similar effort at this stage of my writing career, but then it probably wouldn't be necessary now, or at least not to the same degree. At the time, I was just grateful that they were being so supportive, and that someone was trying to think up novel ways in which to promote the book.

I wonder what that same individual would make of the CDs. I suppose he'd simply cackle again, and feel that his earlier remark was justified, but the purpose of this CD is very different. After all, I don't think we're going to sell very many more books simply because it's included - although it would be great if we did - and certainly not enough to cover the cost of the project. It is, instead, an attempt to combine two different media so that one complements and expands upon the other, as well as an exploration of the possibilities available to authors to broaden the experience of reading a novel.

We did - and are doing - something similar with The Book of Lost Things. A great deal of additional material was collected and written for the book's microsite, and now revised versions of that material, as well as some new stuff, will be included in the paperback of the book, to be published in the UK and elsewhere next month. There will be those who will have no interest in reading it, and that's absolutely fine, but for others who want to explore further the themes dealt with in the book, or who would like to find out a little more about the folk tales and fairy tales used to create it, then that option is now available to them. It also offers book groups a structure for their discussions, which is why I'm taking some time during the tour for The Unquiet to talk specifically about TBOLT to at least one book group. The Book of Lost Things is also the choice of the London Times Book Club for April, and it will be interesting to see how its members respond to the material.

There might be those who would view these additions as signs of a lack of faith in the text itself, but I don't see it that way. The book remains the book, but there's no reason why writers and publishers shouldn't look for ways to widen the experience of reading it. Every book worth its salt raises questions in the mind of the reader, or inspires him or her to investigate further the subjects discussed in it. It seems like a natural progression to me for a book about, say, the Napoleonic wars to have a website created in association with it that would allow readers to view the weapons and uniforms of the period, explore the ships involved in the naval encounters, or engage interactively the battlefields upon which the great armies fought. Given the cost of inserting colour plates into books, this represents a more affordable option for all concerned, as well as providing an element of additional interest for a generation of readers brought up with the Internet in their households.

For the moment, though, let's just see how readers respond to what I've already done. After that, maybe I'll consider tackling battlefields and battleships.

Or maybe not . . .

This week John read

The Colour of Blood by Declan Hughes
Boffo by Peter Bart

and listened to

The Book of Lighting by The Waterboys
These Friends of Mine by Rosie Thomas

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Surprises, and Stuff

I'm writing this in Portland, Maine, where it's warm and slightly slushy. I had hoped to get some work done on The Reapers here, but instead I'm pursuing every possible displacement activity I can find: movies (Zodiac, which is very long. Very. Long.); reading; drinking coffee; attending the Portland Garden Show (I kid you not.); oh, and writing this piece, which I can possibly claim to be work, of a kind.

Actually, being here does help, although not necessarily with The Reapers. After all, no part of that novel is likely to be set in Maine. Instead, I spent some time in New York last week wandering around Queens trying to establish the precise location of Willie Brew's garage. I can't claim that was work either. After all, how can wandering around a interesting, colorful neighborhood trying to place an imaginary auto shop owned by two imaginary characters really be considered work? Still, it was useful to get a sense of the streets they might walk, the stores they might visit, the sights they might see. It's a step towards understanding them, and from there I can give them form, and then the line between the real and the imaginary becomes blurred so that a reader can encounter them in the pages of a book and, with luck, care about them and forget, for a time, that they don't really exist. Except, of course, that as soon as someone begins to care about them they do become real, in a way.

Which brings me back to Portland, because once I begin walking its streets it's as if a kind of phantom of Parker walks them too. No, that's not quite right, but it's rather difficult to explain without sounding like a pseud, or a nutcase. Perhaps the closest I can get to it is a sense that something of him has passed this way, that because the streets, the bars, the restaurants, the parking lots have all found their way into the books, and they are real, Parker too has been given a kind of reality by placing him alongside them. It's a little like visiting a place and learning that someone you know, or of whom you're heard, has been there shortly before you. That sense of him, in turn, acts as a stimulus to my imagination. This short visit hasn't resulted in much writing being done, but the seeds of a new book have been sown nevertheless.

Anyway, this week I encountered a quote from Robert Frost that I liked: "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." I like it because I'm not a planner of books, as some of you will know. I tend to start with the germ of an idea - an image, an individual, a situation - and begin writing, trusting in the process to reveal the book to me as I write. It's not always easy, and I spend more time sweating words out than watching them flow like honey from my fingers, but I am constantly surprised by what emerges, and I hope that some of that surprise communicates itself to the reader. Nuff said. I have coffee to drink, and there's a free showing of The Lady from Shanghai starting in the Art Museum in twenty minutes.

Man, I love this little city.

This week John finished

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (result!)

and read

Astroturf Blonde by Alyson Rudd
All The Pretty Girls (manuscript) by J.T. Ellison

and listened to

Neon Bible by The Arcade Fire
Pocket Symphony by Air

Sunday, March 04, 2007

First Responses

The advance reading copies of The Unquiet have begun circulating, and soon the first responses of readers to the new book will be known. On one level, this always brings with it a sense of trepidation. Will people like it? Will they 'get' what I'm trying to do with this book? True, it was much more difficult for The Book of Lost Things, which was so different to what I had done before, but there is always a feeling of concern on the writer's part when a new book is sent out into the world.

On the other hand, I know that The Unquiet is the best book that I could have written at this time, just as The Book of Lost Things was before it. That knowledge brings with it a certain degree of comfort. What is important, in the end, is that one can stand over the book one has written, that one can be both fond and proud of it. That pride should not be unjustified, or egotistical, or self-congratulatory, but if the writer doesn't feel a sense of pride and affection for what he has done, then the worth of the whole endeavour is called into question. True, there may be times when a writer's judgement of the work is off, or his pride in it misplaced, but generally I would like to think that I might be able to tell when a book is problematical or deeply flawed long before it reaches the desk of my editor.

Then again, sometimes that knowledge only comes in retrospect. Looking back, I can see the flaws in some of my earlier books yet, even then, they were the best books that I could have written at that stage of my life, and of my writing. I hope that, often, the flaws in them were flaws of ambition. There is rather too much going on in The White Road, for example, and when I look at The Unquiet it seems initially simpler and less cluttered by comparison. It's a book that takes its time, that explores a handful of characters, slowly uncovering truths about them, a book that trusts in the patience of the reader. It is very consciously smaller in scale than, say, The Black Angel, but that focus has brought with it a greater depth. Or that, at least, is how I see it. Others - and therein lies the rub, and the source of the anxiety that I always feel at this time - may not see it the same way.

This week John is still reading

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (100 pages to go!)

and listened to

Instead by One,two
Separated by the Sea by Findlay Brown