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