Monday, November 24, 2008


The new book, THE LOVERS, has finally gone to my editors, and my agent, and it was only three days late which, under the circumstances (lost early sections; last minute rewrite; the insertion by hand, using gum and scissors, of sections of the Enochian alphabet), I consider to be quite an achievement.

Printing off the book always tends to be the most stressful part of the act of constructing a book, for a number of reasons. To begin with, as I've mentioned here before, I never print off the book until I'm ready to send it to my editors. Printing it off is, for me, an admission that, for now, I have done all I can with it.  True, I could continue to rewrite until hell froze over, or until my publishers sent some big guys around to reclaim the furniture that I purchased with their advances, but the changes that I might make would become increasingly minor until, in the end, even I might cease to notice them, or to remember why it was so important to make those changes to begin with. When I begin to print off the book, it becomes a manuscript, rather than a potential manuscript, or a work-in-progress. Depending upon the responses of my editors, and my beloved agent, I may make further changes before the novel is sent to the printer, but these will be changes brought about by the actions of others. My feeling, at this point, is that I've probably done, if not everything possible to improve it, then nearly everything, and the best solution for everyone is probably just to let the book go and see what happens.

But that day of printing . . .

It began at 11.30 A.M., shortly after I'd returned from a pair of dental appointments, and concluded shortly after 1.30 A.M. the following morning, with one break to eat, and watch a little of the Ireland V Poland match. I suppose that I could have spread the process of printing the book off over a number of days, but for some reason I never manage to do that. It may be a hangover from journalism, and the urge to keep writing and changing right up until the deadline, in the hope that a burst of inspiration on the home straight might result in dramatic improvements to the text.

On a more practical level, though, it's also the first - and last - time, that I will ever go through the book, chapter by chapter, over the course of a single day. The intensity of that examination, although exhausting, means that I'm a little more aware of the need to catch inconsistencies, and I'm more likely to spot them if I'm reading the last chapter hours, rather than days, since I've read the first. In addition, the knowledge that the manuscript will be read by others for the first time occasionally spurs me on to solve minor problems that have nagged at me for a while, or simply recognize the existence of flaws that had, perhaps, eluded me before.

While printing off the middle section of THE LOVERS, I discovered one small detail that I suspected didn't quite gel with something I wrote in the first book, EVERY DEAD THING, more than a decade ago. I think that I'd been putting off returning to that first book simply because I find it difficult to go back over work that I have written years before. It's a bit like exposing oneself to one's youthful indiscretions, and the critic in me fears that I won't be able to forgive myself for failings, either real or imagined, in those books that I wrote when I was younger. Nevertheless, knowing that the manuscript would be sent off to my editors the following morning, I overcame those doubts, found (with some difficulty) the relevant section, and realized that changes would have to be made in light of it. Better to deal with them now rather than later, when the manuscript has been typeset, or, worse, to dismiss those concerns as unfounded and find, when the book has been published, that the whole delicate balance of the series has been undone by my lack of care.

I suspect that I also felt it was particularly important to get these details right for THE LOVERS, which delves so deeply into Parker's past, and which, if I've managed to do what I intended to do, sets up the series for what is to come later. It's a novel that pretty much puts its hands in the air and says, Look, these are not simply independent novels, but are coming together to form part of a larger whole, and some of the hard spadework for that attempt at unifying them is being done here. Meanwhile, the last chapter hints at a possible direction for the final book, and a character from one of the non-series novels makes a reappearance. All of that had to be done while permitting new readers to begin with THE LOVERS, if they chose, without alienating them entirely by giving them the uncomfortable sensation that they had arrived late to a party that had been going on for some time.

By 11 P.M ., I was sitting on the floor of my office, painstakingly cutting out small rectangular boxes, each containing symbols relevant to the book, and pasting them into the manuscript, since my word processing program steadfastly refused to allow me to transfer them directly on screen. I did that for three separate manuscripts - one each for my American and British editors, and one for my agent - before I realized that it might have been more sensible just to do all of those pages once, and then photocopy them three times before reinserting them into the printed manuscript, since I now fear that the symbols may come off when the manuscript is being photocopied and gum up my publishers' expensive photocopiers. (I'm not sure if my agent has an expensive photocopier. He doesn't seem like the sort. Anyway, I've never been to my agent's office, an admission that tends to surprise some people. It's not that he hasn't invited me; it's just that it's always seemed more civilized for us to meet over lunch, or a glass of wine. Anyway, I'm now superstitious about the whole matter. I'm afraid that, if I do visit, the building will fall down, or my career as a writer will come to a sudden end with everyone confessing that it was all a big mistake, and they'd meant to publish someone else with my name but had been too embarrassed to admit to their error until now . . .)

By midnight, my head was hurting, and I was struggling to keep on top of what I was doing. I was trying to paginate, and forgetting what page the last chapter had ended on. I had discovered that changes made to two early chapters had not been saved, for some reason, so I needed to go through them again while trying to remember what I had altered earlier in the week. The paper holder from my copier fell off and ended up behind my desk, which is against a wall and sits almost flush with the side walls, meaning that I had to shift the desk from side to side until I could lie on top of it and, with the aid of a ruler and a plastic folder, haul the paper holder up  until I was able to reach it.

That took a while.

Then, when all the chapters were laid out on my office floor, I put the manuscripts together, making sure that I hadn't forgotten to print a chapter off, and that the pages all appeared to match. Finally, I went to bed, but as I was about to go to sleep I thought of three things that should be checked or changed, so I had to turn on the light again, find a pen and a piece of paper, and write a note to myself reminding me of what those things were when I woke up.

After that, I couldn't go to sleep.

But is was worth it, in the end, and not just because the manuscripts were printed and could be handed over to Peter at Postnet to be entrusted to the courier later that afternoon. It meant that I had one glorious, guilt-free day to myself: one day when I felt that I could breathe easy and do something frivolous, and not feel guilty about not working on the book; one day during which the book existed in a state of suspension, not being worked upon but not yet being judged, a secret thing that might be wonderful or might be awful, one that had not yet entered the next stage of its existence and become part of the editing and publishing process; one day spent wandering around bookstores, drinking coffee, reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it without the nagging feeling that this was time stolen from my own book; one day between the completion of one novel, and the commencement of another.

That's how long that state of bliss lasts: one day. It's the same with every book that I write. I get one day, and after that I start worrying, and feeling guilty again.

But that one day is a great one . . .

This week John read

Bleed a River Dry (uncorrected proof) by Brian McGilloway
Mad Dogs by James Grady

and listened to

Belle & Sebastian: The BBC Sessions
Ladyhawke by Ladyhawke
God Is An Astronaut by God Is An Astronaut
Car Alarm by The Sea and Cake

Thursday, November 06, 2008


It strikes me that, as time goes on, the gap between these ‘weekly’ columns grows longer and longer. It’s not deliberate, I hasten to add; instead, it’s simply the case that I find I have less and less to say that I haven’t said already, and the time in which I have to say it grows shorter and shorter. There are books and stories to write (and books and stories to read), and I realize that some of those who glance at these occasional pieces might well feel the same way. I don’t want to waste their time with thoughts jotted down simply for the sake of it...

I’m writing this in an Italian restaurant in Portland, Maine. I’ve retreated to the city to finish revising THE LOVERS, as there are few distractions here, and I find it easier to slip into a routine in which writing and rewriting take up the bulk of my day. But, prior to arriving here, I spent a week doing a number of literary festivals in Canada, and it was an enlightening, if sometimes frustrating, experience.

For the most part, mystery writers tend to spend most of their time with other mystery writers. There are dedicated mystery conventions during which we can consort with like-minded souls, and even when we do venture into the more rarified atmosphere of literary festivals, we tend to be corralled with our own kind, which is unfortunate and reflects a tendency among festival organizers to assume that a) mystery fiction is of no interest to anyone other than hardcore devotees; and b) that mystery authors have nothing to add to larger discussions of literature and writing, due to general ignorance of anything beyond mystery fiction, and a lack of interest in anything other than who was murdered, and how.

Thus, the Canadian experience, although very pleasant in many ways (almost without exception, everyone involved in organizing these Candian festivals was unfailingly kind, polite and well-read, and I have rarely been treated better anywhere as a writer), also proved to be remarkably disheartening in others, if revealing of an attitude towards mystery writers and mystery fiction that some of us had hoped was largely a thing of the past.

1) At a literary salon – I know, I know, but I’d agreed to attend, and I am, if nothing else, a man of my word, most of the time - I listen as a young Canadian writer expresses the view that mystery fiction has no business being nominated for literary prizes on the grounds that, well, it just sells too many copies, and therefore mystery writers have no need of the acclaim and the (often modest) financial rewards that accompany such prizes. When I point out to him that such an argument would also exclude, say, Salman Rusdie from consideration for the Booker Prize, he smirks and responds: “But Rusdie wasn’t nominated for the Booker Prize this year…”

And everyone in the room laughs.

2) A fellow Irish author enquires how I go about constructing a mystery narrative, given that it requires the farming out of information at certain intervals. I reply that I don’t plan it at all, and instead the revelations in question occur in part both naturally in the course of the initial draft and are also subject to revision during the process of rewriting as the heart of the narrative gradually reveals itself. I make the point that it is no different from the way in which a literary author approaches a book, and note the fact that his own most recent novel depends upon a series of revelations about an act of startling violence that has occurred many years in the past, so the difference between our texts is hardly as significant as he might believe. He doesn’t even answer, but simply turns around and walks away, as if appalled that I might suggest any degree of commonality between us.

3) A British novelist, a first-time author, admits that he has never, until recently, read a mystery novel, but having read one he now understands the appeal of the genre. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, he suggests. It’s about excitement, and nothing more. He doesn’t tell the audience which particular mystery novel he has read, or why he considers it representative of a
genre of which, by his own admission, he knows nothing.

4) A young American novelist, one whom I can only hope was drunk at the time, commences a spectacularly ignorant attack on genre fiction. Even allowing for any possible intake of alcohol, she is quite stunningly rude. Her basic argument, if I understand it correctly, is that mystery fiction works according to a basic template: in her immortal words, “something happens ...”

Once I have managed to lock my jaw back into place, I try to follow her argument to its logical conclusion. If the criticism of mystery fiction is that something happens, then the defence of her particular brand of literary fiction must be that nothing happens. I try to recall the last time I enjoyed a narrative in which nothing happened, and, eventually, admit failure. Even Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (a play of which it was famously remarked that nothing happens – twice) is full of incident, and that is as close as I can get to an apparently uneventful narrative that works.

Before I can raise this point, an individual involved at the highest level with the organization of the festival in question intervenes. He is someone whom I rather like, but as I listen to what he has to say I have to make a conscious effort to separate the individual from his words. He posits that mystery fiction is inferior to literary fiction because literary writers “hone” their work. They fret about it, reworking it time and time again, whereas genre writers simply churn out novels. With each book, literary writers are forced to reinvent the wheel, discarding all that went before in favor of an entirely new construct. They are original, while genre writers are essentially imitative.

Eventually, I just give up and go to bed. Life, I feel, is far too short, and I've heard so much of this before. The tension between literary and genre fiction, however spurious those labels may be, will continue not only long after I go to bed on such occasions, but probably long after I'm dead, too.

Which brings us back to Maine, and an Italian restaurant. Today, I have spent seven hours working on the draft of THE LOVERS. I will do the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. To give myself a break, I have begun writing something else, but my concentration upon this second book is not complete. Even when I am not working on THE LOVERS, it seems to occupy the bulk of my time. I am now on my sixth start-to-finish draft of the book. Before it reaches my publishers, I anticipate that I will have gone through it twice more. Even after it reaches them, I will act upon the suggestions of both my British and American editors (two more drafts); I will read the copy edited manuscript, and make changes there (one draft); and I will make the final changes to the typeset work, even if I have to pay for the resetting of the alterations myself, when it is eventually presented to me (the final draft).

I make that twelve drafts. By any stretch of the imagination, I think that counts as honing my work, and I will do so beset by all of the doubts about its worth that, I assume, trouble my literary colleagues. I manage to fit all of these drafts into one year (the original starting point for that unfortunate discussion about the value of genre v literary fiction) because, quite frankly, I work hard. I come from a journalistic background, and I believe that art and craft are not mutually exclusive. One works at one’s craft, and one hopes that, along the way, art may possibly emerge. Even if it does not, one can still take pride in the fact that one has done one’s best.

So to hell with all of the rest. When THE LOVERS eventually appears, I will know that I have done my best, despite its inevitable flaws. And I will learn from those mistakes, and I will apply what I have learned to what I do next. I know that I value what I do as much as any literary writers, and I put my heart and soul into it, just as much as they do.

And besides, I’ll probably sell more copies than most of those writers will anyway, even if it does render me ineligible for prizes in the new world order being planned by Canadians . . .

This week John read

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

and listened to

Still Crooked by Crooked Still
Shrink by The Notwist
Cardinology by Ryan Adams