Sunday, March 29, 2009


My editors, and my agent, have now read THE GATES, and everybody seems very enthusiastic about it, which is a relief. It's always a bit of a risk taking time out from the books that I know will sell in order to write something that no one may be particularly keen on when it's done. It's also a matter of finding the time, or making the time, to pursue such experiments. I've written before about the demands on a writer's time, of which the actual writing of books is only one, and of how I find writing a book a year as much as I can generally manage.

And yet, and yet . . .

Some years ago, probably around the time that I was touring THE KILLING KIND in the United States, I was asked what I planned to do next. I can remember answering that I wanted to write a strange children's book about a small boy who… well, that remains to be seen, or read. At that point, I'd been thinking about the book for a year, but the problem was that I couldn't quite figure out how to write it. I mean, I knew what it was going to be about, but I really had no idea how I was going to make it work.

Then, perhaps three years ago, I made a start on it. I got three chapters in, and abandoned it, because it just wasn't right. I still have two of those chapters, and they're on my desktop as I write. They're entitled "The Singing Rock" and "The Lady Maresin". Neither of them made it into the finished version of THE GATES. In fact, nothing of those original chapters remains in the book that I eventually wrote.

Part of the problem, I think, was magic. I just didn't want to write a book about magic. There were too many books about magic out there already, and magic gives the author an easy 'out'. How was that done? Well, it was magic. Magic is like playing the joker in a card game. It can be anything that you want it to be, but it's kind of a cheat, and it gets irritating very quickly, which is why there's only one joker in a pack of cards.

So I didn't want to use magic, and I couldn't work out how to write the book that I wanted to write, and anyway there were all of these other books to write, and maybe it wasn't an idea that was ever going to come to fruition, just something that might have been. But it just kept nagging at me, because it was such a lovely idea, and I could almost see the boy who would be at the heart of the novel. He was quirky, and eccentric, and he had a small dog on a leash…

And then, early last year, I had a flash of inspiration. I don't get them very often, as I don't think my mind works in quite that way, but when it came it unlocked the book. What's more interesting than magic? Well, I thought, science. Science is interesting. No, strike that: science is fascinating and, what's more, it's real.

Let's be clear on something here: I'm no scientist. I studied physics in school, and passed it, but not with any flying colours, and subsequently no scientific institutions were knocking on my door desperate to recruit me for their secret projects. But the most jaw-droppingly amazing things that I've read about over the last few years have all come out of the realm of science, and the more I've read about it, the more I've come to realise that I know only a fraction of the things that I should know, and want to know, about the nature of the universe, about quantum physics, about how stuff is put together.

After finishing THE LOVERS, I worked flat out on THE GATES. It was a labour of love. I so wanted to write it, and I didn't care if it was going to be picked up or not. Oh, it would have hurt a bit if it had been rejected by my publishers, but I wouldn't have regretted a moment of the time that I spent writing it. I was able to let my imagination run riot, while at the same time retaining a thread of pure science. At times, it felt like a bit of a balancing act, and I've asked the physics department of my old university to check the science to make sure I haven't mangled some very complicated stuff too much, but I hope that the enthusiasm behind it is communicated to those who read it. We'll see.

So THE GATES is a book that combines quantum physics and, well, Satanism, I suppose. It's littered with odd little footnotes, and the occasional drawing. Some of the footnotes are just little nuggets of information about the universe, while others contain pieces of advice, or short essays on, say, the word "the" as it relates to historical figures. Mostly, they're funny, although I hope that they're kind of curious and interesting as well. The kids who've read it have really loved it but, thankfully, so too have the adults. If THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS was a children's book for adults, then THE GATES is, in a way, an adult book for children. It will probably appear everywhere in time for Halloween.

Now you know, sort of. More to come over the next few weeks and months. As for me, it's back to THE WHISPERERS.

This week John read

Nice To See It, To See It, Nice: The 1970s in Front of the Telly by Brian Viner
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

and listened to

Fever Ray by Fever Ray (which is just stunning)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I sometimes think that my publishers don't pay me for writing, which I kind of enjoy most of the time, despite what my peers sometimes say, but for all of the other stuff that goes with writing. (And if you're wondering what that means, the rather good Irish novelist Colm Toibin recently opined that the only pleasant thing about writing was the money, which was a bit unfortunate and did him no favours at all . . .)

Anyway, this week was a period of copy-edits and proof reading for THE LOVERS, both of which are horrible things to have to do, although checking copy-edits rather shades it in the horrible stakes. Basically, the copy-edit is the stage that follows editorial suggestions. Someone has gone through the manuscript very carefully, checking punctuation, grammar, and looking out for inconsistencies in the narrative. It's a job that requires terrifying degrees of knowledge and concentration, and also, I think, requires one to be fairly anal. Basically, it's the equivalent of those times in school when your teacher sat you down and went through your homework with a red pen. It's awful.

Proof pages, meanwhile, are what the author receives once the book has been typeset. It's a last chance to check for errors, but also requires the author to go through the proofs, line by line, looking for misplaced commas, absent periods, and the odd word that has just been mangled somewhere along the way. It's tedious, and you can only do a chapter or two at a time before you need to give it a break, as otherwise you start skimming.

The whole process was complicated to a head-wrecking degree this week because the British publisher's copy-edits, and the American publisher's page proofs, arrived at the same time, with the same delivery date. Now, I'd already done the American copy-edit in Maine, and I'd photocopied the manuscript so that I would have a record of the changes I, and the copy-editor, had made in order to apply them to the British version. (I've noticed over the last decade that having two copy-editors is a mixed blessing: each one spots errors that the other one missed, but the result is that I have to juggle manuscripts, and publishing schedules, in order to make sure that the same changes are made to both editions, which is difficult at times.) So, using my dining table (as my desk wasn't big enough), I had the photocopied American copy-edited manuscript in one corner, the British copy-edited manuscript in another, and the American proof pages in a third.

Then, to further muddy the waters, I had an early copy of the manuscript that had been marked by Peter English, the very helpful, patient, and tolerant ex-NYPD cop who has been advising me on police matters for THE LOVERS, so that ended up in the final corner. I think you can see where I'm going with this...

The US copy-edits needed to be added to the British copy-edit. The British copy-edit needed to be added to the US proofs. Peter's changes needed to be added to both editions. Changes made to the US proofs needed to be added to the British copy-edit.

The word you're looking for is "Ouch!"

Meanwhile, I discovered that a major character in THE LOVERS shared a surname with a recurring character from the series, so that had to be altered. Since it was all on paper rather than on a screen, the only way to do it was to carefully hunt down each reference to the new character, and alter the name by hand on two separate editions. Alongside all of that, I did a final rewrite of THE GATES, and sent it off to my agent and editors, which provided a welcome break from agonizing over THE LOVERS. My agent liked it, so now it remains to be seen if my editors want to publish it.

To be honest, my head still hurts a bit, but it's all done. Tomorrow, I'll get back to writing THE WHISPERERS.

And do you feel sorry for me?

Sigh. I didn't think so...

This week John read

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

and listened to

The Best of Laura Nyro by Laura Nyro

Zidane (Original Soundtrack) by Mogwai

Friday Night Lights (Original Soundtrack) by Explosions In The Sky

The Falcon And The Snowman (Original Soundtrack) by Pat Metheny