I must confess that I'm having a rare old time doing the ABC to XTC radio show on 2XM. As my friend Mark Billingham pointed out, it's a bit of a dream gig playing favourite music from the late Seventies and into the Eighties. With that in mind, I've decided that the last show of 2010 should be made up of tracks from Favourite Albums of the Eighties, nominated by listeners, Twitterers, and those who happen to keep an eye on my blogs and posts. So far, I've already received a fairly eclectic selection of suggestions, including The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths, Remain In Light by Talking Heads, Disintegration by The Cure, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels by Dexys Midnight Runners, London Calling by The Clash (technically an album of the seventies, but as it was released on December 14th, 1979, we'll allow it) and Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk. If you'd like to add a nomination, please do, either via email@example.com, or via Twitter @jconnollybooks, or via Facebook, or simply by posting a comment at the end of the blog. Suggestions by Friday, please, and we'll credit the nominees on the show, further details of which are available at http://www.rte.ie/digitalradio/twoxm/ Thanks! J
The first draft of THE BURNING SOUL, the next Parker book, is almost complete. There's always a sense of relief that comes at this point. The book is far from done, and it would be virtually unreadable to anyone who was unfortunate enough to be handed it, but there is at least a plot that holds together, and a number of characters who, with a little more development, might almost resemble fully realized beings. I'm happy, too, with the mood of the book. It's a brooding novel, set in an isolated community on the Maine coast where a young girl named Anna Maxwell has gone missing, and a man named Randall Haight, who was involved in the death of a girl of similar age when he was himself little more than a child himself, finds that someone in the town has discovered his secret. At its heart it's a ghost story, I suppose, with various characters being haunted by the specters of children, and with the fate of Anna Maxwell hanging over everything and everyone. When I first began writing EVERY DEAD THING, I thought that each chapter of the book had to be perfect before I could move on to the next. For that reason, I spent months honing the early chapters, believing that I couldn't proceed to Chapter Two until Chapter One was flawless and unblemished. It took me a long time to realize that, no matter how hard I tried, Chapter One would still be flawed and blemished, because it would always be open to some improvement, however minute. Part of the experience of writing is learning to live with the imperfect nature of the endeavor. In that sense, it's probably good practice to move on to the next chapter while acknowledging that the previous one may still require some work. In the end, even when you're offering it to a publisher or agent, it will STILL require some work. In fact, when it's bound between two covers and presented to the public, the writer's first response to his or her book, upon picking up the finished copy when it arrives in the mail, will probably be, "You know, that chapter could have done with some cuts" or, "Hey, I've repeated the word 'umbilical' twice in two lines." No two writers write in quite the same way, but all will make their own accommodation with the flawed nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged. I've learned to love the flaws, because in every flaw lies the possibility of improvement. At the moment, THE BURNING SOUL has character names that aren't quite right, or have changed two or three times in the course of the manuscript as I test them out on the page. There is dialogue that bears no relation to the way people might actually speak, but is there solely to enable me to move on to the next scene. There are incidents missing from the plot because they haven't been written yet, as I couldn't figure out quite what they should be, or how they should transpire. I could have beaten myself up for days or weeks trying to wrestle them into some shape, frustrating myself and slowing progress to a crawl, but instead I left them until later. There is nobody looking over my shoulder, and I have long since silenced the grave critic on my shoulder who hindered my writing at the start of my career by picking holes in a manuscript that was already barely held together by threads. Let him have his say later when the book is done. For now, he has nothing of value to offer. So this week will see the conclusion written, and then the pleasant task of rewriting and editing can begin. I love this part. The preliminary sketch is done, and I can tell the dimensions of the work, and see the shapes upon the page. Now it's a matter of shading, of detailing. Over the months to follow, the book will come to life. Flawed life, but life nonetheless. THIS WEEK JOHN READ The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien The Thing Is . . . by Dave Fanning AND LISTENED TO How They Are by Peter Broderick A Certain Hostility by Vitesse
Saw the wonderful Punch Brothers in Portland, Maine tonight, although I suspect Chris Thile had no idea who I was when I introduced myself after the gig, and was just being polite, despite the fact that I'd paid a couple of thousand dollars out of my own pocket for the rights to one Nickel Creek song and one lyric line to be used in 'The Unquiet'. Crumbs, it cost me ten times as much as an entire verse of T S Eliot. Sigh. Oh well. In his defense, he did look a bit shellshocked after a great performance, and I struggle with names all the time, especially in those circumstances. He is extraordinarily gifted, and, in 'This Is the Song', he may well have produced his loveliest work to date. I just don't think I have a memorable name, or face. Buy the album 'Antifogmatic' - an antifogmatic being, apparently, an alcoholic drink one has in the morning to steel oneself for a day's work. You learn something new every day . . . -------------------------------------------------------------------- mail2web.com - Microsoft® Exchange solutions from a leading provider - http://link.mail2web.com/Business/Exchange
Three weeks: that's how much time I have set aside to hunker down and make some real progress on the next Charlie Parker novel. I made a few steps in the right direction today - writing at the house in the morning, grabbing a sandwich nearby, then writing again at a coffee shop - but I realize that it's a luxury to be able to write in this way, and I'm fortunate to have been allowed the time. Ultimately, this kind of routine is impossible to sustain: eventually, you burn out, but it's also the case that being a recluse of sorts is not necessarily ideal, or healthy. The best situation is one in which the writing life finds a balance with ordinary life. It will always be imperfect, and frequently it will need to be adjusted one way or the other, but in the end it's the only way to write, because writing then becomes part of the ebb and flow of one's existence, and not something apart from it.
Then again, I think that at some point in the creation a book, all writers, and certainly all published writers, need to take time away from the distractions of day-to-day life and do nothing but write. It may be at the start of the process, or in the middle when progress has slowed, or right at the end, when the finish line is in sight and it requires one last concentrated effort to cross the line, but it has to be done. If nothing else, it gives a focus to the work in hand. It can be hard to keep the image of the forest in one's head when you're progressing through it, tree by tree.
Even when I was writing my first book, at a time when I did not have a publisher but did, at least, have an agent who wanted to read it, I can remember taking a week off work in order to finish the draft. I wrote in a rigid kitchen chair at an old table in my bedroom, and I think my back hurt for another week after. I wrote thousands of words every day. I forced myself to stay in that chair and not move until I felt that I really couldn't write any more, until my back was screaming and the words on the computer screen grew fuzzy.
But perhaps that idea of seclusion is merely an extreme example of the regular, low-key seclusion that all writers, whether actual or aspiring, need in order to work. When I'm trying to help people who are struggling to write, overwhelmed by the task that they have set themselves and the other demands on their time - work, husbands, wives, children, friends, dogs - I always tell them to start small. They should snatch ten or fifteen minutes every day, and set an easily attainable goal: 100 words, say, which is not very much at all. They should do this at a time when they can be sure of no other distractions, and I've known people who've started to wake up fifteen minutes earlier in the mornings, before the kids have to be rousted, or before they have to run for the train, and that's their brief period of seclusion. Three days of work in this way will produce about one page of a book, although most people find that the work speeds up as the days go by, and where once they might have produced 100 words, they now produce 150, or 200, or 300.
It helps also to have a particular place in which to work, especially if you have kids, or flatmates, or a demanding spouse. You close the door, or set yourself up at the kitchen table, and you make it clear to them that this is your time, and you have to be left alone. After a while, people come to expect it. Not only does writing become part of your routine, but your writing becomes part of the routine of others.
So seclusion, like most things, is relative, and while absolute seclusion may be ideal - I have one friend who goes to stay in a country house bed and breakfast when he needs to get a lot of writing done, another who runs off to a cottage in the hills, a third who makes use of a retreat house for writers - it's not always possible, or available, or affordable. But every writer has to find his or her own space, both physical and psychological, and make the best use of it. Three weeks, an hour, fifteen minutes: you take what you can get . . .
This week John read
Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man by Christopher Bray
I hope you missed me as much as I missed you. Because I did miss you. A lot. I'm really a very sensitive man, you know.
Here's what I've been doing while I've been trying not to miss you, along with some stuff that I will be doing so that I don't miss you more . . .
ABC TO XTC: THE BEST OF NEW WAVE, POST-PUNK, SYNTH, AND MUCH MORE . . .
From next week I'll be hosting a weekly hour-long radio show for RTE's digital station, 2XM. The show, entitled ABC to XTC, allows me to indulge my love of music from 1977 until the mid- to late eighties, along with some related modern stuff. It will be available to listen to on digital radio and online on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and the first show goes on Tuesday 19th at 10am, with a repeat on Saturday evening at 9pm. To kick off, in addition to the titular ABC and XTC, you'll hear Squeeze, The Beat, Simple Minds, Foo Fighters covering Gary Numan, and lots of other stuff. Further details will be available over the coming days on the 2XM website at http://www.rte.ie/digitalradio/twoxm/ but we just thought you'd like to know first. Once the show is up and running, we'll sort out ways of putting playlist links on the website, and contact details for requests, comments, and the like. Do give it a listen, and let me know what you think.
US EVENT ANNOUNCED - THE ONLY ONE!
As most of you will be aware, I didn't tour in the US for THE WHISPERERS due to touring commitments elsewhere. Sorry about that. In an effort to make up for it in some small way, I will be doing one formal US signing at the lovely Kennebooks bookstore in Kennebunk, Maine on Thursday October 28th from 7.00-8.00pm. Everyone who comes along, or who orders a book from the store to be signed, will receive a copy of the LOVE & WHISPERS CD, and we'll try to throw in something else as well to make it even more special. Also, as it coincides with the Halloween weekend, it will be the first chance for US readers to hear an extract from HELL'S BELLS, the sequel to THE GATES, which will be published next year, of which more below. Further details about the signing are available from http://www.kennebooks.com/index.php?option=com_events&task=view_detail&agid=78&year=2010&month=10&day=28&Itemid=2
HELL'S BELLS, the sequel to THE GATES, will be published next May in the UK and the US. An extract will appear on the website in the coming weeks, but for now . . .
Samuel Johnson is in trouble. Not only is he in love with the wrong girl, but the demon Mrs Abernathy is seeking revenge upon him for his part in foiling the invasion of Earth by the forces of Darkness. She wants to get her claws on Samuel, and when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on again, she is given her chance. Samuel and his faithful dachshund, Boswell, are pulled through a portal into Hell, there to be hunted down by Mrs Abernathy and her allies.
But catching Samuel is not going to be easy, for Mrs Abernathy has reckoned without the bravery and cleverness of a boy and his dog, or the loyalty of Samuel's friend, the hapless demon Nurd. Most of all, she hasn't planned on the intervention of an unexpected band of little men, for Samuel and Boswell are not the only inhabitants of Earth who have found themselves in Hell.
If you thought demons were frightening, just wait until you meet Mr Merryweather's Elves . . .
JOHN TO INTRODUCE SCREENING OF 'CHINATOWN' IN DUBLIN
On November 24th at 8pm, I'll be introducing a lovely 35mm print of Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN as part of the annual Classic Movies Season at the Ormonde Cinema in Stilorgan, Dublin. Tickets are €9, and can be booked through the Ormonde's website at http://www.ormondecinemas.ie/classic-movies.php. Other films in the season include THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. The highlight of the season occurs on Wednesday October 13th, when director John Boorman introduces a screening of his classic 1960s revenge thriller, POINT BLANK. I wish I could be there instead of on a plane somewhere over the American mainland. Enjoy it in my stead, if you can make it.
The US paperback edition of THE GATES has just been published by Washington Square Press, and makes an ideal Halloween or Christmas gift, as well as being the perfect size for propping up uneven table legs, and badly designed chairs.
THE GLASS RAINBOW BY JAMES LEE BURKE
I've written the introduction to the Scorpion Press edition of James Lee Burke's latest novel, THE GLASS RAINBOW, which was an honour. I wouldn't be writing now without Burke's influence, and THE GLASS RAINBOW is a fine edition to the Robicheaux series of novels. Further details are available from http://www.scorpionpress.clara.net/scorpionpress/new.html
My essay on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad can be found in CINEMA FUTURA, a volume of essays by various authors on their favourite science fiction movies, edited by Mark Morris and published by PS Publishing. Copies can be ordered from the publisher's website at http://store.pspublishing.co.uk/acatalog/Cinema_Futura.html
AND, FINALLY, CHARLIE PARKER . . .
It's likely that I'll publish two novels in 2011: HELL'S BELLS in May, and the next Charlie Parker novel in September. At the moment, I'm still juggling titles, but I thought you'd like to know that there is another one on the way.
So that's it. It's not like I haven't been busy. Still missed you, though.
So, after a break of, oh, about a week (and not even a break as such, since I spent it doing taxes, trying to learn a little Spanish in advance of the Argentinian trip, getting back into the habit of writing these blogs, and preparing an introduction for a special Scorpion Press edition of James Lee Burke's The Glass Rainbow, which caused me a great deal of stress and worry as, well, it's James Lee Burke, and I didn't want to mess it up) I sat down and started work on the next Parker book. In truth, I was rather looking forward to it. I've had an idea in mind since I finished The Whisperers, and writing Hell's Bells, the sequel to The Gates, allowed that idea time to grow and develop, so by the time I sat down and began writing I was pretty fired up.
That didn't last long: 5,500 words. It's not so much that I've hit a snag, as that I need to reconsider how I'm going to write the book. For the first time, I began writing a novel entirely in the present tense. It's also in the third person, which is fine, but part of me enjoys inhabiting Parker's consciousness, and to do that properly I should really stick to the first person. Yet another part of me enjoyed exploring how others view him, as I did in The Reapers, and now I'm slightly torn. What's the best way to tell this particular story? Plus I'm avoiding the issue by writing this piece about it, although I prefer to look upon it as writing down my thoughts. No, it's avoidance, really.
Usually, these technical aspects of writing don't give me pause. I've generally gone on instinct and, in the case of the Parker books, that's meant the past tense, first person, with a little dipping in and out of the consciousness of others. I wonder if that's cheating, though? Some time ago, an artistic movement calling itself the New Puritans (well, 'movement' is somewhat exaggerating its nature, as it was really just a bunch of young blades who'd watched rather too many Dogme movies) briefly spawned in Britain. It came up with a 10-point manifesto - every good movement needs a manifesto - which could basically be summed up as 'Keep It Simple', although as an act of public service I've reprinted the original tenets below:
Primarily storytellers, we are dedicated to the narrative form.
We are prose writers and recognise that prose is the dominant form of expression. For this reason we shun poetry and poetic licence in all its forms.
While acknowledging the value of genre fiction, whether classical or modern, we will always move towards new openings, rupturing existing genre expectations.
We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides.
In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing.
We believe in grammatical purity and avoid any elaborate punctuation.
We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day. All products, places, artists and objects named are real.
As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future.
We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality.
Nevertheless, our aim is integrity of expression, above and beyond any commitment to form.
Of course, one of the difficulties with the New Puritanism was that it equated simplicity with clarity of expression, which doesn't necessarily follow at all, as well as being more than a little pretentious. I knew at least one of the founding members of the movement, and quite liked him, but I wasn't going to have any truck with much of what he and his friends were proposing. Apart from the distinctly ambivalent attitude they displayed toward genre fiction, which suggested that they didn't really understand what genre fiction was, or did, and, by extension, may not have been entirely clear on a lot of other types of fiction either, their reluctance to use all of the literary tools available to them smacked rather of Luddism. "Vow to avoid all devices of voice." Really? How do you propose to do that, then, as the mere act of putting words on a page in narrative form is surely a 'device of voice'? "Published works are also historical documents". Are they? All of them? Are you sure? Anyway, these are old arguments, for the New Puritanism never really took off. There were some interesting moments in an anthology of stories assembled by the writers in question, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that they would have been more interesting had they not been written according to the restrictive practices of New Puritanism.
I'm not really much for Puritanism, in any form, but when it comes to writing something of what they were proposing may have touched a sensitive spot with me. If I start in the first person, should I stick with it? Is it entirely fair, in novels that are ostensibly structured around the consciousness of a single character, and told from that character's perspective in the first person, to dip in and out of the consciousness of other characters when the central character can't possibly have that knowledge? Would my books be better if I were to restrict myself to that single viewpoint?
Hmmm, probably not. After all, there is a game being played here between the reader and the writer: Parker is my creation, my construct, and behind his voice, and his consciousness, is my own consciousness, just as it lies behind that of every character in my books. On one level, the reader chooses to ignore my presence as part of a pact agreed with the writer, or is made to forget it if the quality of the work is of a sufficiently high standard. In the end, I guess I can do what I want as long as it ultimately serves the purposes of my work. It's a 'device of voice', one of many in my books, and one of the many tools at my disposal.
Maybe I'll go back over those early words and rework them. I'll see how they sound in Parker's voice. Then again, by moving away from him, and changing the tense, I gave these early pages of the book a very different feel from anything that I've done before. They're sparser, perhaps, but also more lyrical. It may be that this voice will suit this particular book, as it's so very different from The Whisperers. It will be a brooding novel, with very little violence. But would the present tense bother readers? It takes a while to adjust to it, as most of us are more familiar with books written in the past tense, but it has its rewards.
Early days, and already so many questions . . .
THIS WEEK JOHN READ
Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy
AND LISTENED TO
Common One by Van Morrison
Butterfly OST by Ennio Morricone
A Secret Wish (25th Anniversary Edition) by Propaganda
I think I've discussed the subject of translation before, but it cropped up again this weekend when a nice journalist from the Sunday Times informed me that I was big in China, or, at least, that The Book of Lost Things was big in China. Apparently, it has sold very well there, just as it sold well in the earlier Taiwanese edition, for which I toured in Taiwan and thus subsequently ended up eating an unidentified rectum, a culinary encounter dealt with elsewhere on this site. I suspect that The Book of Lost Things did well in these territories because it's a book dealing with fairy tales, and myths, and the importance of stories in our lives, and there is a universality to such subject matter. The appeal is perhaps stronger in countries with a very old oral tradition of storytelling, and an ongoing fascination with mythology, but then that covers a great many countries, which may explain why The Book of Lost Things seems to be the novel of mine that has enjoyed the widest appeal in translation. The relationship between an author and the translated edition of his or her work is an odd one because, of course, the translated book is not going to be quite the same as the book that was originally written. Even if a literal translation from one language to another were possible, it would probably be unwise, as it would lead to a book that read less like a novel and more like a technical manual. One of my early translators in a European country seemed intent upon translating my books in that way, without any feel for the prose or any creative aspect to the translation, a fact that was pointed out to me by readers as I didn't read in the language in question. It may have been that the translator viewed the job of translation simply as a technical exercise; that, or the translator may have been afraid of altering a single word of my deathless prose for fear of sullying the innate beauty of my words. In retrospect, I suspect that it was probably the former. Another difficulty for the author is that there is no way of knowing just how much of the original intent has been lost, either accidentally or deliberately, in the course of the translation. In one territory, Angel and Louis, the criminal associates of Charlie Parker in my series novels, have had their sexuality quietly airbrushed. In my novels, they are gay. In this particular translation, they are two gentlemen who happen to live together, a bit like the beloved British comedians Morecambe & Wise in their television incarnations. What can I do about this? Not a lot. Territorial sensibilities probably played a part in the change, or it may be that the relationship between the two was completely misunderstood. I could complain, but that would probably get lost in translation too, and the damage has rather been done. By this point, a number of the novels have appeared in the country in question, and it might surprise readers to find that, after four or five books, Angel and Louis could apparently no longer contain their affection for each other, and felt compelled to express it to the world. When it comes to translations, the author has to trust the publisher, and hope that a sympathetic translator is found. For the most part, these tend to be writers themselves, and often poets. For example, I have a terrible feeling that my Bulgarian translations are probably better written than the original English versions, given the talents of the translator involved, and this goes for a number of other countries too. Meanwhile, I can't even begin to imagine the difficulties faced by Yue Han and Kang Na Li, who worked on translating The Book of Lost Things into Chinese. Incidentally, the Irish government, through the Ireland Literature Exchange, assisted with the translation of my work into Chinese. It's a worthwhile, and probably little known, initiative that ensures Irish writers are promoted abroad, and I'm grateful to them. On the other hand, I do wish more foreign writing was available in English translations. One of the banes of my life is my inability to read the work of native mystery authors when I promote my books abroad, since so few of them are translated into English, or distributed here. The situation is improving, aided in part by the increasing popularity of books from Scandinavian authors, but we still have some way to go. In the end, though, the translator's task is a decidedly thankless one, and most readers probably take the act of translation for granted. The IMPAC award is notable for awarding €25,000 of its total prize money of €100,000 to the translator of the winning book if that book was originally published in another language. Similarly, the CWA this year gave £500 to Marlaine Delargy, the translator of Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room, which won the CWA International Dagger, and it has rewarded translators similarly in the past. It's unfortunate that, while this represents one step forward for the CWA, it doesn't quite make up for the giant leap backward that the organisation took by disqualifying translated novels from the overall Gold Dagger Award some years back. A great many risible excuses were offered for this decision at the time, although they all boiled down to the fact that too many foreign types were winning the award, and next thing you knew they'd all be over here taking our jobs and stealing our women. With the quality of translated mystery fiction showing no signs of decreasing anytime soon, and with a number of foreign mystery authors putting their British and American peers in the shade, it's probably time for the CWA to reassess its earlier decision. If it doesn't, it will start to look like the English language authors are afraid to play against the big boys and girls with the funny accents for fear of being shown up. A bit like the England football team, then. Sorry. THIS WEEK JOHN READ Nobody Move by Denis Johnson AND LISTENED TO The Five Ghosts by Stars The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton by Clogs
This week I meet with my British publishers to discuss, among other things, Hell's Bells, the sequel to The Gates. It's done and dusted, at least at my end, and has now been read by various people, so the lovely limbo feeling that comes with having delivered a book but not yet having received any feedback on it, whether positive or negative, has now dissipated. The next stage in the process - editing, rewriting, arguing about covers, and discussing the positioning of the book in stores - will now begin, and none of that is really very much fun at all. The latter, in particular, is necessary but frustrating, increasingly so as I find the desire to experiment in my writing growing stronger. When I began writing, I was intent simply on finishing the first book. I hadn't really considered a future in writing because, while I might have hoped that Every Dead Thing would find a publisher, I probably secretly believed that it wouldn't. I was as surprised as anyone when that book was picked up, and I remain surprised that I am still being published over a decade later. There's a part of me that remains convinced it will all fall apart, that my sales will tank and I'll be cut loose by my publishers. In part, that's a natural fear of failure, along with the self-doubt that is the flip side of the act of egotism involved in writing a book and expecting people to pay to read it. It's also the spur that makes a writer try harder with each successive book. It's like clambering up a hillside that is always crumbling beneath your feet: if you don't keep moving forward and up, then you're going to fall a long way. But when I signed that first contract for Every Dead Thing and its successor, Dark Hollow, I didn't know what kind of author I would become. Given the nature of the books that I had written (Dark Hollow having already been finished before Every Dead Thing was published), it would be natural to assume that I was going to be a mystery writer, although even then the novels were blurring the line between traditional mystery fiction and supernatural fiction. After writing four Parker novels, I wrote two books that were more explicitly supernatural: Bad Men, and the collection of supernatural ghost stories and novellas entitled Nocturnes. Writing those books determined the direction of the next Parker book, The Black Angel, which embraced the uncanny more wholeheartedly than the earlier Parker books. But even as I was writing that book, I was planning The Book of Lost Things, which tends to find itself variously shelved in fantasy, literary fiction, and alongside my mysteries. Meanwhile, the idea for the book that subsequently became The Gates had been there since the second novel, but I couldn't quite figure out how to make it work at that stage, and it was only in 2008 that I eventually set about writing it. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that, even at an early stage, whatever identity I was going to assume as a writer was not fixed. Now, if I'm known for anything, it's probably as a mystery writer, but then there are a lot of people who have read The Book of Lost Things yet have no particular interest in reading the mysteries, so for them I'm simply the guy who wrote a strange book about grief, loss, and fairy tales. With The Gates and, God willing, Hell's Bells, there will be younger readers who will only know me as the guy who writes books about a boy and his dachshund fighting the Devil and his minions. This is all very well, but it causes terrible problems for my publishers, and for bookstores. Flitting about from genre to genre brings with it a risk of confusing one's audience and, to use a horrible phrase that crops up on such occasions, of diluting one's brand. The pressure to conform is generally unspoken, but it's there nonetheless. If I'm asked what I do, and assuming I can't avoid answering the question, I'll usually reply that I'm a writer. Inevitably, the next question asked will be 'What do you write?' As the years have gone on, the answer to that question has grown more complicated than it once was and, I suspect, is destined to grow more complicated still. Down the line, I have ideas for books that don't really conform to any genre. At least one probably qualifies as, for want of a better term, literary fiction. If and when I write it, it will probably have to be out of contract, but that's no bad thing: all of the non-Parker novels have been written out of contract, and I quite like the freedom that this arrangement brings. All I can hope is that my publishers will be sympathetic toward it, and, if they choose to publish it, will be able to convince booksellers to be sympathetic in turn. Even if it's not published, it will still have been worth writing. I will have written it because I wanted to write it, because it was important to me to do so. The Parker novels are equally important, but in a different way: the relationship between them and the non-mystery novels is symbiotic. The non-mysteries inform and enrich the Parker books, and the Parker books buy me a little of the time, security, and, I hope, editorial tolerance necessary for me to be able to write the non-mysteries. Looking back to early 1998, when Every Dead Thing was bought by Hodder in the UK, and Simon & Schuster in the US, I realise that at no point did I ever sign a piece of paper specifying the type or writer I would become, or was expected to be. Then, as now, I thought of myself simply as a writer. No, that's not right: I was not yet a writer. I had written, but I was not yet a writer. I was in the process of becoming one, and I still am. I love writing mystery fiction. I love writing the Parker books. I'm curious about the possibilities of genre fiction, and not only fiction in the mystery genre. In the end, I suppose I'm curious about the possibilities of fiction, period. And what kind of writer, formed or unformed, does that make me? A problematical one, I fear . . . THIS WEEK JOHN READ Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis and listened to The Suburbs by Arcade Fire La Ballade of Lady & Bird by Keren Ann & Bardi Johannsson The View From A Hill by The Owl Service
The phrase 'jumping the shark' refers to the point at which a beloved series goes from being, well, beloved to being despised in the way that only people who scowl at puppies are despised.
It comes from an episode of Happy Days (you remember: the 50s, the Fonz, "Aaaaayyyy!", and that bloke who went on to direct bad Dan Brown movies, as if there could ever be any other kind) in which the Fonz dons water skis and jumps over a confined shark.
That was at the start of the fifth season, and Happy Days staggered on like a wounded animal for another seven seasons, but it was the shark episode that struck the fatal blow.
I live in fear of jumping the shark. I suspect that I've feared it ever since my first novel was published, and that dread hasn't diminished in any way, even though I've just published my 13th book.
It's the burden of mystery writing, which is so dependent on series characters, and therefore thrives on a kind of repetition. On one level, it's what readers want: they like to revisit characters for whom they have an affection, and they want those characters to involve themselves in plots that are a little distinct from the last time, but not so strange that they don't suit the characters.
Essentially, most genre readers want the same as last time, but different.
Mystery writers approach this problem in a variety of ways. Some find a formula that works, and stick to it. Lee Child, with whom I share an agent, is a good example. Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee's very entertaining novels, doesn't really have a memory, and therefore is largely without any enduring traumas. Reacher arrives in a town. There's a problem. Reacher fixes it, usually by beating people up until they agree to stop being problematical. If that doesn't work, he kills them.
It's the classic set-up, and it has its roots in westerns, and the samurai tradition of the ronin, the wandering warrior without a master. Someone once said that most novels can be boiled down to "man arrives in town" or "man leaves town". With Lee, you get both, and it's the same bloke.
Robert B Parker, who died recently, wrote almost 40 novels featuring the private detective Spenser, who found TV fame in Spenser: For Hire, starring the actor Robert Urich who, like Pinnochio, was amiable but wooden.
Spenser never aged. He was the same in the first novel as he was in the last, but the jokes were always good, even if the quality of the books varied. At one point in the series, in a concession to the kind of conversation normal people sometimes have, Spenser and his girlfriend Susan (a spectacularly irritating character, incidentally, who would have been mourned by nobody had Parker found a way to bump her off) discuss the possibility of having a child.
Now this was in one of the novels published in the 1990s, and Spenser served in Korea, according to the chronology of the novels. He'd also been with Susan for almost as long as he'd been out of the army. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect conception of a child might have been beyond her by this point. They should just have adopted another dog.
So that's one approach: vary the original formula as little as possible, even to the extent of not acknowledging the passage of the years, and don't do anything too silly.
On the other hand, there's the Patricia Cornwell approach. Series starting to get a bit tired? Here's the solution: throw in a bloke who thinks he's a werewolf. Oh, and make your heroine's niece a lesbian, but a butch, vaguely annoying one, and bog your novels down in uninteresting domestic trauma. Hey, and toss in a dwarf while you're at it. It's hard to reconcile the quality of the later books with her earlier novels and how unusual they were: crime fiction in which the murder was investigated through the medium of the human body, written, I think, from a particularly female perspective on physicality and mortality.
Reading later Cornwell books, it's hard to shake off the sense that the author is not entirely engaged by her own books. They're pretty joyless exercises at times, and one wonders how much money Cornwell possibly want or need to force her to keep writing books in which she has clearly lost some interest? The answer, apparently, is 'more money', although, given her reported financial difficulties, it seems likely that Cornwell will be forced to continue writing her Scarpetta novels in their current form for the foreseeable future. That's unfortunate: sometimes, the best thing that such a writer can do is to take time off and analyze the problem as a step toward the reinvention of both herself, and the hero of her novels.
Finally, you could do what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, and simply kill your hero because you're bored with him. Unfortunately, your readers will hate you for it, unless you do it in the calm, collected, and clearly signposted way in which Colin Dexter disposed of Inspector Morse, and you may also find yourself on Poverty Row, because you've just knocked off your main source of income.
Here's the thing: the majority of mystery readers are not loyal to writers. They're loyal to characters, and plot is the hook on which the central character hangs his coat. When genre writers who are best known for their series detectives depart to write stand-alone novels, those books rarely sell as well as the series. There are exceptions: when Harlan Coben wrote Tell No One, it sold more copies in hardback than his earlier 'Myron Bolitar' series had sold in hardback and paperback combined up to that point.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, that's not an exception. If no one had bothered reading your earlier series, then it hardly counts if the sales of your stand-alone novel exceeded it. Coben now alternates domestic thrillers with Bolitarbooks, and both seem to sell equally well for him. In other words, the stand-alone reinvigorated sales of the earlier series, and Harlan Coben can now buy himself his own properly functioning country. Or Greece.
So how have I avoided jumping the shark? Maybe I haven't, and it's simply the case that readers can't agree on the point at which the shark was jumped. The supernatural elements of The Black Angel, perhaps? The spiders in The Killing Kind? It may all just come down to a matter of personal taste.
But in the hope that the shark remains unjumped for now, I've made a couple of decisions in an effort to keep my series fresh. I'm allowing Charlie Parker, the central character, to grow older. The great James Lee Burke has done something similar with Dave Robicheaux, which means that the nature of the books is changing. After all, a man in his early sixties can't go kicking down doors. He'll do himself an injury.
I've tried to make each book very different in tone and content from its predecessor, so the risk of repeating myself decreases. I'm also aware that there is a larger story being built up in the background of the novels, so that, while each one stands on its own, it also contributes to the larger conspiracy that underlies the series.
Finally, I alternate series novels with non-series novels, even if it means that my sales take a hit. Not every story can be told as a mystery, and by stretching other muscles I come back to the Parker books rejuvenated. If nothing else, it's resulted in The Book of Lost Things, a novel of which I'm very fond, and that may well end up being the best book I ever write.
Then again, there is probably somebody out there saying, "You know, he really jumped the shark on that one . . ."
Looks like there’s something afoot with this Jimmy Jewel - he’s stumbled on something quite big – the mysterious death of an antiques dealer – one Jeremiah Webber.
But it’s apparently connected to something bigger... it’s amazing how familiar all these characters sound – Jimmy Jewel, Damien Patchett… I hear that somewhere in all this is an even more familiar name; Charles Parker...
John Connolly and Declan Hughes will be reading and speaking at the Cúirt Festival in Galway on Thursday April 22nd, 2010 at 8.30pm at the Town Hall Theatre in place of fellow crime novelist Ian Rankin, who remains stranded in Scotland.
As I was writing the first part of this post, I was struggling a bit to remember what it was that I'd done last week, hence the urge to write it all down in an effort to understand where the time went. There was probably an element of compulsion about writing it too: it's funny, but there will sometimes come a point in the writing of a book where you've disciplined yourself so much to keep writing, and to produce a certain amount every day, that you want to keep on writing. Eventually, you simply can't do any more work on the book in hand, if only because you have to give that particular reservoir time to fill up again, but that doesn't mean you can't draw water from someplace else. So you write a column, or you fiddle with press notes for the new book, or you answer emails at greater length than usual. But as I tried to remember what it was that most impacted upon writing time last week, I realized that I'd forgotten about doing the US page proofs. Perhaps I'd driven it from my mind as I want all work on The Whisperers to be done and dusted by this point. The whole process of publication was extraordinarily compressed for this book: I delivered it just before Christmas, but due to courier problems my editors didn't get to read it until after Christmas, and now Hodder will publish the British edition next week. In the world of publishing, that's a very fast turnaround: from first read to finished copies in less than four months, and that included a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of the book, and the scrapping of the original cover design in favor of the moon emblem that now adorns the cover. The difficulty for me, as the writer, was that the process of examining the copy edits, and the proofs, was similarly compressed, and that's not ideal. Those stages permit the author to look at the book in a new way: once (or, in my case, twice, as the British and Americans each create their own versions of the book) when the copy edits arrive, with various queries and markings from the copy editor, and again when the proofs arrive. Despite the copy editors efforts, it's actually easier to spot errors in the proofs than in the copy edit, if only because the manuscript has been typeset, and thus looks like a book, which in turn forces the writer to adjust his perceptions of the work. Unfortunately, when, as in this case, the British copy edit follows closely on the author's own final revisions, and that British copy edit is then followed, seemingly within a week or so, by the British proofs, which are finished on the same day that the American copy edit arrives, then it becomes harder and harder to step back from the work and give it the time and concentration that is required to spot word repetitions, and inconsistencies, and the various manifestations of imperfection that will, inevitably, find their way into the finished book. The writer's best hope is that he can catch most of them before the book finally goes to print, and then correct the rest for the paperback. To be fair, most readers will never even spot them, and those that do, mindful of their own flawed nature as human beings, will probably let them slide. Still, it's irritating for the reader, and the writer, and the editors, who really do make an effort to catch all of these things. The writer in particular will be hit by a sense of powerlessness, as so often the error is only revealed when the finished book is rolling off the presses, or in his hands. It's dispiriting, because when that inevitable error is revealed it makes it harder to look upon the book with pride. Instead, it becomes a physical manifestation of your flaws. I read a review of a book written by a friend of mine this week, in which the reviewer was generous in his praise of the book (and rightly so) but then pointed out two small errors that had crept into the final book. And while I could understand why the reviewer might have found them distracting, even though they were very minor indeed, I couldn't help but feel that raising the issue in the course of the review as part of a larger point about lax editing standards was a little unfair on the book in hand. Then again, it may simply have been my own sense of "There but by the grace of God go I", or, more correctly, "There, despite the grace of God, go I." Anyway, four days this week were spent dealing with the US proofs. I would write in the morning and early afternoon, reach my quota for the day, and then turn to the proofs. And because a little time had gone by since I'd finished with the British proofs, I was able to go through the US version with a fresh eye. I wasn't as tired of reading the same lines over and over, and I'd had a little time to forget what I had written. As a result, the book seemed better to me, but I also managed to pin down a few more little niggles, and pass the corrections on to the UK. They may not make the first printing, but they'll be there for reprints, which is something. But the US proofs also threw up one of those typesetting difficulties that occasionally beset writers. A long section had accidentally been split into two parts, giving the impression that they were separate chapters. But just running the second part back into the first wouldn't work, as it would either a) leave a blank page; or b) require that the subsequent 80 pages all be reset. According to my publishers (and they may just be trying to frighten me in order to prevent me from making too many changes) it costs about a dollar a line to alter a manuscript once the pages have been typeset, so let's say $300 a page, give or take. To reset 80 pages, therefore, would cost in the region of $24,000. Even if my publishers are trying to frighten me, and the actual cost is only a quarter of that, it's still $6000 to correct a single error. I couldn't figure out what to do, and I sent off the proofs with a note pointing out the error, and suggesting that we might have to live with a blank page. Then it struck me last night that I could simply write some extra paragraphs for that section, which would beef it up sufficiently to extend the section into what would otherwise have been a blank page, and all would be well. So that's what I did, and it turned out that the extra paragraphs actually made the section work better. I wonder now if I was alert to that possibility because of the way that I've been writing this week: I've been regimented about it, but also enthusiastic. I'm enjoying what I'm writing, but that's a product of forcing myself to sit at my desk over the last three weeks and produce a consistent, and large, body of writing. On those occasions when I talk about writing to those who want to write, or are trying to write, it's something that I emphasize over and over: you have to write consistently, and preferably at the same time every day, or nearly every day. You have to set targets, and deadlines, and you have to stick to them. If you do, then writing becomes easier. It's in the nature of the beast, and it's the craft aspect of the work. So beware of authors who create a hierarchy of art over craft: the former comes out of the latter. The two, in the end, are inseparable.
This week was an attempt to focus on writing the sequel to The Gates, given that The Whisperers is released in Ireland at the end of next week, and with that will come publicity, and signing, and all of the duties that are connected to the writing of a book that has been finished, and thus get in the way of the writing of the book that has yet to be completed. After that will come the UK tour and publicity, and then Australia and New Zealand, and then South Africa (which is, admittedly, timed to catch some matches in the World Cup, and therefore does not qualify me for any sympathy).
Mind you, I can understand the impulse to cut myself off entirely for a time before all of this stuff begins, but it just isn't possible given that there are always other demands to be met. I suspect much of this is due to the fact that I'm a control freak, and unwilling to let others do stuff unless I can stick my fingers in the pie as well. I'd like to think that it's because I know what's best, but it isn't. I just like sticking my fingers in pies.
So, this week, the following matters arose:
1) There are two quotations from modern works used in The Whisperers that have to be cleared. Kate, the lovely and very efficient person who helps me with clearances, makes contact with Richard Currey, the author of the first quotation, who turns out to be a lovely man, and generously grants permission for me to use his words. (And if you haven't read Currey's work, then I urge you to read Crossing Over and Fatal Light, and to visit his website at www.richardcurrey.com.) The second quotation is proving more difficult, even though the book in question is published by a major publishing house. The page reference is required, and then a photocopy of the page in question. Meanwhile, the deadline approaches for putting the US edition to bed. I could just excise the quotation, but it's important to the book. I can't find my own copy of the original work because I've let someone else borrow it, but you'd kind of think that the publisher might have one to hand. Instead, we order another copy online to send to the publisher, the same publisher that publishes the book we've just ordered. I just want them to clear it, so by this point I'd happily have delivered it by hand. Now there's nothing else to do but wait.
2) My British publishers are launching an online campaign, involving a large game element, to coincide with publication. I've written some extra material for it, and have to sign off on some other elements. I feel I should be doing more, but I'm not entirely sure what, exactly. I suspect that everyone else involved understands the online stuff better than I do, so in this case I may be better off relinquishing some of that fabled control.
3) The granting of the license for the final production of the CDs goes right to the wire, but it's finally confirmed that everything has been cleared. Kate has worked heroically to get it completed in time, assisted by the kindness of MCPS in Ireland, the willingness of the record labels to move quickly on granting permission, and the nice people at Trend who will manufacture the final product, but it's been a hideously stressful experience, and is likely to be a very expensive one. I won't do it again. I think I said that the last time, but this time it's done me in. Much as I love compiling the CDs, and giving people the opportunity to hear music that I think complements the books, the process involves a great deal of negotiation, and legalities, and it opens a hole in my bank account through which money pours like water down a plug hole. I also end up losing sleep over the possibility that I might have done something wrong, that I failed to dot a particular contractual 'i' or cross a legal 't'. All of that worrying takes a bit of the fun out of it. Still, it's finished, and people will get a chance to listen to it when we start giving out copies with the book next week. It's an eclectic mix, but I think it works.
4) There's a launch for the '50 Irish Books of the Decade' (www.bookofthedecade.ie). I like Bert Wright, who is one of the guiding hands behind the idea, and generally a decent human being, so I trot along. The Lovers has been chosen as one of the books, even if I'm not entirely sure why that title should be the one, but then I'm a poor judge of my own work. It's lovely to be included, whatever the book, although the fact that there's a vote to pick one book makes me uncomfortable. The books in question are all so different that it seems a little unfair to ask people to judge them against one another, but competitions get publicity, I suppose. I grab a cup of coffee, listen to the voiceover say nice things about me, and chat with a couple of the other authors a bit self-consciously, mainly because the wire on my brace has come loose and is doing a good job of impaling my gum. My picture turns up in the paper the next day, and because of my position I appear to be smaller than Cecilia Ahern, who is very sweet, and very petite. I look like her hired gnome.
5) There are email interviews to do. I hate email interviews. They're great for the journalists involved, in one way, because there's no transcription. The downside for the journalist is that the element of human interaction that makes an interview interesting is sacrificed as a result. The downside for the author is that you end up typing up the interview yourself, which is really time-consuming. It's one thing to answer the same questions over and over in a series of interviews, which I don't actually mind doing too much because I try to vary the answers as much as possible, and hence each interview ends up following a slightly different track, but it's hard to remain enthusiastic when you have to write the answers down. It's like doing an exam on your own work. There are also various requests for interviews, library visits, prison visits, workshops and talks. I can't fit them all in, and I hate saying 'no'. There's no easy solution to that problem.
6) I've fallen behind on Facebook again. I like the element of interaction that it offers, both between author and reader and between the readers themselves. I think I get intimidated by it, because I don't log on to it every day. The mail builds up, and I get more intimidated by the volume, and I let it build up some more, and I get even more intimidated, and so on in a vicious circle until I eventually log on and find that I have 70 emails to answer. Still, once I get into them I enjoy answering them, because, by and large, they're kind and flattering, and it's not hard to answer a question from someone who is interested in your work and has taken the trouble to drop a line. The problem is that it's time spent at the computer that doesn't involve working on the book, and it's hard to go from answering emails in detail to working on a chapter. You have to step away from the computer for a while afterwards, and then it can be hard to return to it. As for MySpace, I think I may just have to accept that I can do Facebook or MySpace, but not both.
7) I have a pile of books building up beside my desk, all of them seeking supportive quotes. The last time I looked, it was into double figures. Two of the books need to have quotes by the end of next week if they're to be of any use to the authors. I decide to read those two, then give myself a break for a while and read some of the books that I've chosen myself, and for which I've paid good money. It's nice to have the opportunity to read books that have not yet been published, but the sheer volume of them means that you could just read those and never read anything else. After a while, I get the urge to read books that were published a long time ago, and whose authors are dead and therefore have no interest in whether I liked the book or not. After all, it's not like Charles Dickens's editor is going to drop me a line and say, "You just have to read Bleak House because it's great, and I know Charles and I would appreciate any support that you can offer." Anyway, for what it's worth, Bleak House is great. They can put that on the cover. "Great - John Connolly." In the end, the first of the books, Blood Men by Paul Cleave is very good, and I get through it in a couple of days. I've only just started the second, but I know the author, and I think it will be fine. After all, he's a Liverpool fan, so how bad can he be?
Now, back to the writing . . .
This week John read
Blood Men by Paul Cleave
and listened to
Come Ride With Me . . . Wide Open Road (box set) by The Triffids
So, after much pleading with the film company to sneak a DVD copy to me, I at last sat down recently to watch the film of THE NEW DAUGHTER. As it's the first film that's ever been made of any of my work, and I'm a bit wary of the whole process anyway, for reasons that are dealt with on the new FILM & MEDIA section of the website, I suppose I felt a certain sense of trepidation. In addition, the film had been a little unlucky since its original distributors had run into trouble, and then it was eventually released in a limited run on the same weekend as AVATAR, of which some of you may have heard. (Blue chaps. Spaceships. You know the form.) Now it's due out in the US on DVD next month, and I don't know when, or if, it will have a cinema run on this side of the pond.
All of which is, in a way, beside the point. Problems with distribution companies and 3D behemoths have nothing to do with the film itself. In the end, I enjoyed it. I'd read the script while visiting the set, so I knew what to expect, to a degree, although the final cut differed from the script that I'd read in a couple of significant ways. But the acting is top-rate, particularly from Kevin Costner. He's been a star for so long that it's easy to take what he does for granted, but again and again in THE NEW DAUGHTER he made a small gesture, or changed his expression slightly, and the subtlety of it, and the effect he achieved with it, brought a smile to my face. Ivana Baquero, too, as the titular daughter, is eerily good, and young Gattlin Griffith as her brother is very affecting. I recall how good Costner was on the set with both of the younger actors, and the director, Luis Berdejo, tossing a baseball with Gattlin during a break in filming. Something of that ease is reflected in the performances of the principals, or it may just be the memory of my own experiences that are affecting my view, but I don't think so. The film also has an interesting look and feel to it. Although an American production, Berdejo is Spanish, as is the composer of its score, Javier Navarette, while its cinematographer, Checco Varese, is Peruvian. As a result, the movie at times resembles a kind of arthouse European ghost story, tending to shy away from rapid editing until close to the end.
All told then, in a world in which Gerard Butler movies get wide releases (I mean, P.S. I LOVE YOU and THE UGLY TRUTH, not to mention THE BOUNTY HUNTER and LAW-ABIDING CITIZEN? Come on. Butler can act, but his choice of movies seems to have been made by sticking a pin in a pile of the smelliest scripts available, and then keeping one eye firmly fixed on the cheque while trying not to inhale too deeply . . .) THE NEW DAUGHTER probably deserved a little better than to come and go with barely a glance. It's not even as if I have a hugely vested interest: I've been paid, and I don't know how many extra copies I'm likely to sell of the short story collection from which its source material came as a consequence of the movie's release. If the movie was terrible, I'd probably keep quiet about it, and hope for better luck next time, but it isn't terrible. It's a nicely-made little chiller, and the screenwriter, John Travis, did a good job of taking a very short story and expanding it into a film, even sneaking little bits in from some of my other books. (Hey, did he pay for those? Dammit, my Hollywood cocaine habit won't support itself . . .)
And it's not my story. It couldn't be. My story was about 14 pages long, and set in England. It involved fairies, and the myth of the changeling. But once the location became an American one, that really didn't work, so the creatures became something different. Inevitably, since I wrote the story one way, and the film chooses to tell it in another way, there are moments when I might have done something different with the plot, but that's the difference between my mind and the minds of John Travis, and Luis Berdejo, and all of those who had input into the way in which the film was made. It's a collaborative process, and I'm not a collaborative guy. But when the film ended, I was happy with what they'd done with my little story, and grateful to them all for doing it.
Because that's the other thing that I'll take away from the whole experience: the memory of how enjoyable it was, for me at least, and the kindness of everyone on that South Carolina set; and watching Costner and Baquero work; and having Luis show John Travis and I around the set, even though he must have had a hundred other more important things to do; and meeting crew members who had worked on CHINATOWN and RED DRAGON; and the grips sending me a t-shirt because they liked my books; and the fact that John is now a friend; and the good-humoured seriousness with which all involved approached what they were doing. They all set out to make the best film possible, just as, each time I sit down to write, I try to write the best book possible. Sometimes it doesn't come off, and sometimes my best at the time won't be good enough, but the intention is there, and that's all that anyone can ask, in the end.
THIS WEEK JOHN READ (very slowly)
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
and listened to
LOVE & WHISPERS endlessly in an effort to get the track listing right
Publication of The Whisperers, the new Parker book, is now imminent, and it strikes me that, when the novel appears, it will mean that I will have published three books in less than one year, which smacks of trying a bit too hard. I mean, that’s almost like having a proper job, which can’t be right.
Unfortunately, my unusual spate of productivity means that I seem to have spent large parts of the past twelve to fourteen months doing edits, which really is no fun at all. In the case of The Whisperers, the fact that it was only delivered to my publishers in January means that the whole editing process has been accelerated. Thus, last Tuesday, as I was about to head to London with the final corrected proof pages for the British edition in my bag, the American copy edited manuscript arrived on my doorstep. Worryingly, it came with a letter informing me that the manuscript should be returned to my editor by March 17th which, given that it had only been delivered on the 16th, was likely to prove difficult.
So I’ve just spent this weekend with three versions of the book spread across my desk: the American copy edit, which is essentially my original manuscript with the copy editor’s notes, queries, and instructions to the typesetter; a copy of the British copy-edit, so that I could transpose the changes I had made to that version to the American one; and, finally, the British proofs, or typeset pages, so that I could also add the final tweaks to the American edition. As is the way of these things, the American copy editor had caught some errors that the British copy editor had missed, and vice versa, so I’ve been sending pleading e-mails to my British editor’s lovely assistant asking her to try to have those corrections inserted into the British edition before it goes to the presses.
There is a difference between this kind of editing and the kind that occurs earlier in the writing, in my case after the first draft is complete. There’s a pleasure in honing material that hasn’t been read yet by anyone, aided by the relief of knowing that you’ve managed to bring almost to fruition what was originally just an assemblage of ideas in your head. But once the book has been delivered, editing becomes less of a creative act and more of a technical requirement. Of course, it’s a big part of the process of publishing a book, but it’s also the only part that really is a chore. There are only so many times that you will want to through a copy of your own book, and by the time the proof pages arrive that figure has been exceeded with a vengeance. It becomes impossible to tell if the book is actually any good; in fact, you start to become convinced that it’s terrible. Oh, there will be sections that don’t seem so bad, but overall it’s difficult to shake off the sense that your weariness with the book won’t be shared by the first-time reader. Thus it is that the point when the writer should probably be going through the manuscript with maximum concentration, as this is really the last chance to correct errors and inconsistencies, is also the point at which that capacity for concentration is at its weakest.
Allied to this is the knowledge that, despite your efforts, and the efforts of your editors, and their assistants, and the copy editors, and the experts who have been kind enough to fact check the original manuscript, mistakes are still going to creep through. I don’t think I’ve ever published a book without receiving a missive from a reader containing the question “Doesn’t anyone copy edit your books?”, or words to that effect. The answer is, yes, someone does. Lots of people edit them. They ensure that errors are kept to a minimum, but that’s all. It’s simply not possible to eradicate them entirely. The Whisperers is about 125,000 words long. If there were two mistakes in the finished manuscript, it would still represent only a tiny fraction of one per cent of the words used. That kind of margin of error would be acceptable to most scientists, let alone the average writer.
Still, at least the editing process is almost complete, and I can get back to writing, even if it’s only for a month or so before publicity for the actual book itself begins. We’re now well into March, but I don’t seem to have managed to get a whole lot of writing done, and May, June and most of July will be lost to touring. Perhaps I’ll have to train myself to write while on the road, but the idea doesn’t appeal to me. I like to keep writing and publicity separate, if I can. Anyway, I find that I have so little time to myself when I’m touring that, even if find the will and the energy to write, the hours are not there. No choice, then, but to make maximum use of the weeks ahead, and hope that progress is swift…
This week John read
Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heileman
and listened to
Broken Bells by Broken Bells Fever Ray (Special Edition) by Fever Ray
Lying on my desk is THE NEW DEAD, a recently published anthology of, curiously enough, zombie short fiction. My name is on the front cover as one of the contributors, which is nice, and I rather like my odd little story that opens the book, even if a bookseller friend of mine complained that it didn't have enough eating of brains for his liking. In fact, it doesn't have any eating of brains at all which, by his dietary standards, is dubious to a significant degree, and raises questions about whether or not my heart - or any other comestible organ of my body - was really in the whole zombie thing to begin with.
I think I've mentioned before that I don't really write very many short stories. I've only written four of them since the original publication of the NOCTURNES volume back in 2004, and one of those, "The Cycle", ended up in the revised paperback edition of NOCTURNES anyway, so there are now only three non-NOCTURNES stories that bear my name. When I think about it, "The Cycle" wasn't even published under my own name originally. It was slipped into an anthology of short stories by women writers as a favour to the editor, and I opted for the pseudonym Laura Froom, as that was the name of the vampire in my short story "Miss Froom, Vampire". I think the editor was supposed to reveal my true identity at some point, but either forgot or simply didn't have to, as the volume sold without any need for any additional publicity that might have arisen from the revelation of my involvement. Any sexual confusion on my part that might have arisen as a consequence was presumably to e regarded as collateral damage.
I'm not sure how other writers - or, rather, novelists - go about writing short stories. There are some who seem to produce them the way rabbits produce offspring, perhaps because they provide a way of clearing the head between longer projects, or a means of stretching some unfamiliar muscles. I'm not sure, though, that I'm a natural short story writer. NOCTURNES was a very deliberate attempt on my part to practice the craft of short story writing, and I basically spent a year doing nothing else, spurred on by the BBC's interest in broadcasting them. The first five stories I wrote, therefore, were written to be read aloud, as were a number of the second batch. The stories enabled me to try on new voices, to test myself a little, as well as allowing me to doff my cap to some of the writers of short supernatural fiction who had influenced so much of my reading as a child and a teenager, in particular M. R. James. Once that volume was completed, I returned to writing novels, and didn't really think much about short stories for a while.
Inevitably, though, ideas for stories arise occasionally. I tend to let them simmer, and wait for someone to come up with a good reason why I should set aside time to write them. Shortly after NOCTURNES appeared, my US editor approached me about writing a story for an anthology of tales to be set in hotels and hotel rooms. At that point, I'd been thinking about a story involving a man who finds that he is being haunted by the ghost of his wife, but then starts to wonder about the nature of the haunting. I saw it as a love story, and as it didn't have a setting at the time, a hotel room seemed as good a place as any in which to set it. The anthology itself, which was to have been placed in rooms in a well-known chain of upmarket hotels, was never published due to doubts about the nature of some, if not all, of the stories commissioned. Not to put too fine a point on it, the hotel chain regarded a great many of them as immoral, mine included, even though my story could have been read out in church without causing an eyebrow to be raised. If I remember correctly, one story was rejected on the grounds that it suggested unmarried individuals might possibly be having sexual relations in the chain's hotel rooms. Frankly, I'm not sure that I would want to stay in a hotel that had problems with ANYONE having sexual relations in its rooms, unmarried or not, short of children or animals, but then I'm a bit of a liberal. I almost felt compelled to confess that I'd had sexual relations in one of the chain's hotel rooms, and I wasn't married either, but by that point the anthology was already dead in the water.
The story in question, "A Haunting", was eventually published late last year in DARK DELICACIES III: HAUNTINGS. I think you can see the connection between my title and the title of the anthology. The editors asked if I was interested in writing a story, I told them I had an unpublished story that might suit them, and they read it and were happy to include it, although clearly they, like me, were immoral individuals and therefore destined to burn in hell for eternity. So, after a number of years, "A Haunting" had a home.
In 2008, I was asked by the extraordinarily decent Roddy Doyle to write a short story for THE IRISH TIMES as part of a series celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Actually, I think I was called upon at the last minute to substitute for someone who had dropped out, rather like David Fairclough on the Liverpool team of the Seventies and early Eighties. No matter. An idea for a story had been nagging at me for a couple of months, a tale in which a man describes a painting, and a painter, that may or may not exist. It was all perfectly clear in my head, but I just hadn't managed to get around to writing it down. As it turned out, the particular article of the Universal Declaration that I was being asked to write upon fitted the story perfectly. I didn't have to change a thing. Thus, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION OF AN UNKNOWN MAN' (1637) BY FRANS MIER' came into being. It was published in the newspaper, anthologised in a collection published in Ireland entitled FROM THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE, and will appear later this year in an anthology of previously published stories to be edited by Peter Robinson.
Finally, "Lazarus", the story included in THE NEW DEAD, was pretty much written in my head when Christopher Golden asked if I'd be interested in contributing to a volume of zombie stories. Now I have to confess that I've never been much of a fan of zombies, Val Newton's film I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE apart, and then only because of Val Newton rather than the subject matter. I think I was more of a vampire/ ghost/ M. R. Jamesian vague creeping entity kind of guy. Reading the other contributions to Chris's volume has caused me to alter that view somewhat, as the other stories are very, very good indeed. I realise now that the emptiness, or absence, that I've always seen as integral to the zombie mythos, and which perhaps had kept me at one remove from it, provides a perfect vehicle for whatever subtext one might wish to apply. In my case, I had long been troubled by the Biblical story of Lazarus. How would one feel if one was wrenched back to life from death? What would one remember? Would one be grateful, or angry? If the latter, would one even know what one was angry about? And so, once again, I was able to say, actually, now that you come to mention it, I might have something for you . . .
You might have noticed that what three of these stories have in common, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION . . .'" being something of an exception, is their supernatural nature. I think that may be due in large part to my enduring love of supernatural short stories. I'm less comfortable with short mystery stories, as I think the mystery works better on the larger canvas of the novel, while the supernatural is better suited to the short story because the short story places no great premium on an explanation for what occurs, thus enhancing the effect of the uncanny. Anyway, that's an argument for a different day.
For now, though, that's my relationship, as a writer, with short fiction. But in case hordes of editors are even now preparing to bombard me with invitations to contribute to further anthologies, I must state that I have no more ideas in my head for short stories. Not a one. I'm all tapped out. Eventually, another will come along. For now, though, it's back to the next novel.
Off to the airport for a publicity trip to Barcelona. I know, I know: tough old station. Perhaps to atone for this failure to suffer more for my art, I've been trying to learn Spanish by using Michel Thomas language CDs. I've only managed to get through four hours of the initial eight-hour foundation course, though, so I'm a little limited in what I can say, but it's the principle of the thing. Each time I go to a foreign country to promote the books, I try to learn a little of the language, or just enough to be polite. There's nothing ruder than arriving in a foreign country and expecting the locals to understand you if you just. Talk. Very. Slowly. In. English. And. Occasionally. SPEAK VERY LOUDLY. I'm also one of those people who like to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare for my flight. Unfortunately, Aer Lingus has decided to delay the flight by an hour and a half, so I have a little more time to spare than I might like. Still, it gives me a few precious extra minutes with Michel, and I can now differentiate -ar verbs from -er and -ir verbs. I am, though, still living entirely in the present tense, which might be useful philosophically, but rather leaves one yearning when it comes to elements of discourse. When we eventually board our flight, some two hours behind schedule, the pilot alludes darkly to 'incidents in Geneva', which sounds a bit like the title of a Len Deighton novel, and suggests a far more interesting explanation for the delay than the reality might provide. The result is that I check into my hotel close to midnight, not having eaten since breakfast. Using my newfound Michel Thomas-derived language skills, I inform the hotel receptionist that "I want to eat something now", which, linguistically speaking, is the equivalent of banging a spoon on the desk and pointing at my mouth. Still, he gets the picture and, rather sweetly, insists upon giving me directions to various restaurants in slow Spanish, only some of which I understand. He doesn't know the way to Velodromo, a classic tapas bar supposedly nearby, which is a bit unfortunate as I want to go there, but using my map and my Tontoesque sense of direction, aided by gnawing hunger and a desperate desire for red wine, I find it, albeit after heading off in the opposite direction for a time, although the upside is that I find a street that I recall from my last trip here half a decade ago, so I now have my bearings. No English menu at Velodromo, but I can remember enough Spanish to ask for Iberian ham, some toast, patatas bravas, and the crucial glass of vinho tinto. Red wine is my friend. I read my book, and am happy.
MONDAY My Spanish publishers had given me two options: I could either get up at 4AM to catch a flight to Barcelona today, or I could leave on Sunday and have Monday to myself. Not being insane - or, indeed, much of a morning person at the best of times - I now have a day in Barcelona to myself. I decide to do some things that I didn't get to do on my last trip, so the first half of the day is devoted to the architect Gaudi. It was summer when I was last in Barcelona, and the queue to visit La Pedrera, the apartment block that he designed, stretched for hours. Today, there is no queue, so I get to wander around the terrace and the wonderful attic, while feeling grateful that I never had to live in the apartment, which looks like somewhere my Gran would have been happy. From there, it's on to his playful Park Guell, where I have the obligatory coffee (in a city of coffee shops, one rather ends up feeling like a caffeine-fuelled Pavlov's dog) and read my book for a while, then take the Metro to the Barri Gotic. I had planned to return to the Picasso Museum but, like most museums, it's closed on Mondays, so I pay a second visit to the city's main cathedral and take another look at St Eulalia's crypt, which is decorated with scenes of her martyrdom. St Eulalia was, apparently, torn apart with hooks, and then set on fire. Upon her death, a white dove was reputed to have flown from her mouth and ascended to heaven. Nasty business, martyrdom, regardless of the involvement of doves. The rest of the afternoon is spent drinking outrageously cheap red wine (Two Euro a glass! How does anyone get anything done?) and reading bits and pieces. Although I have my laptop with me, and should be starting the next book - which will probably be a sequel to The Gates - I've just finished editing The Whisperers, and, quite frankly, the last thing I want to do right now is start writing again. Instead, I read some manuscripts for which I've been asked to offer quotes. Arlene Hunt's Blood Money is particularly good. I know Arlene a little, but we haven't spoken much about her work. I wonder if she's read Dennis Lehane, as Blood Money reminds me of the best of the Kenzie and Gennaro books? Although not yet well known outside Ireland, I think Arlene is destined to go far, and it's quite a pleasure to continue reading her manuscript over dinner in the lovely Set Portes restaurant, aided by a fine bottle of Torres wine. (Twelve euro! I may have to move here!) Lest you think that my life is one long jolly, the schedule for tomorrow is waiting for me back at the hotel, along with a very fetching book on Barcelona's cemeteries, a gift from my publshers. I'm here for the BC Negra crime festival, and tomorrow I have eight media interviews, and a formal event, in a language that I can't speak in anything other than the present tense, and then only to ask for wine, the bill, or more potatoes. Somewhere in the city are Don Winslow, Ian Rankin, and Arnaldur Indridason, all of whom I am fans of, but I have no idea where they might be. Ian I've met before, and like a great deal; Arnaldur I've shaken hands with, although he had no idea who I was, even though I'd given his American publishers a quote for his book; and Don is big in the Snake River Penitentiary in Oregon, if only because I've sent some of his books to one of the prisoners there, and he's passed them around. It would be good to meet up with them all. For now, though, my bed is calling . . .
On which I begin justifying my presence here. The plan is that the interviews will start at 10.00 A.M. and continue until close to 7.00 P.M., at which point we leave to do a book club session at a new local bookstore. I have an interpreter, Yannick, who is very good, but there is a lingering sense of frustration at not being able to express myself directly. It's my own fault: I should be able to speak Spanish, but then I should be able to speak Italian too, and German. I can muddle along in French but, in an ideal world, I would be able to answer each interviewer in his or her own tongue. Thankfully, though, Yannick is on hand, and the journalists are, without exception, kind and tolerant. Furthermore, they have all read the book - in some cases, they have read a number of my books - and I am both flattered and touched by the effort they have put into the interviews. In the US in particular, I'm used to doing interviews where the publicist's summary is the sole contact that some journalists have had with my book. Here, every question has been considered carefully, and I feel slightly guilty that my answers aren't more intelligent. Still, it's hard to shake off the lingering sense that I am inevitably engaged in a variation on the game of Chinese Whispers: I answer the question; Yannick translates it from English to Spanish, or Catalan; the journalist makes notes of what Yannick says that I've said; and then the journalist filters all of that through his or her consciousness to create the final piece. And that assumes that my original answers made sense in the first place, which I fully accept may not always be the case. Then again, I've given interviews in English to English-speaking journalists, and the final printed piece has included quotes that were completely unrelated to what I actually said. The day is broken up by a lovely lunch with my publishers (if you're ever fortunate to be published, make sure that Tusquets is responsible for your Spanish translation, and Bromera for your Catalan) and then off for photographs with two Scandanavian crime novelists at Negra Y Criminal, Barcelona's quirky, superb mystery bookstore. By a stroke of luck (or, rather, thanks to the efforts of my friend Mark Hall in Maine, who is a big fan of Scandinavian mystery fiction) I've read both of the writers in question, Camilla Lackberg and Asa Larsson, but we're ships passing in the night. They haven't read me, but that's okay. Next time we meet, they'll either have read my stuff or I can hold over their heads the fact that they haven't, and make them buy me booze. Back to the hotel. More interviews that make me feel like I know less than the people who are interviewing me, then on to the spectacular Bertrand bookstore for the book club meeting. Whenever I enter a bookstore as good as this one, I want to hug the staff. Everyone is spectacularly welcoming, and I'm acutely aware of how little, in real terms, booksellers are paid. Any writer who behaves like a jerk towards booksellers deserves to be taken out and beaten with remaindered copies of his own novels. My books are everywhere, even displayed in a glass case with a miniature severed arm, the work of one of the staff. Javi, who chairs the session, knows more about my books than I do, and again I feel that sense of frustration at not being able to speak directly to the audience, aligned with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards all those involved. In addition, a number of the sweet people from my publishers have come along to offer support, and I want to hug them too, except some of them are blokes and might feel that I'm being a bit forward. The room in which the session is being held is decorated with photos as part of the festival. The photographer, Josep Maria, has created images based on novels by the participating authors. It's flattering to see one's work provide inspiration for an artist, and I decide that the least I can do is to buy one of the prints. I feel a bit embarrassed paying for it, though. I suppose that, once again, I'm conscious the print costs more than most of the booksellers make in a week or more. Booksellers just aren't paid enough anywhere. It's a noble profession, and it behoves writers to remember that. The staff from Tusquets offer to join me for dinner, but they've all had a long day. There are husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, cats and dogs that should enjoy their company for a while, and they have assorted dinners and lunches to get through with me before I leave. I change my shoes at the hotel, find a kind of oriental tapas bar named Balthazar nearby (twelve euro for a fine bottle of Rioja - are these people mad?), and read a little more Arlene Hunt. Off to bed.
WEDNESDAY With Marta, the publicist for my Catalan publishers, I depart first thing in the morning - well, nineish, but it's the principle --for a recorded interview at a Catalan television station. It's for an arts programme, Millennium, and everyone involved, from Ramon, the presenter, to the make-up ladies, is sweetness personified. For the purposes of the interview, I have an earpiece through which an interpreter translates Ramon's questions into English for me, then simultaneously translates my replies into Catalan for Ramon and the eventual viewers. Once again, I have to trust in the interpreter to make sense of my replies and, once again, I wish I was as smart as people seem to assume that I am. To borrow a phrase from the world of entertainment: I'm not really a philosopher, I just play one on TV. More interviews back at the hotel, and then I have a couple of hours to myself in the afternoon. I had intended to visit the Egyptian Museum nearby, but instead make the mistake of trying to catch up on e-mail, and my free hours disappear. I have enough time to grab a quick cup of coffee, having now forsaken lunch, and then it's off to the main event for the BC Negra Festival. I'm interviewed in a former church by Antonio Lozano, a journalist and writer whom I met on my last visit to Barcelona, and whose company I enjoy; and Laura Fernandez, another journalist, and also a crime writer. Her new novel, Wendolin Kramer: A Novel of Superheroes, Villains, and Depressed Dogs, sounds like great fun, and I look forward to reading it when it is published this year. I sit between them as they take turns to ask questions, and the audience of 200 or so listens through earphones to a simultaneous translation of what I say. It seems to go well, and people even laugh at some of my jokes in translation. This is quite an achievement, as most people don't laugh at my jokes even when they understand English. A word on the two writers, Antonio and Laura. It takes a certain generosity of spirit for writers on their home turf to interview a visiting writer, or even to accept his or her presence at a festival without reservation. I was at one continental crime festival where a number of the home writers made it very clear that the visiting - and, in some cases, certainly better known - writers were not particularly welcome. This is not the case in Barcelona, and both Antonio and Laura are very complimentary about me and my books, to the extent that, halfway through Antonio's introduction, I cease to recognise the person he's talking about, and begin to wonder if I might not be at the wrong event. Dinner afterwards with my publishers, including Beatriz de Moura, the director of Tusquets. I am slightly in awe of her, for she knew Salvador Dali, not to mention most of the major Spanish and international writers of recent years. I would happily spend an evening listening to her talk about the trade, and the future of books, and the writers that she has met. And, thankfully, that's precisely what I get to do. When I return to my hotel, I sit down to write a speech for a booksellers' lunch the next day. Yannick has kindly agreed to translate it into Spanish for me, and I will then attempt to read that translation instead of giving my speech in English. It turns into a bit of an epic, to be honest, but I'm too tired to cut it back. It will have to do as it is.
THURSDAY I have the morning to myself, so I find a wine shop and get a crash course in Spanish wines. After that, it's off to the Tusquets office, which is in a lovely old house in its own grounds. There's even a resident dog, Gunther, for whom I've bought a dog toy on La Ramblas. Gunther seems rather pleased with the gift, in that sedate way that elderly Labradors have. I do an interview for Spanish television, although it's kind of warm in the room and I seem to be basting in my own juices, which can't be a good look. After that, I sign a couple of hundred books, and then Yannick and I go over his translation of my speech, with me marking the more difficult words and adding a phonetic spelling beside them. The speech turns out to be two pages long, and we only have time to go through it twice. At the restaurant, the very good La Balsa, I somehow manage to muddle through the speech, and nobody throws bread rolls at me for mangling the Spanish tongue. Very tolerant people, the Spanish. Afterwards, I'm tempted to knock back as much wine as I can take, but I have an event that evening, so I restrain myself. Most of the booksellers and distributors have at least a little English and, aided by Yannick, I get to chat with most of them. It's on occasions like this that I feel particularly grateful for my profession: they're all interesting people, some of them with decades in the book business behind them, and it's fascinating to talk to them. We also get to flip through the restaurant's guest book, which includes the signatures of Nastassja Kinski, Roman Polanski (!), Haruki Murakami, and assorted European royalty. Oh, and now me. In each case, the restaurant has kindly identified the signature in question, just in case it's not entirely legible. For me, I suspect that they'll add "John Connolly. Writer. Under the misguided impression that he can speak Spanish . . ." Return to the hotel with time only to change my shirt, and then six of us pile into a people carrier and make our way to the town of Terrassa, some 30 km from Barcelona, for a bookstore event. The people at Bertrand's have made a fantastic window display, there's a good crowd, and the store gives me a beautiful book on Barcelona Art Nouveau as a thank you gift for visiting. It's completely unnecessary, but a lovely gesture. Into the people carrier for the journey back to Barcelona. I'm starting to fade a little, but there's a cocktail party to celebrate the festival, and I feel that I should show my face. I thank Paco, who owns the Negra Y Criminal crime store and has masterminded the festival, and his wife, Montse. They make a great couple, as it's hard to decide which of them is the nicer, so it's best just to give up and love them both equally. I have a drink and a chat with Ian Rankin, who continues to wear his fame lightly, and remains good company; and Arnaldur Indridason. His new novel, Hypothermia, is probably his best yet, which is saying something given the quality of the preceding books. By this point, though, I'm barely awake. I say my farewells, head back to the hotel, eat some ham and drink a glass of wine at the nearby La Bodegueta, then go to bed. Home tomorrow, and back to writing, but it's been a good week, and I've made the best of it, I think.
So there you have it. Not a bad way to make a living, is it?
This week John read
Blood Money (uncorrected proof) by Arlene Hunt But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn