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
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