Saturday, August 18, 2012


I have come to accept that the affection of my readers for me, if it exists at all, is largely bound up with their fondness for my characters.  By this I mean that, if I died, they would be a bit troubled, but if I killed off, say, Charlie Parker, they would be very angry indeed.  I do not take this too personally.  If my readers choose to feel more strongly about a fictional character than they do about me, a living, breathing person with bills to pay and dogs to walk, then so be it.  I'm not saying it isn't hurtful, but I put it up there with my other half's continuing infatuation with Brad Pitt: if Brad Pitt should turn up on our doorstep to claim her then, reluctantly, I shall have to learn to live without my beloved, and there will be no hard feelings.  On the balance of probability, though, I suspect that she is going to have to make do with me for the foreseeable future.
The matter of a reader's affection for a series character was brought home to me by a recent article in The New Yorker.  (Yes, I have a subscription to The New Yorker, and it's the best $120 a year I've ever spent.  As my friend and fellow author Declan Hughes once put it, he feels better for just having it in the house.  I never read everything in it, and there is at least one cartoon in every issue that I fail to understand, but what I do read, and what I do understand, probably makes me a better person, or at least makes me feel like a better person, which is Declan's point.  I think.)  Anyway, in the July 2nd issue there is a lovely article by John McPhee about the editing process, and it should be required reading for every aspiring writer, not least because it illuminates the sometimes grey area between proof-reading and editing, which are two very different things.  Increasingly, in this heady age of self-publishing, the distinction between the two is being willfully blurred, and the result can only be work of inferior quality.  
A sidebar: with two new books about to be published, I'm already steeling myself for the inevitable e-mails, often written in a suitably harrumphing tone, pointing out the typos that have crept into the finished works.  These missives are, in the more ill-tempered cases, accompanied by the same question: doesn't anyone proof-read these books?  The answer, of course, is yes: I go over the manuscript and the typeset pages so often that I start to become depressed; my editors read them; their copy-editors read them; the proof-readers read them.  And you know what? Mistakes will always creep through, because that's the nature of all human endeavor.  The Wrath of Angels is almost 160,000 words long.  Even if one were to find 16 typos in that manuscript - which I hope is not the case - it would still only represent a margin of error of .01 %, which most scientists would accept as pretty good indeed.  Being an author has taught me to be forgiving of such matters.  Yes, it may be annoying to find typos or errors in a book, but the miracle is that there are not more.  Where errors are pointed out - preferably discreetly, which is the sign of good breeding - I'll always try to correct them for the next edition, but the triumphalism of a minority of correspondents is very wearing.  
Sorry, where was I?  Ah, yes, The New Yorker.  So, as a boy John McPhee was a fan of the Silver Chief series, written by one Jack O'Brien.  The series concerned the adventures of a sled dog in the "Great White North", and they were catnip to the young McPhee, which was why he was quite distraught when the author died.  Some years later, he happened to be visiting his Uncle Bob, who had published the Silver Chief novels under the imprint of the John C. Winston company.  He was quite surprised when a man arrived for an appointment with his uncle, and was introduced to McPhee as "Jack O'Brien, the author of 'Silver Chief.'"  The gentleman in question appeared to be in the fullest bloom of health, and when McPhee shook his hand it didn't fall off, as one might have expected of the hand of a man who had been deceased for some time.  When the man left, McPhee remarked to his uncle that he had been under the impression Jack O'Brien was dead.  Uncle Bob replied: "He did die.  He died.  Actually, we've had three or four Jack O'Briens.  Let me tell you something, John.  Authors are a dime a dozen.  The dog is immortal."
So there it is: authors are mortal.  Characters, if the authors are very fortunate, live forever.  
Although I'd like to be the first author to reverse that trend.