Monday, 8 January 2018
The Other Book: A Ten Year Anniversary
I had been counting down the days, quite literally, marking them in my diary with fervent exclamations. On that day, I thought, my life would change; on that day I would become what so many wish, for reasons usually unclear, to become: a published author. I’m not entirely sure what I did expect - a bottle of champagne from my editor, perhaps; or a card, or even an email. But the day went on as days usually do, and no email, card, or champagne appeared. It was the first moment of reality. Your book enters the world, and, for the most part, the world shrugs and turns back to looking at cat videos.
In the ten years since, the things that have changed are, mostly, to do with the inescapable rhythms of life, and of earning a living. The things that I, and many other writers do, are manifold, necessary, often dull, and, crucially, take you away from the actual act of writing (itself, I am aware, a very privileged thing.) I wish, however, that I had known then, when my first book burst, in its gorgeous gold and red livery, into the world, what I know now (but then again, who doesn’t.) Would things have been different? Sometimes I like to think so; other times, I am not so sure. One thing, though, will never alter: at a dinner party, if asked that terrible question - “What do you do?” - if you reply that you are a writer, the first question will always be, “Have you written anything I’d have heard of?” My answer used to be self-deprecating; now it veers towards the sardonic.
When The Other Book crept into view, I had no notion of the children’s book world: I was not on Twitter (embryonic, then); not in any children’s book groups or associations; I did not know any other children’s authors; I had not spent years building up a profile or engaging with other people in the industry. I did not know what it meant to publish a children’s book, or to be a children’s book author.
I had no idea of the “market”, or of the things that people do to sell books. I was, in other words, entirely unprepared. Looking back at my journal recently I was amazed to see that in 2008 I only gave a couple of talks - one to a library, where I sold no books; and one to a school who had booked me to talk to a group of three year olds. My book was, very firmly, for the 11+ bracket. Nothing I have done since has been more terrifying.
When I see debut authors appearing now, they often seem, to me at least, to have been trained, or to have had access to a kind of toolkit: they spring up, fully formed, giving talks, tweeting, blogging, and all the rest, with beautiful book following beautiful book annually. Even now I have no idea how these things work: what to say on Twitter, what to write about on this much-neglected blog. The only thing I ever wanted to do was write books - jagged, mysterious children’s books - and to hope that those books found readers.
The publishing world moves to invisible currents. Since that first novel was published - to the kind of review that said “promising”, or “shows potential” - I have published five more, with three publishers. Each novel was a labour of love and hope, sweat and anxiety; each one bore on its shoulders the same weight and dreams; and each one did find some readers who loved it. None, however, has yet crossed the barrier into the general consciousness.
I have always received good reviews - one hopes that one grows better as a writer, after all. When I look at the first pages of The Other Book now, I wince: there are so many things wrong with it (I even sometimes use it as an example of how not to start a children’s book with my students.)
With The Liberators, in 2010, I touched some kind of nerve: the book was set after the financial crash, and saw a young boy battling a cult who wanted to bring chaos to the world. Readers enjoyed it; it was reprinted; for a few moments it seemed like it might have broken out into general view. I remember a friend joyfully texting me a picture of a pile of copies he’d seen in a bookshop in Vienna.
Whilst many enjoyed it, there were those who thought that its hero was too privileged, and his world of boarding schools, artists, bankers, civil servants and London townhouses too remote from the general reader. I have never understood this complaint, because what is fiction for if not to open a window onto a different life? What is interesting about this is that I never heard this point made by children, who simply read, and absorbed, and were thrilled.
After The Liberators, a hiatus ensued. One thing that is not generally known about the publishing world is that writers are quite dependent on the people who actually work at the house: if your contact moves, then it can leave you stuck. My editor left Bloomsbury; a new one came along; and I, having no contract, and being inexperienced in the ways of the book world, decided not to take what now appears absolutely sensible editorial advice on a manuscript, and instead tried to sell it elsewhere. The result was a lost MS: “Cave”, set in a co-ed boarding school on a hill which is besieged by ecological terrorists. My agent thought it was great; my lay readers thought it was the best thing I’d written: publishers however were not so sure, and though I was called in for meetings, it was usually to say: “we’d love you to do something, but this isn’t quite it”, and the book was rejected everywhere.
What does a writer do when faced with rejection? Start again, of course, with the glimmer of a new, better book in your mind. I returned to the things I loved as a child, and particularly to the depths and weirdnesses of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps overly enthralled by them, I began work on another MS, which was to become The Broken King, published 4 years after The Liberators. It underwent many revisions, many false starts: it was intended to be the first part of a trilogy called “The Darkening Path”. I had ambitious plans. It would be cosmic, reaching through time and space and touching on the mysteries of the universe. Readers loved trilogies, didn’t they?
When The Broken King was published, I had not realised quite how arduous it would be to write parts two and three in, effectively, about six months each (whilst also dealing with what amounts to a full time job, and a growing family); I am still not sure that the sequels were the best that they could have been. And whilst the trilogy did find enthusiastic readers - the early reviews from children were superlative, and there were of course those who noted the echoes of Alan Garner - it did not touch the hearts of enough people. On occasion I receive messages from children who are obsessed with The Broken King: but, to coin a phrase, fine messages butter no parsnips.
Again, one returns to things one loved as a child: so The Double Axe was born, from the myth of the Minotaur. What if, I thought, the Minotaur had been a convenient fiction for other, darker purposes? How would this story work from the point of view of one of Minos’s other children?
Once more, there were ambitious plans: for an interlinked series of up to ten novels, each revisiting a particular myth. Several large publishers were interested in the concept; but there was no firm offer, and in the end, I settled for a one book deal with a small publisher. They wanted to get the book out before the final part of The Darkening Path, so I had a rather absurd situation in which people were expecting the end of a series, and in fact were reading the beginning of another. (Even now, my Wikipedia entry records The Double Axe, erroneously, as part of The Darkening Path trilogy.)
The book - which I considered my best, the sharpest, the most stylish, the one that, at last perhaps, was really beginning to know what it was doing, the one that received the kindest reviews, from readers, reviewers, and other children’s authors - was published, was briefly lifted by some generous praise; and then drifted, lost on the bewildering currents of fashion.
So many factors influence a children’s book’s reception: do librarians like it? Does it fit into a curriculum? Can it get onto a table in Waterstones? And sometimes all those factors need to come together for a book to fly: and most of the time, they don’t.
I’m now onto my seventh full length work of fiction, which, for various complex reasons, and a combination of happy chance and dogged industry, I have decided to crowdfund with Unbound. The Arrow of Apollo is now, after two months, 40 per cent funded, and with it I hope to bring an enjoyment of myth and classics into schools, as well as providing an epic and exciting story. You can see more about it here.
I have learnt much over the past ten years. Festivals, talks, school visits, are the life-blood of the children’s author, although there have been as many humiliations as triumphs. At a windy, cold children’s festival in a tent full of hay bales, about to start a reading, I overheard a lady in the front row say to her daughter: “That man’s going to read us some nice Roald Dahl!” I hated to disabuse her. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to speak to 7 adults and a dog, and not had my travel expenses reimbursed. Nobody bought a book (not even the dog.) I was due to give a creative writing workshop in a library in East London: after waiting for ten minutes, the only other person in the room was an old lady who wanted somewhere warm to sit where she could eat her peanuts.
Does all of this help to sell books? The jury, as they say, is still out.
I have learned that good reviews do not sell a children’s book. I have learned that publishers have many other books to deal with apart from your own, and many pressures on their time, and a budget that is often directed to something else, and that there is only a small window during which your book will be promoted (if it is even promoted at all). I have learned that disappointment is embedded into writing fiction: I have spoken to authors whom I consider wildly successful, who have won prizes and had film deals and have sold half a million copies or more: they shake their heads, purse their lips, and say their careers are hanging on a thread. What hope then for those of us hanging on by even more slender threads?
Of the other children’s authors who were first published in 2008, the one I referred to at the beginning of this article was a certain unknown called David Walliams, whose books now don’t just corner the market: they swamp it. Celebrities are everywhere in children’s book writing, and the message that sends worries me. Must writing now become part of your “brand”, like launching a scent or a line of underwear? Why bother continuing with the manuscript you’re plugging away with, when you know it won’t receive a tenth of the publicity or attention that some C list comedian or supermodel’s ghost-written debut will?
Well. The only thing that one can do - the only thing that I will do - is to keep writing: keep rethinking, revising, reworking. I don’t think I will ever be able to prevent myself from writing. I will always feel fond of The Other Book, despite its many faults; and those faults are partly what make me want to continue. Recently, a student I taught at Royal Holloway stopped me in the corridor: he remembered me from a visit I'd made to his school (my old prep, Dorset House): he'd become obsessed with the book, and mentioned a scene where the hero, Edward, lays the body of a dead raven onto a the tombstone of a knight. The student's connection to my writing touched me deeply: that image had been the genesis of the book, and to know that it had found its resonances in someone else's mind was thrilling.
I will never want to give up the joy of composition; the delirious rush when a hodge-podge of ideas comes together into a whole, like flecks of paint onto a canvas: the music of words on the page. The perfect book is always in the back of my mind, dappled in shadow, its brief glimpses beautiful and unattainable, as furtive and shy as a unicorn. I hope that one day, I will manage to find it.
Or rather, I should say: I hope that I wil never find it: as surely, once it had been written, there would be no point in writing any more.