‘Never heard of you…’.
What generosity of spirit. Some thirteen years ago now, the fellow had marched across a busy airport departure hall in order to deliver his crushing verdict. He entered the bookstore in which I was signing copies of my first thriller, picked up and studied an example and looked me in the eye. No doubt or equivocation there. He had definitely never heard of me. I smiled and replied: ‘That’s because I don’t write children’s fiction’. Security staff were on hand to pre-empt the ensuing fight.
These are the trials and tribulations of writing for a living. One thing I quickly learnt was to shrug off the envy and criticism and ignore the reviews. I still have framed on my bathroom wall the first rejection letter received from an editor. She wrote: ‘The characterisation is thin, the dialogue unconvincing, and the violence gratuitous’. Within a few weeks I had found myself a literary agent and shortly after that secured a publishing deal. It was the very same book I ended up signing at Heathrow and that won the approval of thriller-writing grand master Frederick Forsyth. Beginner’s luck, I suppose. They do say taste is subjective.
Few things prepare one for a career as an author. I kicked against it for years, resenting the solitude and even finding myself smoking cigarettes with tree surgeons working nearby (I am a non-smoker). Slowly though, I became acclimatised and probably increasingly agoraphobic.
Complete the book, push it out, get on with the next. That is how it goes. After almost two years since the start-point, the title hits the stands and promotion of it begins. So too does the anxious wait to gauge it is heading into The Sunday Times top-ten bestseller list. It can go horribly wrong. A friend telephoned to say she had seen my books piled high in a famed London store and had spread them around to create an impression of high demand. That afternoon a second friend rang to inform me he had noticed my books spread about in the same bookshop and had piled them up to ensure a stronger visual presence. The moral – avoid help from your friends. On the spur of the moment, I once walked into a bookstore and enquired whether they would like me to sign copies of my latest thriller. I readied my pen, opened the title page, and quickly discovered I had signed the books several months before. A lot of simulated autographing followed. International events can also intervene. I found myself staring at a window display of my third thriller in yet another airport. Few customers approached, for it was 24-hours after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the shout-line on my cover was ‘Apocalypse Has Just Been Brought Forward’. Timing is everything.
Then there are the press interviews. Often the resulting articles reflect more upon the journalists than the interviewee and the convenient hooks or prejudices they seek to peddle. Going blind immediately skews everything. Even if I avoid the subject, the banner to the subsequent article will cary the toe-curling legend TRIUMPH IN HIS ADVERSITY. It gets worse. Live on radio once, an interviewer asked me to comment on how I coped with my ‘genital condition’. I waxed lyrical for a couple of minutes until I realised she meant Congenital.
There is little glamorous in zig-zagging across the country to give lectures and interviews and attend signings. A far cry from the chauffeured long-wheelbase Daimler sent to ferry me to my first publisher conference. How easily flattered and utterly naïve I was; how I would loiter proudly beside posters of my book at London train and Underground stations in the hope commuters would congregate to acclaim the new title. The thrill has somewhat faded and reality kicked in. At BBC Broadcasting House one enters a strange world of small and airless cubicles inhabited by a transient population of celebrity chefs and gardeners and wannabe pop acts all hunting publicity and jostling for air-time. After several hours of down-the-line broadcasts and answering some of the most inane questions ever asked, it is extraordinary that anyone puts themselves through it. Yet for a writer, it provides a brief excuse to escape the tyranny of the computer keyboard.
After a particular stage performance in the West End, an actress friend of mine left the stage door and encountered an elderly couple waiting in the rain to meet her. Hugely touched, she smiled and asked if they had enjoyed her performance. ‘No, we did not’, they replied. At least they were honest. Perhaps it was worse for another thespian who – having gone naked on stage – was later approached by a woman commenting on the size of his testicles. What a career choice. Most writers, artists and musicians prefer to be appreciated. Actors tend to go further and actively desire approval. There is something quite exposing about creativity, in putting the result of your efforts on display. A great deal of blood, sweat, time and emotional energy have gone into the final product. It is never simply a job. To provoke a reaction is always better than indifference; to receive a single letter of thanks from a grateful reader makes it all worthwhile.
Well, the next historical thriller – REALM – is published on June 10 and the cycle of promotion begins once more. Half-way through writing another book, it is always difficult to remember the details of the last. Elizabethan, I think. Yet for anyone who has ever written a book – nothing quite compares to holding a mint copy of a first edition in one’s hands.
As for the editor who so brutally rejected my first manuscript all those years ago – I gather she now works in the soft furnishings business.
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