The Story Behind The Sand Men
If you care to cast your orbs to the far right of this page, to the bit no-one ever looks at (I assume) you’ll find the first chapter of my next novel posted (hopefully) for your delectation. Those who care for the futurologist Mr JG Ballard may especially enjoy the book, but actually but it’s more of a cross-genre (that phrase again!) thriller not aimed at any one group, other than those who’d like an intriguing atmospheric story with a modernist theme.
Having been to the Middle East a number of times, both to the touristy bits (Dubai) and the non-touristy bits (Oman) I’ve found much to be fascinated by in its landscape and peoples, and wanted to use it as a backdrop for a drama. At this point the novel was called ‘Dream World’ in a heavier echo of Ballardian style.
Earlier drafts of the book were heavily political, until I realised it was almost becoming a non-fiction work, especially in sections that concerned the movements of the Chinese and Russians seeking access to Middle Eastern ports, as they have lately been doing in Africa. There is a kind of economic imperialism taking place between East and West that is reported there but not here, unless you read Al-Jazeera, and this fascinated me.
I finally dropped the earlier draft in favour of one which told the story more succinctly, but in the last third I diverted again, making the book apocalyptic. It was spectacular but it also felt wrong, as if having started by telling one family’s story I had switched back to big themes again.
I showed the novel to a trusted editor in New York and she hated it. I mean, hated it. Her reaction caught me totally by surprise, and I abandoned the work in shock, wondering if I should ever have started it at all. But one of her points stuck in my craw; that nobody’s interested in the Arab world, and I wondered if I had accidentally tapped into a bit of Jewish/Arabic antagonism.
Also, I didn’t feel that the novel was about the Arab world as such, but about an alien environment that tests the characters. It was very important to me to be seen as fair-minded and not demonise any particular section of society. I let the book simmer for a while, but couldn’t resist returning to it.
Third time around, I forced myself to concentrate the story more tightly on the protagonists, to pay readers back for investing in their story. Even at this point I had two outcomes; one happier, one darker. And this, too, was ditched as I decided to let the protagonist choose a fate. Then we discovered that the title ‘Dream World’ was too close to another title the publisher had coming out at the same time, so they asked me if I would change mine.
Oddly, the new title ‘The Sand Men’ fitted it better, and now the story of the Sand Men themselves (intended originally as a metaphor) changed, growing in meaning and importance. Altogether the book went through four rewrites.
‘Plastic’ had gone through six separate versions and four titles, and despite critical acclaim did not sell well, partly I think because it is so densely packed with crazy stuff that it’s a bit overwhelming. It was important not to let this happen with ‘The Sand Men’; the end result needed to be organic and natural.
The version that’s coming out this year is, to my mind, the best; leaner, shorter and more focused in its story of an ordinary family living in an atmosphere of increasing paranoia. The most fascinating part for me is seeing how readers react to a book I’ve invested so much time and effort in. When you spend so long on one work you get too close to be able to see what you’ve made.
‘The Sand Men’ is out in paperback on October 8th.