Writing For The Few, Not The Many

Reading & Writing


I once wrote a book I couldn’t sell (not once actually – about a quarter of all my novels go through this ‘nobody-in-their-right-mind-will-publish-this’ phase).

‘Calabash’ was a coming-of-age novel about a clever, lonely teenager who accidentally falls between a rundown British seaside town in the 1970s and a fantastical version of ancient Persia, where he is no longer bullied and feels more at home. But the more time he spends in his fantasy life, the more danger he is in of never getting out. Can he find a way to unite his dream-life and reality?

The book was my Wizard of Oz, and got to the heart of something I’d been trying to express for years, something I’d touched on in my memoir ‘Paperboy’ – the moment when you wonder if having too much imagination is ceasing to be a good thing and becoming something that holds you back. It was about healing rifts and learning to grow up.

The book’s locale came to me when I looked at the Arabic and Persian influenced street architecture of seaside towns like Brighton. I suddenly thought it could be ancient Persia if you ignored the hen parties and chip wrappers. I’d been drawn to orientalist tales before with short stories like ‘The Man Who Wound A Thousand Clocks’, but this was the first time I’d had to create a fantasy world from scratch, populated with strange people loosely modelled on figures in ancient Persian history.

I had, as usual, presented my publishers with a terrible problem; although I had a young protagonist I was writing for a general audience, so Calabash was (rightly) sold as an adult novel. Readers had trouble labelling it, and as all the world dearly loves a label the book didn’t reach as wide an audience as I’d hoped. This sort of problem afflicted the wonderful Graham Joyce, and Jonathan Carroll.

I wanted the book to be fun as well, so it also contains a locked-room mystery and plenty of jokes about cultural differences. I love the chapter ‘The Benefits of Progress’, which compares modern civilization to that of an ancient kingdom. There was a warm streak in the writing which was uncharacteristic of my work at that time. It was championed by other authors who helped me persuade a publisher to take it.

The reason why I mention this is, well, I seem to have done it again. I’ve been beavering away on the Gormenghast-influenced  ‘The Foot on the Crown’ for quite a long while now. Artist Keith Page got enthused over it and did character sketches for the novel, which began life in a very different form as a short story.

I’ve now finished another draft of this fantasy-that’s-not-a-fantasy, and the book is well on its way to becoming my albatross. I got so immersed in the language that I made it unreadably dense, and am now busy removing all the arcane language and simplifying the byzantine structure. It currently stands at 500+ pages. It has over 100 characters. I’m quite happy writing in the cracks between genres because not too many other authors are stupid enough to do it.

I feel that like ‘Calabash’ few people will ever read ‘The Foot on the Crown’, yet I’m drawing a lot of personal satisfaction from the work. I also know that readers of popular mainstream fiction will avoid this like the plague. Does it matter?  Maybe sometimes you need to write something for yourself, to be reminded of why you do it at all.

20 comments on “Writing For The Few, Not The Many”

  1. Wayne says:

    Give it that special treatment and self publish on Kindle. I have a feeling you could well reach an audience there. I prefer real books but who knows if enough people read the ebook you may get a publisher interested. As a huge fan of Calabash I have a longed for more fantasy from your pen (MacBook). I would buy it whatever format it comes in.

  2. Gary Hart says:

    What he said.

    Loved Calabash, love a book that offers a bit of a challenge especially in the language used. Would buy even if it were a bunch of loose pages. Go for it!

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Some things, you have to do just because you want to. If others don’t want to invest in them, it’s OK.

    I like the art work. Scarabold looks like Bud Spencer and Ginanansia reminds me of Kate O’Mara.

  4. Brooke says:

    What Wayne said. And Keith Page’s illustrations are value add.
    Btw– you do know that editions of your “unpublishable” works cost a month’s worth of groceries? Even paperback editions and if they can be found.

  5. Jo W says:

    I think I may have said this before,in fact I know I have but Calabash is still my favourite of your books,Chris. If you can get The Foot on the Crown published,I will be in the queue to buy,to see how it fares against Calabash,which I have only read thrice so far.
    Btw thoroughly enjoyed The Three Friends with that feeling of disappointment that you get when you turn over the last page and there isn’t another chapter waiting. I must get some more of Mr.Collins output.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    If it’s a good story, if it’s got interesting characters with experiences or motivations we can identify with or intrigue us…does it matter what labels other people want to give it?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    You had me at “book”. We have to weed ourselves away from labels and find a way for publishers to do the same. That way people who only read science fiction will find themselves enjoying a general fiction book that has futuristic elements or a futuristic novel set in the past. Readers (including me) need to loosen up.

  8. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Sounds like something to get lost in On a long summer read! Readers of long form fantasy and science fiction are a natural market. Consider Tor Books as a publisher for it. Arcane language can be a draw too.

  9. kevin says:

    The sketches had me hoping for a Christopher Fowler graphic novel.

  10. admin says:

    Keith and I did the Bryant & May graphic novel (a joy to work together), but we had a tough time selling it.

  11. SteveB says:

    Well it’s probably a difficult balance between ‘few’ and ‘none’
    I never forgot what Philip Dick’s publisher said about him, while he was still alive and before Blade Runner made him famous. He said, a PKD book will only sell a thousand copies, but 10 years later, it will still be selling a thousand copies a year.
    I think if you believe in the book, make sure it gets a really nice hardcover first edition.

    By the way ‘orientalist’ is a term of abuse, the orientalists were the western scholars who according to Said and the like imposed a demeaning imperialist dialectic on non-western civilisations.

  12. SteveB says:

    Ginansia seems a bit reminiscent of Fuschia btw

  13. Denise Treadwell says:

    In Bryant and May my favourite sweats exist again! And fascinated with lipsick and nail polish – from the fifties! I wonder how it could survive ! But never disappointed in the plots and out comes!

  14. Peter Tromans says:

    Denise, I’m told that in our house such cosmetic products suffer from ‘dry up’ in less than a year. There must have been more (or better) VOCs in those made in the 1950s

  15. martin says:

    Speaking as a reader, Calabash is one of my favorite of your novels . And speaking as a book seller, authors like Jonathan Carroll (who I have an entire shelf dedicated to), Graham Joyce, and (yes) Christopher Fowler are some of my favorite authors to hand sell. It’s why I love working in an independent book store. There is much more latitude granted employees to stock books that are not just the same old same old.

  16. Susanna Carroll says:

    Just finished “Calabash”. really enjoyed it, Cole Bay feels very real (and very 70s) and is Calabash the sort of place that an over imaginative young man, who feels lonely and trapped, would dream up. There’s an ambiguity to how real Calabash actually is that gives a twist to the story. Looking forward to the fantasy that’s not a fantasy.

  17. admin says:

    The reason why Ginansia bears a resemblance to Fuchsia is that I gave ‘Gormenghast’ as a guide to Keith.
    The book has now moved away from Peake and more toward ‘The Once and Future King’ in style. It’s still probably a year from being finished.

  18. Denise Treadwell says:

    I think the ideal would be for lipstick and nail polish to last for ever! And it certainly does in Bryant and May!

  19. Helen Martin says:

    I have one of my mother’s lipsticks from the 70s and it didn’t seem dry when I tried it yesterday, although I don’t know how well it would last since I don’t wear makeup and wiped it right off.

  20. J. Folgard says:

    I have fond memories of ‘Calabash’, one of the first of your novels I read thanks to my excellent library at the time -in fact, it’s when I began actively looking for your work, so if you can get this new fantasy published I’m all for it. And Keith is brilliant, the Bryant & May graphic novel I purchased at my local comic shop and they managed to get me his Iron Moon hardcover too, both sit proudly on my (top) shelf now. So I can’t speak for the sales of those things, but rest assured they resonate a lot for us fans.

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