Writing For The Few, Not The Many
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.