My Four Solaris Books
There’s not been enough talk about books in these columns lately. Let’s start to remedy that. Last week I was in a delightful old bookshop in Palma with a friend when the bookshop owner asked me, ‘Are you famous?’
Mischievously, I looked at my friend. ‘Am I famous?’
She considered the question. ‘Well,’ she said finally to the bookseller, ‘he’s known.’
I was never mainstream enough to carry reader loyalty in my name alone. You know when that day comes because your name finally goes above the title of the novel. JOYCE CAROL OATES it screams, and underneath there’s a tiny title.
I should have been born a Gemini. My books usually have two protagonists, and I have always tried to work in two areas at once. I never wanted to write criminal procedure – I leave that to the real experts like Val McDermid, Laura Wilson, Ann Cleves and many others.
While I was gearing up to write murder mysteries I was writing free-standing novels in sets, and of course collections of short stories. The sets were loosely defined as ‘urban’, ‘zeitgeist’, ‘gothic’ and so on, but were really just stories. If you’re not Joyce Carol Oates then you have to either survive on the appeal of the story – ‘A Tale Of Terrifying Suspense!’ or go with a publisher who is a bit mad and will go along with you. The downside of that is your print run. There are probably six people in the world who read my novel ‘Breathe’. It’s as mad as old trousers but I still quite like it.
Plus point being; you get to write whatever you like and it appears as a proper print book. Minus point; the print run is your free copies plus one for the publisher’s mum.
After having Serpent’s Tail as my indie publisher for a while I went to Solaris, a small outfit with the benefit of being part of a much larger one, and they took ‘Plastic’, my ‘mad housewife becomes empowered through murder, shopaholism and plastic surgery, with jokes’ novel. It was not one for the mainstream. Having read quite a few so-called summer novels in the last few weeks I can safely admit I was not chasing an audience. My four Solaris novels are dense, overlaid and very possibly overwrought.
The second, ‘Hell Train’, was my unrepentant homage to Hammer, being the film they never made, and it was a joy to write. The German edition was beautifully produced, although as they went for almost the same image with a new artist I have no idea why they didn’t use Graham Humphries’ excellent artwork.
‘Nyctophobia’ was the ghost story I had been wanting to write for a long time, and typically I decided to shake things up by having it set in bright sunshine rather than darkness. I was inspired by a number of fine Spanish ghost stories; whereas the British used to produce the best ghost tales in the late 19th/early 20th century, the Spanish now hold that title thanks to their fundamental understanding that the supernatural needs tragedy to create redemption. Solaris printed a number of pages at the front which work like a mini-trailer. Unfortunately they didn’t leave me anywhere to sign that damned thing.
Finally, ‘The Sand Men’ was an homage to JG Ballard, based on my research in the Middle East, concerning the cultural chaos caused by the construction of a futuristic resort. Locus magazine said it contained ‘a useful message; only by empathising with demons can we conquer them.’ The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece that delighted and astounded me, saying it was the book Ballard never wrote, while the embittered critic of a small UK genre magazine tore it to shreds because I was not a proper SF writer.
The lessons learned from writing this quartet proved useful to me. Know your readership. Don’t put too many ideas into one book unless you’re sure they’re compatible. Work on your resolution before you start. Stick to a single theme. And always provide a powerful focal point for the story.
Solaris were good publishers and the relationship was thoroughly enjoyable, but I wish we’d sold a few more copies. Writers tend to think that someone will help guide their careers but no, generally you’re on your own, and it’s only with hindsight that you see where you went wrong. Perhaps there’s an alternative universe where a version of ‘Plastic’ cuts all of its black humour, where ‘Hell Train’ plays it straight and unironic, where ‘Nyctophobia’s central concept is less intellectual, where ‘The Sand Men’s story is more linear, and because of it they all became hits.
But actually, looking back, I wouldn’t change any of them.