Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?
I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.
You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.
Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.
But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.
But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.
Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day.
There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.
Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill.
Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.
You see, I can’t not write this book.
You can learn more about my books here.
The Pierre Farag Espionage Thriller series is now a trilogy. Book 1 Ash on the Tongue is free to download here. Book 2 Cairo Mon Amour is published here, and Book 3 Bury me in Valletta will be published in early 2020.
If I were name my favourite character in the trilogy, the prize would go to femme fatale Zouzou Paris. Here’s how to create your own Zouzou:
Give her a mysterious name
Just as Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, Zouzou didn’t start life as Zouzou. Her real name was Aziza Faris. Zouzou is an affectionate form of Aziza. It only needed a slight adjustment for Faris to become Paris* when she became a film star and decided to give herself some French mystique.
Give her a tragic past
Zouzou’s parents died in a car crash when she was eighteen. A friend of her father took her under his wing. “A peculiar variety of friend,” she said darkly, describing how the man had helped her into the film industry, where she became a plaything of his business friends. “It was sordid and exciting at the same time. The attention of rich men made me the envy of my fans. But while they envied me, they hated me too. It is the fate of women like me.”
Give her an ambiguous morality
Although she was known in Egypt as ‘the national bitch’, Zouzou’s lascivious reputation concealed a different morality. She remained a virgin until she was thirty-three. “A man may gorge on mango when all he has been given is boiled carrot,” she says, explaining how she tricked the old men.
Give her a quirky view of the world
Zouzou has spent her life negotiating deception and lies. “My whole life was a bargain.” Her instinct is to protect herself through obfuscation: “Why tell the truth when an untruth will suffice?” she often says.
Give her a distinctive speech style
Zouzou’s first language is Arabic, although we learn that she also speaks French and Turkish and probably other languages. When she speaks English, I give her a stilted and slightly florid style, e.g. “I had to go to many parties on yachts in Beirut … So many actresses, so many men with creeping hands. You see, sister, I cannot think of a yacht without remembering the caresses of those old fellows.”
Happy writing! Stuart
*For Arabic speakers: Yes, yes, I l know this is cheating and that the vowels in Faaris and Baariis are different! Let’s keep it bayni wa baynkum!
For an academic turned novelist, the habit of acknowledging my sources is one that I find hard to discard. So ingrained is the habit that my last novel included endnotes. That story was rooted in historical events, while my work in progress is set in alternate worlds. There’s no history to guide the story, no need to get the dates and facts right. Or is there?
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST OF THIS ARTICLE HERE
With my manuscript half finished, I recently found myself reflecting on how the work has been shaped by an unlikely miscellany of writers over the last eighteen months. The book is a dystopian novel set in Australia and England more than a hundred years into the future. There are two dystopias: A post-apocalyptic Australia, and a post-Enlightenment England, by which I mean a society in which most people have given up thinking for themselves.
A major challenge of writing dystopias is that they must be plausible: My invented futures must contain the pathways by which they have come from their pasts. In the early stages of imagining the novel, I consulted Futurevision, Scenarios for the World in 2040 by Richard Watson and Oliver Freeman to get an idea how professional futurists think, which pretty well confirmed my plausibility theory. Some time later, I read Rhonda Roberts’ Gladiatrix (Kannon Dupree: Time Stalker), a terrific lesson in the importance of making alternate worlds coherent. Rhonda gave me some feedback on an early draft that got me repairing holes in the back story. Around the same time, I spotted Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die at my local library, thinking that it would give me some clues about how my dystopias got where they are. It was broadly useful, but its main impact was its persuasiveness: Ferguson is way to the right of me in his political views, but by the end I was eating out of his hand. I wriggled out of his clutches in the last chapter (no spoilers). The last word goes to Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It’s a lumpy compilation of a book in my view, but it answered a question that had been plaguing me: Why do my dystopias echo The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other works in the canon? The answer: This is a genre with its conventions and tropes. Get over it. (At least that what I got from Atwood; I’m not sure she actually said that.) I had a quick detour through H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau to wrap things up.
My book has multiple voices, one of which comes up in fragments of a popular history written decades into our future. I originally drafted these as (fake) academic history, but my friends in our writers’ group in Sydney got a bad case of lexical indigestion. One or two of them suggested I try using a popular history approach – that odd variety of writing that turns dry history into page turners. While not exactly history, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism gave me a useful stylistic model. Paul Ham’s The Target Committee showed me how much historical content you can load up into a paragraph without it turning to sludge. In the end, I found my own style of fake popular history, which turned out to have a satirical thread in the weave. Bonus.
Reading Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, it struck me that dystopias can be defined in terms of their relation to the rational thought that is the hallmark of the Enlightenment. If I imagine a bell-curve where the top of the curve represents the pinnacle of Enlightenment thinking*, then the two tails are post-apocalyptic Australia (where people are slipping back into the Middle Ages) and post-Enlightenment England (where other people do your rational thinking for you). But the main lesson of Pinker’s book is its stunning optimism: It’s packed with graphs to convince the reader that we’ve never had it so good. Sometimes I wondered why the world needs dystopian novels when we’re already in Utopia.
Now for some specialist influences. I’m a linguist by profession, so it’s not surprising that I have a lot of fun with language in my books. My dystopian Australia has creole languages, and I turned to Derek Bickerton’s Roots of Languageto check the authenticity of the speech I was putting into my characters’ mouths. I rank Bickerton’s book among the top five scholarly works I have encountered in my entire career. Vale Derek Bickerton, who passed away in March 2018. Another Professor, Ted Bryant, was my source for technical detail on tsunami. Bryant’s Past tsunami in Australia gave me the idea of a tsunami triggered by a piece of the continental shelf slipping off the east coast of Australia. The New South Wales State Emergency Service tsunami web pages filled in more detail. And let’s throw in some religion: My two dystopias handle faith in quite different ways, and I had to read up on vernacular religion to get a sense of how an isolated post-apocalyptic society would handle these things: Marion Bowman’s journal article Vernacular Religion, Contemporary Spirituality and Emergent Identitiesgave me some directions, but I shied away from going in too deep into what looked like a controversial field. On the question of freedom of speech, I carefully read The United States Constitution; my specific question was the extent to which the First Amendment could be used to constrain artificial intelligence. And many hours were consumed in following – and not properly documenting – leads on such subjects as accounting, climate change, pre-industrial economics, and post-polio syndrome.
I should also not forget three books that are in a sense characters in the novel: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the King James version of the New Testament, and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Perhaps the sweetest hours of my background reading were spent during a balmy trip to Far North Queensland, where I visited Cairns and Kuranda, two of the locations of the novel. My unlikely reading material was The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865, edited by Janet Croon. LeRoy was a teenager, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, who spent the war years crippled and suffering from spinal tuberculosis in Macon, Georgia. The diary is an account of daily life as the Confederate cause slowly collapses, and LeRoy’s health deteriorates. As I read, I realised that living conditions in 1860’s Georgia were not unlike those I was trying to depict in Kuranda in 2126: Constant sickness, extreme summer heat, intermittent supplies of basic commodities, plagues of insects. This, by the way, was by far the best book I read in 2018.
And of course, walking alongside Atwood, Bickerton, Shakespeare and all the others are the members of the Write On! writers group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre here in Sydney – Sarah, Garry, Karen, Michele, Nore, Julia, Rhonda. Stick with me till the last page, my friends!
*I place this at about 1975, but I’m happy to argue the point.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE.
I’m delighted to announce that my publisher is now distributing paperbacks in Australia. You can order Cairo Mon Amour online at the retailers below. The really good news is that you pay local freight rather than copping a big postage bill from the UK!
Here’s the short blurb:
The Walsinghams dabble in petty crime as they try to enliven a failing marriage. But a figure from the past tips them into a double murder plot. Could this respectable Home Counties couple really be killers?
And here’s where you can buy it for 99c/99p between 5 and 15 March 2018:
I’m giving away two signed copies of Cairo Mon Amour in March 2018 to Australian residents only. Simply tell me in the LEAVE A REPLY box below the name of the cafe Pierre visited on the first page of the novel (hint – check out this link and hit the ‘Look inside’ arrow). The first two correct answers get the freebies! I’ll contact the winners privately to get their Australian postal addresses.
Open for entries 1-5 March 2018.