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.
Like most writers I know, I have voluminous files of old drafts, abandoned chapters and even abandoned novels. It’s all part of learning the craft – knowing when to let go of something that just isn’t working.
Last year, I began writing a complicated dystopian novel. My writing critique group at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (I couldn’t live without them) gave it a big thumbs down.
Undeterred, I brought it back a few weeks ago with a new beginning. Thumbs down again.
Another beginning. Another thumbs down.
But last week, with beginning #3, I got the seal of literary approval. The corpse has risen from the dead. It is walking. A twisted future world is under construction.
To celebrate, I dusted off a short story I wrote a while ago, did some more work on it, gave it a new title Unmasking Mr. French, and posted it on this site as the prize for signing up to my newsletter. I even invested in a Shutterstock image and made a ‘cover’. (My regular professional cover designer is busy right now, and will probably shriek in horror when she sees my work!)
Because I’m still in celebratory mood, I’m giving you the story without making you sign up since you managed to find my website. Just click here and pop in the password FREE.
Have a read and let me know what you think.
After Goodreads giveaways in November, December and January 2018, word is spreading about my espionage romance Cairo Mon Amour. In total, 2597 people entered the giveaways, and 547 have the book on their ‘to read’ list.
I’m planning more giveaways this year, but if you want to skip the line, just click here to find out how to buy a copy.
Sincere thanks to publisher Austin Macauley for organising the December and January giveaways.
I’m still puzzling over Mutch Katsonga’s novel Beyond the Spiral Gates a couple of days after finishing it. It’s a weirdly compelling book about the experience of a boy in Wickfields, a brutal home for criminal children. I read it quickly in two sittings, with questions accumulating in my mind as I went along.
Where is it located? Perhaps Australia, perhaps Europe, perhaps New Zealand; the clues are contradictory. The language of the first-person narration is faintly archaic, but peppered with colloquialisms that would be familiar in modern Australia.
What is the time period? The rural setting has horses and carts – but there is mention of plastics. And the legal-political context: A dystopian future, or a grindingly cruel modern dictatorship?
My guess is that Katsonga’s invented world is tailored to the psychological and spiritual journey of the boy. It’s a reversed-engineered mash-up of Lord of the Flies and Ivan Denisovich, and it doesn’t matter a bit if I can’t pin it down to a place and a time. I believed in it and I wanted our boy to win over his travails.
This is a debut novel of the kind I like: It’s brave, fresh and different, and it owes nothing to anyone.
There’s a bonus: Mutch Katsonga doubles as musician Indie Soull, and has recorded some sweet tracks on Spotify to accompany the novel. Check out Frozen in Time.
Find out about my new novel Cairo Mon Amour here. Like Mutch Katsonga, I write quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.
When I was studying Russian in Moscow in 1974, it was unthinkable that in less that twenty years, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would be no more.
For my literary invention Ivan Zlotnik, the flawed Soviet diplomat in Cairo Mon Amour, the USSR was there to stay. Zlotnik gambled his freedom on the date of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Did he win or lose? That’s for the reader to judge.
Forty-three years later, tourists buy up Communist kitsch in nostalgic homage to regimes whose harsh outlines soften over the decades. But more permanent traces of the Soviet era remain, as this small gallery shows:
Writers are getting more foul-mouthed
The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.
I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.
Highly skilled at cursing
Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.
But why do I use f*ck in my novels?
Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:
- Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:
Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”
“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”
2. Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:
“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”
“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.
3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:
“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”
4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:
“Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.
5. In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:
As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”
I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!
Let me know what you think!
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