I enjoyed watching the elegant Nicholas Evans talking to the twinkly James Nesbitt on the recent Sky Arts Living The Life. I particularly identified with Nicholas Evans when he asserted that for him the great thing was thatevery novel is a very different thing. ‘Of course the publishers agree with this but in reality what they want is the same thing time and time again.’
When you think that this ‘same thing’ is the phenomenally successful Horse Whisperer you can have a smidgin of sympathy with the publisher, while still bewailing their lack of creative understanding and obsession with the ‘safe bet’. They and their accountants would clearly wish for more of the same,
I’ve heard similar regrets from equally successful writers whom I will not name as we all know criticism of one’s publishers is a tight rope to walk.,
These days there is so much advice in the widespread HowToWrite industry about knowing your market and building your brand – as though novels were soap-powder or mobile phones. We’re urged to become our own agents, editors, PR people and publicists and developing our brand.
That leaves in fifth place the hardest and the most original aspect - the actual invention of a world, giving the breath of life to a cast of characters, the driving of an arc of narrative and the spending of a year or three actually putting coherent words on the page.
I had no such insight when I started. I had written this novel about a very special girl of fourteen in the year 1926, I called the novel Lizza after the main character. Not having read any How To books I chose a publisher at random (Hodder and Stoughton).and posted the package in the large slot at Spennymoor Post Office and they published it in hardback and paperback in the next year.
This novel was bought by libraries and was still being borrowed ten years later.
They said it would be great for their Young Adult list. I’d never heard of Young Adult or any other genre. I wrote three more novels – very different to each other - which they guided into their young adult list.
But all I did was write the novels that I wanted to write.Then – still writing what I wanted to write - I started to write bigger novels with a wider range of characters. These, I was told, were adult novels. The first of these – a well researched intergenerational historical novel - was taken by another publisher who slotted it very easily into what they were now calling the Saga category, Other novels followed – each very different - which also slotted into the convenient publishers’ category. They did moderately well sitting on the middle of the publisher’s list and were borrowed in hundreds of thousands from the libraries.
Then I progressed – pursuing the commitment that each novel should be different – to less easily categorised novels still with my focus on good stories, original authentic characters moving now to accurate twentieth century and contemporary historical backgrounds. Really my work was slipping out of the clearly marked saga territory and was, I sup[pose, more difficult to market.
Although distinctively twentieth century historical, Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker and The Woman Who Drew Buildings are not by any manner of means sagas. Nor are my later novels An Englishwoman in France (a slightly spooky novel about a woman whose daughter has been murdered).The same goes for my most recent novel - first called The Art of Retreating, now renamed The Search For Marie France which recedes from the present day to France during World War 2.
So, in my writing life I’ve kept my faith with myself and written the novels I wished to write. Then my very decent publishers – along with most other publishers – lost their faith in the popular well written mid-list.
The paradox is that, without exception, my novels continue do very well in libraries where the greatest readers follow their fancy. Readers have followed me as I kept faith with myself and wrote the novels I was impelled to write. They just seem to turn up again and again to read something with my name on the cover, whether or not it looks like a saga cover, (Surely in twenty first century business-speak this should count as the best focus group ever??)
Where was I? Oh. With the elegant Mr Evans and the twinkly Mr Nesbitt
Their discussion was imbued with an almost feminine insight (compliment, that..) about their common and uncommon backgrounds. We learnt about the bad karma of great professional success surfing the wave of personal misfortune. They spoke movingly about their mothers and with dealing with their different but equally tragic deaths.
It was fascinating watching these very different men with substantial artistic egos winkling from each other revelations which would have been unavailable in professional interviewers. There were signs of editing and cutting which indicated that it was part of a much longer, perhaps more rambling (perhaps even more interesting) conversation,
This is a great format for exploring the field of popular culture. I would watch it again if your machinery allows it.
If this has caught a smidgen of your interest – all my novels are in your library, on Amazon or on Kindle . Click.
Or to see a complete list of possibles categories click here