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Comment from the book world in January 2018


The impact of success and writing historical novels

18 June 2018

‘I got insomnia because I was so freaked out. Everyone else was delighted for me but it was destabilising. My friends had to process the success for me. I didn't realise writing was not the final stage. You hope the book speaks for you - you write because you want to make sense of the world through your books, so to have to be the representative of it was challenging...

When I started writing it was like I didn't need to ask permission. Unconsciously perhaps, the roles I created in The Miniaturist were dream roles I wanted to play...

I don't aim to give a history lesson. I get flak for intimating that people in the past are just like us. I don't think it's that simple but, as a reader, when I was growing up I was thrilled to think I could have been a Tudor child. I'm fascinated by the social detail: what did they eat, what did they wear, how did they grieve? It's always an exquisite discovery when you realise there are some things that we have in common with people who are no longer there.'

Jessie Burton, author of the bestsellers The Miniaturist and The Muse, in the Evening Standard

'Cold concentrates the mind'

11 June 2018

‘"I'm writing a book." The very phrase seems self-indulgent and strange, more so at a time when we count the words and minutes, even the characters and the seconds. In popular myth, the writer is a mercurial figure, and when I started writing I assumed that the process would consist of long periods of staring at a flashing cursor interrupted by flashes of inspiration which would keep me at the keyboard for 50,000 words. Having heard about all those writers' retreats for novelists, I also assumed that it would help to have a beautiful view to look at. All wrong. In any case, historians don't get retreats, though we do get a muse, Clio. Writing needs routine. I carve out blocks of at least three to five days.

The best writing happens between nine and noon, after plenty of sleep. In the days before starting I often find myself writing in my head, and I am as sure as I can be that similar preparatory work occurs while I am unconscious. My daily target is 2,500 words. I always try to stop in mid flow, knowing what I should start with the following day. But I don't have the discipline. I run on well past my daily target, only to spend most of the next morning staring at the cursor flashing. Surroundings don't matter, although I often seem to write in a room (or, at the moment, a shed) which is so cold I wear a ski jacket and wrap a rug round my legs. Cold concentrates the mind.'

Jonathan Conlin, author of Tales of Two Cities, Evolution and the Victorians and four other books, in agent Andrew Lownie's excellent archive

'It's up to me to tell this or that story'

28 May 2018

'My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It's a sensation that I've felt very often, and I'm afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I'm fragile. It's all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it's pride that I need, more than strength. While I'm writing, I have to believe that it's up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.'

Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend and four other Neapolitan Novels in the Los Angeles Times


'Seventeen overseas trips in a year does not help continuity of concentration'

21 May 2018

‘Amid the avalanche of titles published each year, promoting a book now seems to demand almost as much work as writing it.

The competition is such that publishers offer chains of bookstores ‘special editions' with extra material. All have to be personally signed, with anything up to 5,000 specially printed title pages, ready to be tipped in. It is of course rather repetitive, a bit like doing lines at school.

This may sound a bit spoilt, especially when I know how incredibly lucky I have been, but life is not simple when it comes to promoting foreign translations as well as the British and American editions. For a start you need to banish any hope of working on a future book for at least half a year to nine months. It may be good for your stash of air miles, but some seventeen overseas trips in a year does not help continuity of concentration.

Based on the experience of previous books, I expect that once again I will be giving just about fifty lectures at literary festivals and conferences in different countries. Some other events will be ‘in-conversations', and a few more will be panels, but we all know that you sell fewer and fewer books, the more people there are on stage. Past form also indicates a fairly regular pattern of between 145 and 160 media interviews - press, radio and television. Email Q&As, most often from Spain and South America, take up a lot of time, but at least you are less likely to be misquoted.

Antony Beevor, author of just-published Arnhem - The Battle for the Bridges 1944, Stalingrad, The Second World War and many other distinguished military histories in Bookbrunch

'I will and must be published'

14 May 2018

'I think I am starving for publication: I love to get published; it maddens me not to get published. I feel at times like getting every publisher in the world by the scruff of the neck, forcing his jaws open, and cramming the Mss down his throat -- 'God-damn you, here it is - I will and must be published.

You know what it means - you're a writer and you understand it. It's not just 'the satisfaction of being published.' Great God! It's the satisfaction of getting it out, or having that, so far as you're concerned, gone through with it! That good or ill, for better or for worse, it's over, done with, finished, out of your life forever and that, come what may, you can at least, as far as this thing is concerned, get the merciful damned easement of oblivion and forgetfulness.'

Tom Wolfe, journalist extraordinaire and author of The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House and The Bonfire of the Vanities, who died this week

'My subconscious would find ways to tie it together'

30 April 2018

'I discovered that if I trusted my subconscious, or imagination, whatever you want to call it, and if I made the characters as real and honest as I could, then no matter how complex the pattern being woven, my subconscious would find ways to tie it together - often doing things far more complicated and sophisticated than I could with brute conscious effort. I would have ideas for 'nodes', as I think of them - story or character details that have lots of potential connections to other such nodes - and even though I didn't quite understand, I would plunk them in. Two hundred pages later, everything would back-fit, and I'd say, "Ah, that's why I wrote that."'

Tad Williams, author of 20 novels, including the Witchwood, Bobby Dollar and Shadowmarch series, and three short story collections


From crime editor to crime writer

23 April 2018

‘I think one of the reasons I was attracted to Highsmith is that most crime fiction is morally educative: morals will be upheld, justice will be doled out, wrongdoers will be caught and punished. But that did not happen with Tom Ripley and it fascinated me to see this character get away with stuff. It fascinated me more to find myself rooting for him. I still think this is a pretty nifty trick...

For a long time, probably since 1988 when The Silence of the Lambs was published, the crime market was dominated by books about serial killers. I like a good serial-killer thriller, but, probably happily, I do not have one in me. Then Gone Girl changed the game. Psychological suspense is what I had studied and what I thought I would be able to write...

The publishing process is reactive. Whereas writing is almost wholly creative. I needed to keep the two apart...

Writing a book, for me, was a lot like assembling a puzzle. That satisfying click when the last pieces fall into place.'

Daniel Mallory, who under the pseudonym A J Finn, published his much-heralded debut crime novel The Woman in the Window after a career in crime publishing.

'The good guys mostly win'

16 April 2018

‘When times are stressful and it looks like the bad is winning out over the good, along comes the genre of crime novels to put the balance back in life. People inherently don't like folks who do bad to get away with it. In real life they do all the time, because of a variety of factors. But in novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle...

People don't want to watch the news every day. I'm a news freak, but I get burnt out too.'

David Baldacci, author of Absolute Power, Memory Man and The Fallen, in The Times


'Words shrink things'

9 April 2018

'The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them -- words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.'

Stephen King, author of a large number of novels, including Carrie and The Dark Tower

From dyspraxia to publication

2 April 2018

‘I was given the audio versions of some Harry Potters, read by Stephen Fry, and realised I could match the sound of the words to their shape on the page... Once I heard those Harry Potter books, I could then memorise them. To this day, I know the first three pretty well perfectly...

I submitted three chapters online to her (his agent Felicity Blunt at Curtis BrownSee Curtis Brown listing), and got an email back saying that she loved it and wanted more. We then worked on some rewriting before the book deal.'

Leo Carew, whose much-heralded fantasy first novel The Wolf has just been published by Headline and whose website features wild places he's visited, with fabulous photos.


'Is this for real?'

26 March 2018

‘For the past 10 months I've spent a lot of time thinking, is this for real? I had a lot of different reasons for writing the book but at its core was the desire to write for black teenage girls growing up reading books they were absent from. That was my experience as a child. Children of Blood and Bone is a chance to address this. To say you are seen...

In my perfect world, we'd have one black girl fantasy book every month. We need them, and we need fantasy stories about black boys as well...

That's why the success of (the recent Marvel movie) Black Panther has been so significant - black and marginalised audiences have the chance to see themselves as heroes depicted in a beautiful and empowering way, and white audiences get to see new stories told, and it becomes easier for them to picture a black superhero. Imagination is a funny thing - we sometimes need to see something before we can truly picture it.

Our books aren't there to magically fix publishing but maybe they'll start the changes moving so that in six months we'll have even more great stories, where we see ourselves and are heard.'

Tomi Adeyemi, author of debut YA novel Children of Blood and Bone in the Observer


Becoming Children's Laureate

19 March 2018

'Becoming children's laureate has given me a voice. I'm determined to change the snobby attitude around picture books. Children's illustration is viewed as the poor relation to fine-art painting, yet it's children's first introduction to art and can have a profound effect on how they view the world. John Burningham's Granpa, which deals with the loss of a loved one, explains grief to a child far better than anything else...

I experienced failure until my thirties. I always knew I wanted to do something art-related, but I had no idea what. After art school I did everything from mixing colours for Damien Hirst to starting a chandelier company, all the while writing and inventing characters for books, films, TV, but getting rejections. It took five years before Clarice Bean was published, and that was the turning-point. It took a long time to support myself solely on illustration.'

Lauren Child, UK Children's Laureate and author of the Charlie and Lola picture books and the Clarice Bean and Ruby Redfort novels in the Sunday Times magazine