On Pretending

04 November 2014

[Note: as of now, a superior and updated version of this piece with fewer repetitions and better metaphors is available on the Independent website. It’ll be in i on Thursday 13th Nov if you are in desperate need of a paper copy, and features among other things an image of me in which I look like Rhys Ifans as Mycroft Holmes. Which is either cool or really, really alarming.


Also, I’ve just noticed that even in the updated version I somehow failed to namecheck Ian McEwan, which is unforgivably goofy of me. Sorry, sir.


No, he doesn’t read this blog.]


TigermanChipKiddRyanHeshkaI do a lot of pretending. I’m a novelist: I spend a great part of my day pretending to myself that I’m in a different world, being a different person, faced with decisions I pretend I haven’t created. I pretend I don’t know about the traps and disasters lying in wait for that person, dangers I’ve imagined for them to drag them through the narrative I pretend I’m not creating to the place I want them, often in despite of their own good sense and to their considerable disadvantage.


But more than that I pretend I don’t care.


Perhaps that’s about being a Brit, some kind of cultural aversion to taking things seriously. If you take something seriously, after all, you might have to defend it, fight for it, be rude to someone about it. David Niven, in 55 Days At Peking, makes the perfect British statement of self: having refused to flee the city and thereby compelled the ambassadors of the other national powers to remain also, he is asked how the minutes of the meeting can possibly reflect the situation without causing great embarrassment to his fellows. Simple, he replies. We shall record that in the initial vote on the matter one person was at odds with the others, but that – after some debate – unanimity was achieved.


It’s a posture we love, and one that we share with the Hagakure: matters of great significance should be treated lightly. You can see it in the way we approach sport, at least sometimes. It almost seems as if trying too hard is cheating. It begins young: I remember going on a school sport trip to Holland. The team there practiced every night of the week for at least two hours. We had perhaps four hours a week. We lost, of course, but we just about made it look even, and counted ourselves moral victors because we didn’t practice sport as a religion, but a hobby.


We pretended we didn’t care.


I still wish we could have won that last game – but I also don’t. It would have been glorious, but it would also have been a shame. It would have made a mockery of the hard work of a group of people who cared more than we did. They deserved that victory. Hard work, ironically, is the other virtue the Brits are supposed to respect. In fact, “sweat of the brow” is the basis of copyright here, rather than the US argument from utilitarianism or the German one that proceeds from identity.


And so to the stage. I do public appearances. I’m bluff, hearty, goofy. I wear loud clothes and I read the funny bits. I occasionally get taken to task for one thing or another, and I acknowledge my fault, my flaw, my failure, and I move on. Usually I mock myself to grease the wheels. Part of the job, the show. Prize lists are out and you’re not on them? Nature of the world, means nothing, prizes are a lottery. It’s a problem for your publisher, who needs to sell more copies, not for the artist (and never mind the commercial corollaries, the reflection in the size of your advance, for the moment). Review in some paper or other is negative? That happens. People can respond badly to a book, even a book others like, just a shame it had to be the critic chosen to write about you. Other papers will be positive. Amazon, Goodreads, book blogs. The local paper. Friends.


I never engage negatively with reviewers. If someone says something that enrages me – and they do – I do what I do on stage. I make a joke about myself and move on. Sometimes people say things that are manifestly wrong or even apparently malicious. That’s fine, too. It’s a response. Don’t read it, measure the column inches. Love the controversy. My skin is thick with various forms of privilege, after all. As an example of a type, I can take it. As a person, I can slide it off, as long as I believe I can. I pretend to myself, and leave the hurt behind. It’s not much of a hurt, after all. A brief sting. A day of self-doubt. A chocolate bar, an episode of Penny Dreadful.


An enormous amount of a writer’s life is performance. I find myself wondering, at the moment, whether I do too much of it. I feel it might be nice to retreat into a more Pynchon-like performance by absence. I love the stage, but it also eats me alive. I’m caught somewhere between introversion and extroversion. Performance is natural to me, joyful, but it is also exhausting. I can feed on it, but the expense is high too, like being a carnivore: I have to chase down my meals. I’d quite like to eat more vegetables, quietly, on a hillside somewhere, and butt the occasional tiger off a cliff with my horns.


This kind of piece, by the way, is completely forbidden. It represents the moment when a duck, running across the surface of the pond to take off, catches one webbed foot in a wave and goes nose-down into the water. It means recommencing take-off, lurching and flapping and spraying mud-brown spume everywhere, quacking and flailing to achieve escape velocity so that I can return to my new book, believe in my own choices, and be the me I need to be do make it all real.


So what brought this on? What on Earth could motivate me to say any of this out loud, break the fourth wall and perhaps more importantly the first one?


Honestly: it was the Goodreads Choice Awards Fiction list for 2014. Tigerman is in there.


Let me just gloss that for you, because it may not seem like much, but it stopped me just now like walking into the corner of a table, and I’m still struggling with it.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category.


Two years ago, Angelmaker was listed in the SF section. My books are hard to categorize, they’re crossover with elements of the fantastical, so they usually end up in SF. SF is also my natural starting place: it’s what I read as a kid, and it is a literature that challenges the real, which is what I like to do. But even now, with the fantastical waterfalling into the mainstream and the world more SFish than it has ever been, the label still closes doors. Talking to someone the other day, I mentioned that I’ll on stage at the BFI this month talking to William Gibson about science fiction films, and I saw his interest falter. SF wasn’t proper writing to him. In an effort to stop the conversation dying a cold death, I explained the kind of thing I write about. “You’re crossover,” he said immediately. And that made everything okay. I don’t want to think about that right now, about the reasons for it or why it’s absurd.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. It has escaped that moment, at least today.


Tigerman is listed in the Fiction category. That means it will almost certainly lose.


Why? Because Haruki Murakami is listed in that category too: arguably the world’s most popular author of the not-quite real right now, an international bestseller of the kind of thing I do. (I had an urge to write “try to do”, but no. Be honest. It’s what I do.)


When I grow up, I want to be a bit like him.


Margaret Atwood is listed in that category. Shortlisted five times for the Booker. Winner once. Icon. Pioneer of the odd in English language literary writing. If Murakami is Hephaestus the smith in my personal pantheon of craft, Atwood must be Arachne.


David Mitchell is listed in that category. Author of Cloud Atlas. Twice shortlisted for the Booker, listed in 2007 among Time Magazine’s 100 must influential people in the world. Like Murakami and Atwood, someone I need to learn from. My classical knowledge does not extend to a Greek divinity for him. Apollo, perhaps, or Dionysus.


And it goes on. Roxanne Gay; Emily St. John Mandel; Jojo Moyes. Names to conjure with. Names I admire. I cannot imagine losing in better company.


I have to acknowledge, today, that I do care about this. I don’t care about winning, but I care about being seen in this way. I care about my book being alongside those books, been considered in that mode. That is something I wanted, partly without ever knowing that I wanted it because until it happened I was pretending I was just pretending.


So thank you, world. Seriously. Thank you.

Regarding re-shelving…

23 January 2012

“Oh, people come in and move stuff all the time.”

I was talking to a bookseller a while back. The topic got around to re-shelving – that thing people do when they go into bookshops and move their favourite books (or, rather less creditably, their own books) to visible positions in the front of the shop.

I’m never sure whether I’m a particularly rule-bound person or whether I’m just pathologically polite. The latter seems infinitely more likely; except when I’m totally shattered or very annoyed and stressed, I can generally work myself into a state of profound guilt over the possibility that I did not make sufficient polite eye-contact with the checkout guy when I buy a yoghurt. I was recently caught so completely flatfooted in New York by someone suggesting I’d been rude that I actually didn’t know what to say. Which does not happen often. I know now, of course. But now is rather too late.

Anyway, re-shelving bugs me because it seems to put other people to trouble and aggravation. So I asked this person how the dealt with it at her shop. Did she intervene when she saw it happening?

“No,” she said, “but there’s way more of us on staff than there are of any given individual who is re-shelving, so we just wait a few minutes and then put everything back exactly as it was. After a few rounds, they realise they’re not going to make it happen and they go away.”

(Note carefully that this exchange of high levels of passive aggression is very British, and possibly very London-British.)

Just recently one of my parents’ friends called me to tell me she had engaged in a massive re-shelving project on my behalf at her local bookshop, and the only thing I could think of to say was “please don’t”, which of course I couldn’t say at that moment because she already had, but which I have subsequently said very gently in the least passive-aggressive way I could find.

Aside from the fact that it just messes up the stock of a bookshop, thereby making it harder for booksellers and indeed customers to find books, it is incredibly unkind to those authors who are in the high-visibility shelves legitimately. They’ve been picked out by staff, won prizes, made the bestseller list, or maybe the position has been out-and-out purchased from the book’s budget. They have a narrow window to make use of that opportunity, and for some of them – especially the literary titles – every single sale is a huge win. Some books don’t really sell very many copies. Like they sell in the hundreds. Many sell in the low thousands and vanish forever. They get one shot at becoming this year’s breakout hit, and it isn’t really fair to them to come cover them up with my book. My book is a streetfighter. It can handle itself in a crowd. It has a really strong jacket, a powerful design, and its author is a bigmouth. I myself have a selection of strong jackets (people have even been unkind enough to say they are ‘loud’ or ‘nauseating’) and I like to get out there and mix it in person, in print and on the Internet. And, you know, if positions were reversed and Angelmaker were in a ‘staff picks’ bin taking its shot at fame and fortune and someone came along and dumped five copies of “The Life And Loves Of Pogo Yaxminster: A Biography of Britain’s Greatest Stamp Collector” between it and the customers, I would be pretty pissed. So I extend the same courtesy to Pogo Yaxminster, knowing that the truth is he’s unlikely to do a lot of trade outside the philately community unless the book is absolutely brilliant. In which case it does not deserve to be smothered in the crazed adventures of a man, a woman, and a vile dog.

And that is all I have to say about that.

Joe Spork and Angelmaker

01 September 2011

Joe Spork was a hallucination.

Not, thankfully, my hallucination. He was a brief moment of madness in my first book, The Gone-Away World. He came in part from reading Robert Warshow‘s amazing and compelling critical writing about gangster movies. The essay is in The Immediate Experience, which I (obviously) love. Warshow commits all the sins of the period in terms of asserting his opinion or viewpoint as fact, and it matters not at all because what he says is intriguing on the one hand and revealing about his time on the other.

The other thing in my head, which dovetailed with Warshow’s writing, was The Wasteland. (Well, yeah. Eliot’s poem exerts a kind of gravitational pull on anyone who reads it, even if they hate it.) The bit which has always stuck with me is the ‘unreal city’.

So suddenly, here was this enormously powerful, iconic narrative of the gangster, and it made a brief appearance in TGAW. But it wouldn’t go away. Joe Spork wasn’t content to be a hallucination, he wanted to be real. Well, okay, smartass, you can have your own book.

So the Joe in Angelmaker is connected to the Joe in TGAW, somehow, in my brain. And the two books have some crossovers, tiny things at the edges. But Angelmaker is in no way a sequel or a prequel. It is its own thing, most definitely.


Writing the book took a long time. Mostly that was because I hadn’t ever written a second novel before and I wasn’t prepared for the energy needed to reach escape velocity. There were always things I needed to do: publicity things for TGAW, fighting the GBS, and so on. But I finished a draft in late 2009, and that’s when the hard work started. Mrs H read it and pronounced it exciting but unfit for human consumption. I rewrote, and Patrick Walsh read it and pronounced it fabulous, but not entirely ready. I rewrote it. Jason Arthur and Edward Kastenmeier read it, and got very excited, but said it really needed some work. And so, and so, and so: note how all these people were very kind about finding a way to tell me the book was a mess and needed life-saving surgery lest it expire before ever truly being alive.

It was a long and winding road. The elephant as court scribe/narrator was the first casualty, then the golden man, then back to the elephant and the tricky business of the parachute. The hat-tip to Warren Ellis’s Planetary bit the dust at some point, then the pink leather engine driver’s uniform, and finally the reference to The Princess Bride. On the advice of Twitter in general, and knowing that it was the right thing to do, I removed the Emperor Palpatine quote.

I was killing the little weevils of silly which had spawned in the rich creamy cheese of madness which is Angelmaker and in repairing the holes in the action left by these absences, I brought more of the heart of the book to the text of the book. The editorial process is like twelve-month root canal work. But it is mighty.

Leaving, at the end, a couple of things which startle me, which I shall talk about later. For now… *phew*. :)

Angelmaker US jacket

30 August 2011

Since Amazon have it, I feel I can safely post this image of the jacket!

Jason Booher, the brain behind the US TGAW jackets, has excelled himself in designing Angelmaker for Knopf. It’s just gorgeous. There are some tweaks to come to make it even cooler and cleverer (and, yes, more achingly purchasable) but basically what you see here is the heart of it. Amazon lists the book as due March 20th 2012, which is, as you might say, within the margin of error. I had it in my diary as Feb/March, and we all know that Amazon dates can turn out to be a little more definite than the available information actually merits, but hey. It’s about then. You’ll know when I do. (Or possibly somewhat before – my fave independent initiative, Indiebound, lists March 20th as well. Oh ho! Could it be? I must find out.)

I saw this design earlier this year, in the midst of one of what now seems like a million passes at the text of the book to get it right, and it lifted me out of a kind of gloomy certainty that the damn thing would never see the light of day into an altogether more positive determination to get the job done. “There’s a jacket design! It’s real, I tell you, REAL! BWAHAHAHAHAA!”

Mrs Harkaway locked me in the garden until I stopped cackling. Since the garden was at the time a concrete and black plastic sheet over a foot-deep layer of manure, this was a remarkably effective tactic, but she is not to do it again.

(I got my revenge by changing her alarm clock noise to this and not telling her. Sandra Boynton, in case I have not mentioned this, is made entirely from awesome.)

Back to the Angelmaker jacket – did I mention that I love it? – it came in two flavours, matt and gloss. The matt one was very grown up and looked a bit more literary. It was also easier to spot from some angles. The shiny one, of course, was a blaze of imprudent glory, and everyone fell in love with its slutty come-open-me-and-read-me-til-you-can’t-take-any-more attitude. I tried to be serious and professional about the whole thing. I took the two jackets and shoved them side by side on the mantel, which was hopeless because it just emphasised that they were both gorgeous in different ways. I asked people in cafés, which is my favourite scientific method for learning nothing of any quantifiable worth. In the end, I just told Edward Kastenmeier that I loved them both but I loved this bit of this one and that bit of that one and could we combine the two? Edward made what I have come to think of as the ‘editor noise’. It is the noise editors make when authors act like five-year-olds. It is a brief, silent gap in the audible landscape during which they count to ten or pray or stab themselves in the leg with a fork.

“We can make it pop,” Edward said.

“It totally pops now,” I said. “I just think it could pop more in these cool ways I have recently demanded from you because I know that you love when I ask for something more than the amazingness you have already given me.”

“I do love that,” Edward said. “I will speak to the design team about how to make it pop more. They actually have some insane poppy things they want to do anyway. We will implement your helpful and inexpensive suggestions at the same time, although probably not the last one about the neon lights and the built-in corkscrew, because of our pesky US drinking age laws.”

“Right you are,” I said.

This is how all our editor-author conversations go. Honestly.

So I don’t know if this is exactly how the book will look. But it’s close.

The UK jacket is still in the works, although the images I’ve seen are also stunning. By way of compensation, the UK may get the book fractionally earlier – late February, I think – which means UK readers will have longer to think about its deeper meaning (which I will discuss in detail with anyone who wants to tell me what it is) before the Mayan Apocalypse.

That sound you hear? That is me dancing the many-footed Harkaway Dance of Jackety Goodness. Yea, unto the second generation, because my daughter can almost stand up by herself now, so we are dancing it together, Mrs H being at work and therefore unable to join in and/or stop us.

Laterz, d00dz.

Drop me a line

Drop me a line! Forgive me if the response is not immediate - I tend to get rather behind. If something requires my rapid attention, please tweet me or get in touch through my agent, Patrick.

Cheers, NH





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