Saturday, November 28, 2009

Regreso al Madrid

This past week I spent two delightful days doing press interviews in Madrid. My hosts at Alfaguara (chiefly in the persons of Rosa Junquera and her colleague Alejandro Aliaga) were wonderful, and looked after me like an old friend. It was also delightful to meet María Fernandez Soto, who translated Zoia’s Gold for Alfaguara a few years ago, as well as The Einstein Girl more recently. It turns out she is writing a novel herself, which may account for the beauty of her prose, which I have heard widely praised. As a writer, if you are lucky enough to have a good translator in a foreign tongue, it is a very desirable thing to keep them, not least because you will enjoy continuity of style and voice (which are theirs, after all, and no longer really yours). She told me about some of the particular challenges involved in turning English literary fiction into Spanish literary fiction, which I found quite fascinating. All the decisions about style, voice and tense that a writer makes have subtly different ramifications in different languages, so I am beginning to learn.

The effect on press coverage has been excellent. The interviews given to the press agencies in particular have been syndicated all over Spain and Latin America, and there have been features in the national press - occasionally accompanied by photographs of me looking tired (I was) and jowly. There have also been radio features all over the place, including this one on the national RTVE network. Although the item itself is in Spanish, the entire interview (with the utterly charming Eva Cruz) is also downloadable and is in English. You can hear both broadcast and interview here:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Down among the book stacks

Literary festivals, library events and reading programmes are a novelty for me, but I've been invited to a number of them since The Einstein Girl was published. In October I did a quick spot at the Calderdale Readers' and Writers' Festival in Halifax; and earlier this month I spoke at a similar event in Fulham Library, which is just a mile or two from home. I was a little apprehensive about both events, having little or no idea what I should talk about, but I've hit upon quite a good strategy which so far has produced lively results.

It is standard practice to do a quick reading from the latest book; so I start with that. Then I describe very briefly my writing career, the who, the what, the when. This takes five minutes. Then I throw open the floor to questions.

This is, I will admit, a little risky. People at first can be quite shy. There can be some long pauses before someone pipes up; so I warn the organisers beforehand so that they can step in with a question if need be. So far, though, that hasn't be necessary. Once the questions start, they don't stop. On both occasions so far I have been impressed (and a little humbled) at just how interested people are in the whole publishing business. Many, of course, are writing themselves. It seems if you are prepared to be open and candid about your own experience - the lows as well as the highs - the curiosity only seems to deepen. A few jokes don't hurt either.

Next week I am off to Madrid, where Santillana have lined up 14 press interviews to coincide with the launch of the Spanish edition. Years ago, when I covered southern Europe for a magazine, Madrid was almost my second home. I loved it there. But I discovered the other day, to my amazement, that my last visit was in 1994. I think it is going to feel quite strange going back, either because things have changed, or because they haven't. I can hardly wait.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Musical makeover

I have just added the new specially composed score to the trailer for The Einstein Girl. It will get its first outing for Spanish publishers Alfaguara, whom I am going out to visit next month, and then it will be adapted for the Vintage (UK) edition, which comes out in March 2010.
This score was written and performed by Philip Johnston, a concert pianist and Taekwondo instructor turned novelist who lives in Canberra, Australia. I liked the music I had on the old version of the trailer, but having something specially tailored to the video makes an altogether more striking impression; and Philip's score is, I think, absolutely captivating. The theme has been rolling around inside my head ever since I first heard it, and the arrangement is superb.

Take a look!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Between the covers

The cover artwork for the Vintage (B format) edition of The Einstein Girl has been finalised. Originally the design on the left was chosen - a decidedly noir reworking of the original artwork. When I was first shown it, some months ago, I rather liked it: in particular the bold colour and the faintly Georg Grosz lettering. However a number of the big retail buyers were less happy. They felt that this design conveyed too little of the period, while the mood said only crime. They were right. As a friend of mine later commented, it looked like the cover for a Raymond Chandler novel.
So it was back to the drawing board. A more identifiable period was the first requirement, but so was the need to convey both the literary and genre character of the book - and to hint at the other elements of the story besides the crime aspect that kicks it off. A pretty tall order, all told.

The result of the rethink was this (minus the strange green background tinge, which seems to have crept in from somewhere.) Everyone seemed to like this image (actually a composite of two archive photographs), although both my agent and I had some reservations about the title font. We thought the flowing lipstick red suggested too romantic a story, with a no more than a hint of menace. Vintage took this on board and altered the cover again.

The final result is on the right. For my money, the more formal black type and the slightly darkened background better represent the style and tone of the book. A more accurate rendering of the colours (without the green tinge) can be seen on Amazon, here:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From Dresden to Glasgow

The second half of last week was spent in Saxony, and in particular in the impressive city of Dresden with its recently rebuit Frauenkirche (see above). My eagerness for investigative endeavour was rather blunted by the temperatures, which peaked at 37C on Thursday. Friday brought huge thunderstorms and blinding downpours (quite alarming on the autobahn), and then everything became quiet and balmy again.

I returned to the UK to find a small fist of positive reviews for The Einstein Girl. John O’Connell in The Guardian said some very nice things both about the book and the way it was written; and there was a short but useful piece in The Herald (Glasgow). In the cyber world there were long and very flattering pieces on the EuroCrime and Fantast Book Critic web sites. The interesting thing there, is that these sites both cater for readers with a taste for different types of genre fiction (crime on the one hand and science fiction on the other). It would be good to discover that Einstein has genuine cross-genre appeal , reaching beyond readers of literary and/or historical fiction – which seemed to be the obvious markets for the book when it was being designed and printed. Time will tell if it has. It is still very early days.

The guardian review can be found here:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A bookless place (almost)

I had another meeting with a film company yesterday in which various preliminary plans were hatched and options discussed - mostly in connection with my last book, Zoia's Gold and a long short story I wrote a couple of years ago, called The Temporary Witness. They are very nice people with a lot of impressive credits to their name, but their lives are not being made easier by the banks, which now demand their creditor's private homes as collateral as well as up to 18% interest on working capital. All this while the banks themselves pay depositors and the Bank of England (a.k.a. the taxpayer) anywhere between nothing and 3% (at best). No wonder banking is suddenly hugely profitable again. But all those profits are coming straight out of the pockets of the enterprises, large and small, upon which the wider economic recovery depends - making that recovery weaker and slower. No wonder people are angry.
After the meeting I headed over to Oxford Street, with a view to signing some stock in a few book shops. Not so long ago, there were a number of major outlets there: a huge Borders, a very large Waterstones and even (this is going back a few years) a sizeable Dillons. But they have all gone now, driven away, no doubt, by vast rents and a lack of custom. What remains, at the western end, is one small Waterstones - which used to be a Books Etc. There at last I found three copies of The Einstein Girl tucked away on the shelves.
"The problem is: no one reads any more," someone said to me at the week-end. A walk down Oxford Street these days (you can't stroll, for fear of being trampled) is enough to have you believing that's true.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Times they are reviewing

Another short but sweet review appeared yesterday in The Times. It seems now that The Einstein Girl is now officially a thriller, which was not really my intention when I wrote it. But still, if that's how some people see it, then that's fine by me. Labels, shlaybells, I say (that's 'sleigh bells' after too many vodkas).
Anyway, the reviewer is Kate Saunders, and here's what she says:

"A young girl is found, naked and close to death, in the woods outside Berlin. When she wakes up she remembers nothing. But she had a piece of paper advertising a lecture by the great Albert Einstein, and that is the first clue in this stylish thriller. This is Germany in the months before Hitler’s seizure of power. Martin Kirsch is a psychiatrist who is already seeing signs of the way the Third Reich intends to treat its mentally ill, and the unknown "Einstein girl” will turn out to be his last case. I’m giving nothing away; the novel opens with the fact of his disappearance. Strands of history and imagination are beautifully woven together."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Video trailer redux

After ten days of torture at the hands of the world's video editing software designers, I have finally managed to get the edited version of the book trailer for The Einstein Girl up on YouTube.

By ducking and diving through numerous Codecs and compressors, I have succeeded in getting rid of the interlacing lines (don't ask me to explain - just trust me, they are ugly), the pixillation on the archive footage, even the peculiar blips on the sound track. But I have not managed to counter the effects of the YouTube compression, which does horrible things to some of my lovingly taken shots.
For the record, if anyone is thinking of attempting something like this, I would advise them to use Apple/Mac type software and systems wherever possible. They work more smoothly, are more tolerant of file types and generally throw up fewer problems. And for editing, Final Cut is probably to be preferred to Adobe Premiere, at least in my (limited) experience.
In any case please do check out the new version. In a couple of weeks or so, it will have a new, original music track, written by a phenomenally talented Australian composer. So this version will soon be but a memory. I would say 'Catch it while you can!', but I don't want to sound pushy...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Criminal conviction

I've known for some time that the Literary Review was going to run a review of The Einstein Girl, but last week, a little sooner than I'd expected, it turned up. Somewhat to my surprise, I found it in the 'Crime' section. It's written by the crime novelist Jessica Mann.

‘A serious, well-informed and interesting thriller about the private life and family of an undoubted genius. Excellent period setting in Berlin in 1932 and numerous psychological insights – highly recommended’.

Not the longest review I've ever had, but a very nice one and, of course, eminently quotable - which is really the value of reviews at this stage - at least, as far as writers and publishers are concerned.

Fiction is reviewed less than ever in the national press these days; so it remains to be seen what else is in the pipeline. People, it seems, increasingly get their book recommendations from Amazon and other on-line sources. That's a pity, because genuine literary criticism is something of an art form in its own right - one which (like some others) is slowly dying out.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Spanish steps

I received today a jpg of this cover for the Spanish language edition of The Einstein Girl. It's quite different from either the UK or Dutch editions and, arguably stranger. Alfaguara have quite a strong and established 'look' to their trade paperbacks, which is instantly recognisable in the shops. This cover works well within that framework.
The Spanish edition of Zoia's Gold did well last time around; so I'm hoping to build on that result. My new editor there, María Fasce, is Argentinian and a respected novelist in her own right. I'm going to get hold of one of her novels soon, although my Spanish may be too rusty for the subtleties of South American literary prose. At its best, some years ago, it was just about good for reading newspapers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Video preview

After much struggling with video rendering and I don't know how many dry runs, I now have a web-friendly version of a promotional video for The Einstein Girl. The final cut will be done next week, along with a certain amount of technical tweaking, but esteemed visitors to this blog can view the rough cut on YouTube, here:

I have spent far too much time on this project. But I did enjoy the change, especially the editing, which, for my money, is the best part of the whole process. Easily the worst part is what comes at the end: struggling with the scores of different digital video and audio formats, platforms and rendering options - only a few of which seem not to produce an absolute mess. Today, to cap it all, the editing software developed a massive glitch that will require a complete re-installation. It was all much simpler when cameras were turned by hand...

Do post your comments on the video. It was a labour of love as much as anything, but I'd like to think it will prove useful.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Spin-off control

Yesterday in the U.S. a federal judge effectively banned the sale or distribution of a self-styled 'sequel' to The Catcher in the Rye, following a civil action by its author, J.D. Salinger. The book in question, 60 Years Later Coming Through the Rye, by the Swedish writer Fredrik Colting (writing as John David California) will not now be available in the US. The case sheds an interesting light on the increasingly important question of spin-offs, parodies and other forms of literary piggybacking.

The key issue in court seems to have been whether Colting's book was a 'sequel' - in other words, an attempt to carry on Salinger's original story, using his characters and their histories - or a parody. A parody would have been fine, because parodies fall under the broad legal umbrella of 'fair comment' ['fair use'] or criticism. A sequel, on the other hand, would probably have been seen as an infringement of intellectual property rights, not least because, while an author lives, there is always the possibility that he may want to produce a sequel of his own. American law and precedent also holds, perhaps tenuously, that parodies and sequels have different sources of commercial appeal: the sequel draws directly on the spirit and character of the original, whereas the parody creates a s character of its own - even if that character is a mockery (literally) of the original.

At first glance, Colting's publishing history would suggest that a parody was on the cards. The author of The Macho Man's Drinkbook: Because Nude Girls and Alcohol Go Great Together, is primarily known as a humourist. But the packaging, presentation and marketing of the book told a different story - as did the content of the book itself. As the court order put it, in suitably legal style: “While the court does find some limited transformative character in 60 Years Later, it finds that the alleged parodic content is not reasonably perceivable, and the limited non-parodic transformative content is unlikely to overcome the obvious commercial nature of the work.” So now you know.

That J.D. Salinger reacted litigiously to an unauthorised sequel should have surprised no one. And that the courts would uphold his complaint was always far more likely than not. To publish a sequel to a novel by a living author, other than one written by that author himself, is almost unprecedented. And even spin-offs and sequels to works by dead authors are usually cleared with the estate of the deceased, where one exists. The James Bond novel, Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, was a case in point. So what were Colting's publishers up to?

Perhaps I am cynical, but since this case hit the headlines, Colting's sequel has been selling very well, thank you - outside of the US. A legal brush with the famously inaccessible Salinger (he has not given an interview for 29 years) - or, to be more precise, his lawyers - is better than no brush at all. In fact, it's the kind of publicity no amount of money can buy. And, thanks to the Internet, there is nothing to stop Americans whose curiosity has been aroused, from purchasing their copies from any on-line retailer based outside the US. If you find that has sold out, that may be the reason.

Colting claims to have been shocked by the ruling of the court, but I wonder if finding himself the author of a banned book is really so disagreeable, or so unrewarding. He will not even have to hire bodyguards, like others of his set, unless he is afraid a gang of superannuated Salinger groupies may track him down and handwring him to death.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

First edition, first printing

The first run of the first edition of The Einstein Girl was printed in the middle of last week. I received two copies yesterday, and I could have sworn that they were still warm off the presses (or maybe that was because the mail had been wheeled around on a trolley all morning in the blazing sun..). I always thought the design was strong, but somehow the on-screen jpg images never did it justice. In the flesh the book is beautiful and expensive-looking. I really do think Harvill Secker have done a terrific job.
At the same time, work has already begun on the cover of the B format ('mass market') edition, which comes out next year. Vintage have used the same central image as the Harvill edition, but their overall design and colour scheme is radically different. Where the Harvill cover is seductive and beautiful, the Vintage cover is bold and arresting. The different approaches are skilfully tailored to two different markets, as well, of course, as two different formats. I like them both - in my personal experience, a first.
The other bit of news is the sale of Korean language rights to the distinguished Sallim Publishing Company. Sallim, like a number of its competitors, is based in the famous Paju Book City - a futuristic development north of Soeul, entirely devoted to companies and other entities in the publishing industry (see photograph, above): in other words, a kind of post-modern Bloomsbury without the soot or the parking problems.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A break from the action

Things have been pretty hectic around here this month. The pressure is getting to us all. Well, some more than others...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Another filament in the web

My new web site is now up and running. ( It contains all the usual information, and some pretty pictures. I'll add more of those later. It was all hand coded by my kind friend Brigitte, who has a PhD in this sort of thing. She claims she is a systems designer not a web or graphic designer, but I think she has an excellent eye. I wanted something uncluttered and easy to use, and that's exactly what she's come up with. 
Of course, if people are going to be able to actually find the site, we need to work at the all-important Search Engine Optimization, which seems to be a strange alchemy of links, meta tags, indexing and chicken blood. (All right, I lied about the chicken blood. A few feathers are usually sufficient, provided it's a full moon.) Anyway, web sites are pretty de rigeur these days. So it's about time I launched one.
By the way, the picture above is entitled Robot Spider Web and it was created by the rather talented Sven Geier at Caltech in Pasadena, which just happens to be where the Einstein Papers Project is located. You can check out more of his "fractal and algorythmic art" by going to his web site ( and pressing the appropriate panel. 

Monday, June 8, 2009


The cover for the first edition of The Einstein Girl has now been sent to the printers, which means no more tinkering about with the blurb or with anything else. At the last minute we received a very useful and eminently quotable endorsement from Rebecca Stott (actually that’s Professor Rebecca Stott), author of the bestselling Ghostwalk, as well as a string of remarkable non-fiction books on the history of science, most recently Darwin and the Barnacle. A shortened version of her generous comment will appear on the front cover of The Einstein Girl

Sometimes cramming extra type onto the artwork of a cover can spoil the balance of the design. I suppose cover deigners must have to get used to their beautiful creations being obscured by last minute additions - and occasionally stickers to boot (the indignity!). But in this case the extra words are not only complimentary, they also help tell potential buyers what kind of book this is - and we have managed to squeeze them in between the title and my name. So we are extremely glad to have them. 

By the way, at the end of July, the Harvill design team of Matt Broughton and Lily Richards will be contributing a piece about their work to Jane Smith’s highly authoritative blog How Publishing Really Works (see my Blog List, right).

In the meantime I am having to divide my working hours between preparation for the new book – which I think is going quite well – and a couple of promotional projects for The Einstein Girl. One of these is a brand new author web site ( – how original!) and something else which is, for the moment, under wraps in case it doesn’t come off. I would be overwhelmed by the technical challenges, I fear, if I wasn’t blessed with some very knowledgeable and talented friends who are generously giving of their time. Still, I could use twice as many working hours as I actually have right now, hence the rather sporadic posting - and lamentable lack of wit.

By the way, you can learn more about Rebecca and her work by visiting her admirable web site:

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Beach reading

Indonesia Calls You is the slogan of the Indonesia Tourist Office, and in my case this has turned out to be true: the call coming in the form of an offer from the Jakarta firm of Serambi Ilmu Semesta for the Bahasa Indonesian rights to The Einstein Girl. Which I have been happy to accept. Not that I shall be winging my way out there any time soon, much as I would like to. I shall have to content myself for the time being with the thought that the Bahasa Indonesian edition of my book will probably make it onto an achingly beautiful beach like the one above, even if the author doesn't. 
Apparently initial print runs for English novels in Indonesia are generally in the four figure area. So at, say, five thousand, that's one copy for every 47,500 inhabitants: the population of Havant in Hampshire or the Prime Minister's home town of Kirkcaldy in Fife. Still, I expect the Indonesians pass their books around a lot - lightly impregnated with fine white sand.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Never mind the swine flu, check out the swine...

A friend of mine in Canberra sent me the above photograph. This lovable little piggy was caught in the Pilbaras, Western Australia. The locals realised something was up when their dogs kept going missing. The pig was eating them. Apparently, there are more where these came from, and they're headed our way ....

Monday, May 18, 2009

Turning Greene

My plan to start drafting the new book next month is starting to look tenuous. As often happens when I get into the depths of research, I find there is more and more I want to know – more and more I ought to know. As if preparing for a long journey, I want to make sure I have an adequate mental map and all the necessary paperwork before I set out.

My setting is the former GDR. My wife grew up there (she was sixteen when the wall came down) and I myself made several trips behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ during the 1980s, when there still was one. So it’s a world that’s been part of my world, in one way or another, for some time. But that’s not enough. Reality is made up of small details, but so much has changed in East Germany over the past twenty years, it’s quite a business rebuilding it, little piece by little piece.

And then there’s the issue of what it actually felt like to live there. East Germany was a police state like no other in European history. The State Security Service (Stasi) had 97,000 employees, the bulk of which were involved with keeping tabs on East Germany’s 17 million citizens. In addition, it received regular information from a network of informers known as Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter – literally, ‘unofficial collaborators’. These informers numbered some 173,000. In all, one in every sixty-three people worked for or reported regularly to the Stasi. Probably hundreds of thousands more informed on their fellow citizens part-time. Wire-taps, bugging and mail intercepts kept a secret army of bureaucrats busy up and down the country. Citizens who were judged unreliable or disloyal could expect to suffer, although most often the damage was done without explanation or acknowledgement: education curtailed, career paths blocked, travel permits denied. Even the secrecy was secret.

Yet people lived, or tried to live, normal lives: to maintain friendships, to harbour ambitions, to raise children. How easy was that? What kind of psychological adaptations (or contortions) were necessary? Or was it possible – indeed easy – to ignore the nature of the system, or to accept it?

After the Wall came down, the Germany government granted people the right to discover whether the Stasi had kept a file on them, and to see that file. My father-in-law was one of the many who exercised that right. As he’d suspected, he found he had been the subject of a Stasi Operative Personenkontrolle over a number of years. In his file were the names of close colleagues and acquaintances who had regularly informed on him. Fortunately, as the son of an active Liberal party activist, he had been brought up to expect surveillance; and had been careful. Even so, it is highly unlikely that my wife, despite finishing top of her class at school, would have been permitted a university education had not the Wall come down just in time.

Once I was content to know all this only in outline. But now it's too valuable a resource to ignore. All the same, I’m not sure how I feel about turning up in Germany next time with a tape recorder and a note book in my pocket. Graham Greene said: “Every novelist has something in common with a spy: he watches, he overhears, he seeks motives and analyses character, and in his attempt to serve literature he is unscrupulous.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Swine flu: even celebrities aren't safe

I'm not one to point the trotter, but my hunch is: he picked it up at work...

Monday, May 4, 2009

As full of spirit as the month of May

With the advent of summer comes a new threat to the lovingly planted, if anarchically laid out flower beds in our back garden: a menace additional to the fox orgies, incontinent cats and miasmas of cement dust generated by nearby ‘refurbs’ (which go on ceaselessly in our street, recession or no.) Leo, at 20 months, has now discovered the pleasures of the outdoor life and, inevitably, of football. 
The flora face a triple jeopardy. First the ball is booted or thrown into the flower beds; then Leo toddles in after it; then he goes back in again (and again and again), just because we have told him not to. I suppose it is only natural that a toddler should test the boundaries, now and again. I just wish he would test them well away from the nascent delphiniums and fuchsias.
I admit to not being very good at enforcing Leo’s boundaries, though I try to do my share. His strength is considerable, and his vocals could raise the roof off the Albert Hall. At the same time, he has such an appetite for life, such an obvious delight in the world around him, that it’s almost impossible to tell him off without breaking into a smile.
Of course, one day Leo’s misadventures won’t be my responsibility. He will have learned to respect the borders, herbaceous and otherwise. He will probably prefer not to be carried up to bed and tickled when he gets there, nor to fall asleep while holding on to my ear. 
I'm not impatient for that day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Take note

After the enjoyable interruptions of the Book Fair, I am now back at work, although work of the lightest kind. I intend to start drafting in earnest at the start of June. Until then I am only reading, pacing the garden and making notes in a small hardback notebook which a friend gave me for my birthday.

The notebook is a great boon. It goes with me almost everywhere, and makes a welcome change from the bundles of scrap paper that I habitually use for scribbling down my inchoate thoughts. In our house all scrap paper is sourced from the stacks of redundant manuscripts and page proofs that lie around the periphery of my study, reminding me of how much time has gone by, and constituting a considerable fire hazard. Of course, the notebook notes are later sifted, assessed, roughly organised and written up on screen, so that I can refer to them easily when I need to. This I tend to do last thing at night, with musical accompaniment.

Meanwhile Mareike, our German au pair, having finally read her way through the Stephanie Meyer quartet, is now reading something quite different, of mine. It is at present rather short (lucky for her) – a mere 44,000 words – almost skeletal in its economy, which is in some ways the point. I will almost certainly expand it, but before I do, I’m interested to see how it plays in its anorexic state, especially among younger people. That’s why poor Mareike is getting the first draft. I don’t know many 20-somethings who like to read; my friends are a bit too old, and their kids aren’t nearly old enough. If the skeletal version plays well, then I will just have to write something else to go with it (sometime, Heaven knows when); because I’m told there is considerable resistance in the market for novels under 60,000 words. A case of giving value for money, I suppose, if rather an unsophisticated one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dutch courage

I can’t say yet if this year’s Book Fair will bring me any financial benefits, but it has at least brought me two very enjoyable lunches, today’s being in Chelsea with the renowned and charming Marga de Boer of Dutch publishers Luitingh-Sijthoff. As well as being one of Holland’s most influential editors, it turns out Marga is also a keen ice-skater and has a formidable knowledge of both Latin and Greek. Not for the first time this week, I find myself feeling a little like a cave-dwelling Philistine next to my host.

In Holland publishers have to get translations from English in particular done very quickly, because most Dutch people are perfectly willing and able to read English books in the original. Walk into an Amsterdam bookshop and you will find that only roughly half the fiction titles are actually in Dutch. In my case, The Einstein Girl, will be coming out just one month later than in the UK, which is something of a feat. I am delighted to find the Einstein artwork on the cover of the new catalogue (you can see it here: Marga deliberately runs an eclectic and international list, with virtually no overlap in styles or themes: so I find my book unexpectedly rubbing shoulders with the latest from Patricia Cornwell, Danielle Steele, John Le Carré and Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Apparently the trade likes what she has done, and Marga is confident that Einstein will be decently stocked, which is about all I could ask for. On the other hand, she points out that there are difficulties in publicizing non-Dutch authors in Holland, and suggests I get busy on the Internet preparing all manner of material which must somehow be linked into the great global on-line cyber market in the sky. I must admit, this is not terribly much what I wanted to hear. (Not that I mind messing about with web sites and editing software. It’s just the time they eat up...) Momentarily daunted, I then make a hash of describing my next book again.

After lunch, I give Marga a lift to her hotel in Earl’s Court, where the serious action (for her, rather than me) begins tomorrow. There she will try to cram in several meetings per hour all day and much of the night, most of them under the hot lights of the exhibition centre. Hard work on the larynx, the memory and the ankles. I expect the skating helps.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Book Fair hits town

Rain and emergency engineering works on my particular stretch of the District Line (timed to perfection by the evil geniuses at Transport for London), almost conspire to make me late today for lunch with my German publisher. Tina Arnold of DTV is over from Munich for the London Book Fair, which officially opens on Monday at Earl’s Court. Dagmer, her London scout, not only recommends books for her, it seems, but also restaurants; in this case, Moro in Exmouth Market. And a good recommendation it turns out to be. The lamb I have is really delicious. If it were a painting, I would frame it and hang it on a wall.

I have spoken to Tina on the phone, but this is the first time we’ve actually met. She turns out to be delightful and funny. She also seems to know a vast amount about Shakespeare (a few years back she sat through the RSC’s entire Henry VI cycle twice), added to which she speaks English slightly better than I do, which doesn’t really seem fair. I do manage to make a hash of describing the new book I've started working on - I really should practise these things - but otherwise the whole event is great fun.

Tina brings with her good news from the German market, namely that orders for all kinds of books are holding up very well; if anything, better than last year, and certainly better than expected. This may mean that the book market is largely recession-proof; on the other hand, it may just mean the recession hasn’t really arrived in Germany yet.

Meanwhile translation of The Einstein Girl continues apace. Apparently the translator lives in Berlin where most of the action of the book takes place. She has gone as far as to seek out certain of the key locations, most importantly Albert Einstein's summer house in Caputh, which is now open to the public. Now that's what I call dedication.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Plan B from Inner Space

Like the wheels of Soviet industry, I always work to a plan. Some book plans are more detailed than others, but without them, I don't think I would get very far. The difficulty is knowing when to stop planning and start drafting.

Plans appear less difficult and often less troublesome than producing prose - you can fill a screen with story notes in a fraction of the time it takes to write a page of finished text. For that reason, it is tempting to skimp, and get on with the "real" work of writing. This is a mistake, at least for me. In my experience, the writing you do in your head, the ideas that fuel the drafting process, are pretty much the make-or-break. An effective story, poorly written, can always be re-written (although that doesn't mean it will be, heaven knows). A bad story well written is still a bad story, and will probably remain so, no matter how you primp and polish it.

It's a pity nobody teaches the dark art of outlining. It’s much trickier than it looks. As you develop your premise, a huge number of narrative possibilities present themselves. You want to give each of them due consideration. You want to be sure that you are developing the story in the most interesting and original way. But spend too long pondering and the whole enterprise can lose its freshness. You need a degree of uncertainty, the possibility of discovery (even revelation if you're really ambitious) for the business of writing to be enjoyable. Because, ironically, it is in the act of writing that originality most often arises, when you are familiar with the particular world of your particular story, and can see its possibilities most clearly. Nail down too precisely what is going to happen ahead of times and the you can find yourself navigating through an imaginative desert, where nothing very spontaneous occurs.

Fortunately right now I am at a stage in the cycle - well, two cycles, actually - where no hard planning is required. The main book I’m working on is at the research stage. This means that I have a rough plan (most detailed on the set-up and main characters), a setting and some notes suggesting narrative possibilities. As well as factual background, I am hoping the research will turn up some little gems of knowledge that will help me refine the plan. (For ‘gem’ read anything truly surprising, arresting or downright shocking. When researching, I’m part scholar and part tabloid hack.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

There's gratitude for you... !?!

Last week during a short stay in the bucolic loveliness that is East Suffolk, I decided to drop into the parish church at Cratfield. It was from nearby Huntingfield that some cousins of mine emigrated to Western Australia some 40-odd years ago. There, after many years of hard graft and not infrequent personal danger, the younger of the two made a considerable fortune for himself prospecting gold. It is many years since Mark has been back to Suffolk, but when the church at Cratfield needed to raise funds, he stepped in at once. I found that this plaque had been put up to mark his act of generosity.

Oh dear. It seems my cousin was less popular in the parish than we'd all assumed...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Riding the rim

Let’s face it: writing is not the most financially promising walk of life, and even reading a lot won’t guarantee a prosperous retirement. (Perhaps the reason so many people don’t do any until they reach it). So here is a way for a bookish type to earn a free drink or two. It never fails.

Equip yourself with a few fat novels. War & Peace is excellent; Proust is good for back-up; and then (beware of intellectual overkill) there’s Finnegan’s Wake. Avoid late Harry Potters (although they are awfully fat) and anything with vampires except Bram Stoker’s original. They spoil the image.

Get hold of a reasonably straight-sided pint glass. Any kind will do, except the very tall, narrow ones. With your drinking companions gathered round, you pose the following question. “Which is greater: the height of my glass or the circumference of its rim?” While they are pondering this question, say: “Tell you what: just to make it interesting I’m going to do to this…”

Take your War & Peace and place it under the glass. Then ask: “So which is greater: the height from the surface of the table to the top of the glass, or the rim of the glass?”

By now, most of your companions will have made up their minds, but at the slightest trace of hesitation, say: “Tell you what: let’s add Finnegan’s Wake and this volume of Proust to the pile.” By this time, the glass will be about five or six inches above the table. Pose the question again: “So which is greater: the height from the table to the top of the glass, or the rim of the glass?”

By this time everyone will be convinced that the total height must be greater than the glass’s circumference. That’s when you make them bet on it: a drink, three drinks, the keys to their car, their wife, whatever. Then measure the rim of the glass with the use of a napkin and a ballpoint, followed by the distance from the top of the glass to the surface of the table. No cheating is required. As long as the stack of books is not taller than the height of the glass, you will win the bet.

“I don’t believe it!” your companions cry.

You smile, tap your copy of À la recherche du temps perdu and say “It’s all in here.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The weight of money

“What mainly sells today is mediocrity.” This is what a senior editor at a large publishing company told me the other day, over a bottle of wine. He went on to say that creating lists of titles that were eclectic, sourced from many different countries, and – frankly – clever, was getting harder and harder to do. Safe bets are increasingly the order of the day.

I’ve heard other people in the business say more-or-less the same thing, especially since the recession started to bite. Most of them blame the retailers, or the publishers, or the media, but I wonder if writers aren’t to blame as well. Maybe even the Internet.

Follow any on-line forum for writers, and while different views will be expressed, the core message from 'those who know' is the same: publishing is a business; you can’t buck the market; leave your ego at the door; the writer is the servant, not the master. Given the difficulties new writers face getting into print – the sheer size of the odds stacked against them – it’s no wonder the message gets home: writing is a craft, not an art. Like a screenwriter-for-hire, you produce what your paymasters want you to produce, or there’s the door.

Allied to this is a subtle, but intimidating anti-elitism, that seeks to characterise artistic endeavour in almost any field, but especially literature, as self-indulgent or pretentious. I read one comment posted on a newspaper forum that said: “The days when the few speak and the many listen are over.” He thought the explosion in twittering and blogging and YouTube meant that the novel was effectively dead, and good riddance (especially the ‘literary’ novel, naturally). He obviously preferred the alternative: that the many speak and nobody listens.

I wonder if all this market realism hasn’t gone too far and struck home too deep. Should new writers (or old ones, for that matter) really be worrying about publishers’ bottom lines? Shouldn’t they – it almost sounds like heresy to say it – be worried about following their own vision, going where the Muse or the spirit or their imaginations take them? In short, thinking like artists – even if they fail. Because most are going to fail anyway, at least in financial terms. The trouble with all this wary pragmatism, with writers streamlining their ideas until they fit seamlessly into a recognizable sub-genre or type, is that it starts to make anything that doesn't fit look eccentric and risky. In other words, true originality can be mistaken for naivety or even incompetence - resulting in a swift No Sale.

One of the UK’s most eminent literary agents wrote a short piece in the Guardian newspaper last year, offering advice to new writers. It ended: “Don't second-guess the market, but do persevere and write authentically.” In other words, to use the well-worn phrase: to thine own tortured imagination be true.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia Question

I am woken early this morning by a panicked phone call from Basil, my indefatigable Ukrainian publisher. From a railway junction in a place appropriately named Chop, he explains that in spite of reaching the No.1 fiction slot across the entire region of Zakarpattia Oblast (better known as Carpathian Rus), the Ukrainian edition of Zoia’s Gold has been withdrawn from sale there, following an ugly spat with the local authorities. The signing tour is now definitely off, and if I attempt to set foot inside the regional capital, Basil says, I may well be taken into custody for my own protection.

Basil is a great believer in what he calls ‘mouth to mouth’ publishing. In this case, the mouth in question belongs to the provincial governor, a man whose nicely touched-up portraits are to be found lovingly adorning every classroom in the region, such is his popularity among the young. The governor was apparently much taken with Zoia’s Gold (or Zojino Zlatinko in the local dialect), and even more taken with the several cases of fine wine and cured rabbit that Basil brought back from his last caravanning holiday in the Dordogne. Magically Zojino Zlatinko found its way onto the syllabus in every school in the region (see photo of happy recipients, above), doing wonders for my ranking on Amazanko.zpt.

Sadly, things have since turned sour. The sticking point, it seems, is a casual reference in the text to Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, which is what Zakarpattia Oblast was called when the hated Hungarians owned and ran the place, which they did for a thousand years until they were finally sent packing in 1919 (It is still an offence to display the Hungarian flag or to serve goulash in any public restaurant). Local nationalist sensibilities have been enraged, and now Basil has been told to pulp his entire print run or face the very serious charge of Sedition and Splittism (Sedijka i Splittinko). This is especially unfair, since Zakarpattia still entirely lacks a book pulping plant, and Basil's previous attempts to dispose of unwanted or libellous stock have had a truly disastrous impact on the local sewerage system.

If only he hadn’t rushed the sub-editing and insisted on the early publication date of April 1st, none of this would have happened.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A rose in any other language

Yesterday I received the unexpected news that THE EINSTEIN GIRL is to be translated into Bulgarian by the distinguised firm of Ciela in Sofia. Needless to say, the advance is modest; but these days every Euro helps, and there is nothing like seeing your work in Cyrillic to make you feel that you’re truly reaching out across international boundaries - like Michael Jackson embracing the world in one of his music videos, only without the surgery, the millions or the ridiculous white pajamas.

Though I’ve sold titles in Bulgaria before, I've never actually visited the place. Perhaps it’s time I did. I happen to know that aerial bombing was invented there in 1912, during a war with the Ottomans. I've also discovered that Bulgaria currently accounts for half of the world’s annual production of rose oil, according to the Ministry of Tourism. So: a case of swings and roundabouts....

Friday, March 27, 2009

Finding an agent (part 1)

One subject that comes up more than almost any other on writers’ forums, is how new writers go about finding a literary agent. Although there are many different routes to publication, it is through agents that publishing houses find the bulk of their new authors. Even when writers get into print without the aid of an agent, they usually get one soon afterwards so as to improve their chances of securing translation deals, and generally to oversee the business and contractual side of things.

Unless you’re a celebrity, finding an agent who will even read your work can be as difficult as climbing Mont Blanc in a pair of nylon fur slippers: you don’t get very far, and soon the frostbite starts to hurt. But many new authors fail – like inexperienced climbers, to stretch the metaphor – because they don’t do their research. To assume that all agents are the same is like assuming all mountains are the same. Inside information is the best information; but if, like most people, you don’t have a pal with years of experience inside the publishing business, you can still learn a lot by yourself.

Identifying which agents might be most interested in your work is much easier today than it used to be, mainly thanks to the Internet. Before the web came along, you had to do a lot of networking just to find out who was who. Today most agents have their own websites, in addition to which there are on-line directories - although these can be patchy and not very up-to-date. However, such basic tools are only useful once you know who you are after. To get that far, I suggest following this procedure.

1.) Try to identify as many books as possible that resemble in terms of subject or genre your own book. Particularly valuable in this regard are 1st novels (since that is what you are probably trying to sell); but all are useful. Focus particularly on books published during the past few years. In the first instance, the most useful tool for this kind of research are on-line books shops, like,,, or in the US.
2.) Get these books from the library, or find them in your local book shop. In each case, check to see if an agent is thanked in the acknowledgments. This is often the case, especially with 1st novels.
3.) If this is not the case, do Internet searches on each author's name adding "agent" or "agency" to the search term. This will throw up press articles or agency web sites that may tell you who represents the author in question.
4.) Having established who reps who in your list of authors, do more Internet searches on each agent so as to gather as much information as possible about who else they represent, and anything they may have written. Sometime agents pen articles about "how to find an agent", which can be pretty useful! They also talk about the kind of work they’re looking for, and – almost as useful – what they’re not looking for. At the very least you will establish if they are still alive and in the business. (I would put money on the late Pat Kavanagh still receiving scores of inquiry letters and unsolicited manuscripts…)
5.) In addition to the above, check out as many agency web sites as possible, looking for new or relatively junior agents. By and large, these will be the ones with the shortest client lists. It is often the case that these agents will be hungrier for new clients. If you find some, do as much research on them as possible. This may be harder, because they will probably be less well known, but do your best. In many ways, getting in on the ground floor with a up-and-coming young agent is the best thing for a new writer (it's what Tracy Chevalier and Jake Arnott did with Jonny Geller, and look what happened to them...).
6.) Armed with a short-list, approach each agent in turn with a query letter. Say something interesting about yourself and describe your book in a brief but eye-catching way (more on this to come). Then explain why you have started with them, of all the hundreds of agents in the world. Mentioning a successful book or books they have represented and suggesting that yours is in a similar vein is a good way of getting their attention. You are tapping into a field where they have established a reputation - and reputations are there to be exploited.
7.) If this does not work, don’t take it personally and don't panic. Just move on. Once you reach the summit (here comes the laborious alpine metaphor again), it won’t matter how many falls you had along the way.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The hardback is mightier than the sword

My 19-month-old son Leo has already learned something about the power of literature. He likes nothing better than a good session of page turning first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I'm keen to encourage this in principle, but not, I must admit, at 6.00am. Leo has learned to overcome my reluctance by simply throwing his literary selection du jour at my head until I rouse myself and read with him. These are not soft, fluffy cloth books we're talking about, but picture books with hard covers, thick cardboard pages and lethal corners. Screams of pain and terror have no effect. For Baba (my ID as far as Leo is concerned) it is a choice of sore eyes or black eyes.

I can't wait until he's old enough for paperbacks.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The literary death spiral

One of the most unfortunate developments of recent months, both in the UK and in the US, has been the shrinking or outright disappearance of book review sections. Fiction, in particular, is no longer covered by many national newspapers, and non-fiction is being squeezed too.

In America, one of the last two major, stand-alone print book sections was killed off last month, when The Washington Post published its last edition of Book World. The paper will still review books, but only The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle will continue to run a full mini-magazine devoted to books. It is a heavy symbolic blow to readers, writers and publishers.

A recent op-ed piece by Dick Meyer in the NPR (National Public Radio) newspaper in America reports on this trend, and why it matters.

He wrote: "In the cosmic sense, the same trends that threaten newspapers threaten books. It isn't just a matter of "business models" and the proliferation of alternative and cheap forms of amusement — computers, mobile, video games and everything on demand, all the time. There is an aversion to long chunks of sentences.

"And there is a literary death spiral. The less we read books, the less we read journalism; the less we read journalism, the less we read books. Reading skills atrophy or, worse, were never properly acquired to their fullest. The dire problem is that long chunks of sentences are still the best way humans have to express complex thoughts, intricate observations, fleeting emotions — the whole range of what we are...

"Newspaper critics had a special role, exposing a large, general readership to a wide variety of writers, books and genres with at least a modicum of fairness, civility and erudition... More important, the collapse of professional reviewing is just part of a cultural devaluing of books and even formally written words."

Meyer concludes gloomily that: "It is unclear whether the American attention span can support book reading for much longer. As children are reared on "Baby Einstein" and then fertilized by an ever expanding diet of fast-paced electronic stimulation, as our communication gets sliced and diced into instant messages and abbreviated e-mails, it would be unrealistic to expect our synapses to stay the same. We will simply like books less than we did.

"In capitalism, value is allocated in the form of money. That less money is being allocated to books and book publicity means that the society values books less."

You can read the whole piece here:

Is this view too defeatist? Or is the book destined to go the way of the epic poem and the clay tablet?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dutch cover story

Marga de Boer of Dutch publishers Luitingh-sijthoff very kindly sent me not only the artwork for the Dutch language edition of THE EINSTEIN GIRL (due out in September), but also the original archive photograph upon which it is based (see above). After various experiments with tinting - that balloon has been all shades of the rainbow ar various times - the final cover looks like this (see below).

Notice how the laughing girl second from the left has been skilfully airbrushed out. Still, what I can't help wondering is: who is this lady with the balloon? And what became of her? Maybe someone somewhere remembers her. It's funny to think that the only thing left of her might be an image on the cover of a Dutch edition of an English novel, published 77 years after her night on the town - funny, and just a bit sad.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The oxygen of publicity

I have just spent most of the working day writing a publicity piece for THE EINSTEIN GIRL, a task which I hate worse than a queue at the post office, but which I've come to see as a necessity. According to there are still 135 days to go before UK publication, but, if anything, I am a bit slow off the mark. What is a publicity piece? It is an imaginary feature article about your upcoming title, containing as much interesting information, from a press point-of-view, as possible. The purpose of the piece is really just to present ideas (or 'angles' in press parlance) in a stimulating way to the publicity team at the publishers.

In the past, like most writers, I assumed that all I had to do was fill in the author questionaire and the rest would be up to the in-house PR experts. Authors, of course, hate summarizing their work; an activity that inevitably downplays its uniqueness in a desperate quest to be arresting and pithy. And most of them are not very good at it, especially when put on the spot, say, at an industry function. "Describe your book in 50 words or less" is a request that leaves many gesticulating helplessly as they choke on their peanuts and non-vintage Frascati.
In my case, this naïveté was especially unforgivable, because I spent years working as a magazine editor, in which capacity I received hundreds of press releases, 95% of which went straight into the bin. Which is the point. If you want the PR about your particular book to stand out, it is a good idea to lend every possible assistance to the people who are handling it. If that means doing a lot of the thinking for them, then so be it. After all, you know more about the book and about yourself than anyone else does; so it's not unreasonable that you should be asked to help come up with the angles.
There is another, perhaps even more important, side to this issue of the dreaded summary (be it blurb, catalogue entry or PR piece). And it's this: if you can't set out concisely what it is that's interesting and unique about your story, preferably before you spend a year or two writing it, how interesting and unique can it really be? A woolly, rambling idea will - 9 times out of 10 - produce a woolly, rambling book.