This is Life at 10

It’s true, my novel This is Life is turning ten years old. It’s a Parisian romp, and I love it to distraction. I recently found a pile of copies in the cellar (the edition above), so the stars have aligned and it’s time for a spectacular re-launch. If you’ve not read it, do yourself a favour and get a signed copy here.

Here’s the excessively long story of how I came to write it, and what happened next. It’s a tale of highs and lows. Babies are born, there are really tenuous cameos from pop stars and royalty, and – I would hate to disappoint – I spend half of it frothing at the mouth about the Usual Suspects. If that seems like something you’d be interested in, let’s get cracking. Make yourself comfortable, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It all began, as most things do, with a chicken pox vaccination in Stockport. Wife-features had never had that particular lurgi, and we were planning on having a second child, so she was advised to get herself jabbed. Our local medical practice couldn’t administer the injection, so we had to travel to Stockport, which is about twenty miles from where we live. We’d not been in the area long, and this was going to be our first trip there. She took to researching it, and started getting excited about the Hat Museum, and the Air Raid Shelter, and all the other things we could combine with the visit to the doctor. Then we found out that all those places were closed on Mondays, the day of the injection, and her plans turned to dust. We resolved instead to walk around the shops. They have a TK Maxx, so all was not lost.

To see her get so fired up about a trip to get an injection brought home quite sharply how we had slipped into a rut. This is quite normal with a pre-schooler on the scene, but I still felt an urgent need to up my husbanding game and give my poor bride something really worthwhile to look forward to – something even better than a half-day excursion to a specialist immunisation clinic in a nearby town. It meant dipping into life savings, but something needed to be done, and a few weeks later, with the toddler farmed out to grandparents, we were on the Eurostar heading for Gare du Nord, and a cheap hotel at the foot of Montmartre. We’d both been to Paris before, but only just. I was there for a couple of days while Interrailing at the age of seventeen. The city was, of course, wasted on me back then. Wife-features had also visited as a teen, on a visit from her home in Manila to family in Germany, when she’d been taken on a whistle-stop tour of Europe in her uncle’s car. For her, Paris had been a quick meal at a Chinese restaurant, a hurried gawp at a distant Eiffel Tower, and a hasty retreat. It felt like the first time for both of us and we were, it would be pretentious to deny it, very much tourists. 

A few years earlier I’d published a novel set in Paris, The Little White Car, which I’d written – for no reason other than it amused me at the time – under the transparent pseudonym of Danuta de Rhodes; a youthful, glamorous and female alternative to myself. I’d hoped to visit the city while writing that book, to do some extensive research in the bars and cafés, but the wages from my stockroom job at a bookshop never quite reached the point where I could cover it. So instead I’d bought the Time Out guide, and worked with that. [Incidentally, This is Life takes place in the same universe as The Little White Car; they share a character. A character from Little Hands Clapping makes a cameo too.]

So there we were. Paris. This was 2010, before smartphones had been invented (well, in our house, anyway) and we’d forgotten the camera, so we bought a disposable one – the viewfinder of which, we subsequently discovered, was aligned in such a way as to make sure we were only taking pictures of each other from the knees down. The first thing we did was get lost on the way to the hotel. Then, once we’d found it and dumped our bags, we got lost again (which was fine – you don’t really know a city until you’ve repeatedly got lost in it). At one point we found ourselves on Rue Eugène Carrière, named after the painter. This was a cause of jubilation, because a few years earlier we’d found ourselves transfixed by a tiny picture of his, Enfant avec une casserole, at Aberdeen Art Gallery, and an oversized canvas of it hung on our wall at home (it still does). Suddenly, by mistake, we were lost on a road named after him.

We looked for streets that seemed to go uphill, and soon we were winding our way to Montmartre. Before long, a minor drama began to unfold on the road ahead. In this neighbourhood it’s possible (at least it was back then) to rent a groovy old Citroën 2CV, complete with driver, to cruise the narrow lanes. One of these little beauties was up ahead, and it was having a bad day, struggling to make it up the cobbles. When we reached it, we asked the driver, a young woman who seemed to be having a great time regardless of the grinding noises coming from under the bonnet, if we could help. She jovially declined, saying that if it came to it her passengers could get out and push. She gave the impression that this was quite a regular event for a 2CV driver in Montmartre. I caught a glimpse of these passengers, grim-faced in the back seat, and hoped that it would come to it. It would have been quite a show. Sadly, she skilfully got the car moving just enough to regain its momentum, and off they went, leaving just a black cloud and a burning smell. An episode like this ended up in the book, the role of the driver taken by the character Sylvie. [The only time I’ve ever used the ‘this-character-looks-like-this-famous-person’ shortcut in my writing was when I described Sylvie as resembling a Godard-era Chantal Goya. Usually I would consider this to be lazy writing, and I would be right, but I couldn’t find a way to improve on it, so just this once I let it sneak through. I named her after the superb story ‘Sylvie’ by Gerard de Nerval, which I recently re-read after many years, and discovered it also contained a character called Aurélie – the name of Sylvie’s co-conspirator in my book. It’s a small world.]

We’d only just arrived in the city, and a story was forming. I already had the starting point. I’d cut a thread out of The Little White Car where a stone was thrown into a crowd as the instigation of an art project; I’d liked the idea, but it was too much of a tangent for a breakneck novel so I booted it into the long grass. Here was its moment.

The next day we walked along the Seine, where we saw a cormorant, and I held my breath for as long as it stayed underwater. We strolled through various gardens, often beneath horse chestnut trees, where we marvelled at the carpets of conkers lying, ignored, below. I briefly considered running a conker import/export sideline. We ate falafel in Le Marais, and went on an evening trip to the Musée de l’Érotisme. We ate breakfast at Amélie’s café, and visited Shakespeare & Co., where – as if they’d known I was coming – there was a face-out copy of Little Hands Clapping. As I wandered around Montmartre Cemetery I jotted down names for future use, almost as if I was a proper writer. Pretty much everywhere we went over the course of those three days ended up worming its way into the book. By the time we were on the train home the foundations were in place; the rest I would have to make up as I went along.

***

I was in a hurry. This was in the dying days of writing being my main job. I’d always taken on odds and sods of casual labour on the side to keep afloat, but with a growing family and a plummeting bank balance it was looking certain that I would have to get a reliable wage coming in before too long, particularly if we were ever to claw our way out of renting. Don’t ask me why, but banks tend to be hesitant to provide mortgages to people who don’t have regular employment. Part of the solution to all this was to write a potboiler. I love reading short, quick, action-driven balls-out-commercial novels, so I had no qualms about this. I gave myself three months to finish a disposable 50,000-word romp that I could flog for enough money to add to our dwindling savings and wave at the bank as a deposit, and maybe convince them to make up the balance on a small house. Off I went. I decided to reanimate my old commercial fiction alter-ego, Danuta de Rhodes. Writing behind a pseudonym, however flimsy and facetious, opened a room in my brain that I didn’t otherwise have access to, and together we got off to a flying start. 

It wasn’t long before I realised that I’d failed to achieve my dream of dispassionately rattling off some throwaway pulp that I could forget about the moment I’d flogged it. The main characters instantly became my pals, and I knew I was going to take as much care over this as I had my other books, and be just as attached to, and maniacally defensive of, the finished product. But still, I kept the speed up. For the first time, I started a book on page one and let it unfold from there. Everything before this point I’d written piecemeal, jumping ahead to set-pieces, and pasting everything together as time went by. This time I wouldn’t jump ahead; if I had an idea for a scene, I would have to write myself to that point before tackling it. And it worked. It spurred me on, I wasn’t getting tangled up, and I was loving it, writing loads every day. I even snuck away from the sprouts on Christmas day and wrote a couple of thousand words. The story grew, and morphed as it went along. 

I won’t say much about what happens (as Morag MacLochness would say, yous’ll huv to buy the book to find oot), but I kept going, and stuck to my timeframe. Three months after starting, the whole thing was done. Its predecessor, Little Hands Clapping, had taken three years. I’d failed quite spectacularly in the length department – it was over twice as long as I’d planned: at 108,000 words it remains the longest book I’ve written. So much for my pocket potboiler. I’d never written like that before, and I couldn’t have been happier with how it had all come together. I had a really good feeling about this one.

***

There’s a terrible point in a book’s life when you have to take it out of your head and into the cruel world. As usual I didn’t have an agent – agents don’t like me – so it went straight to my publisher of the time, a Scotland-based operation whose name escapes me. They came back all positivity, and said they wanted to publish it, but on one condition: that I put it out under my own name. The squares had taken over. I hated this idea. I knew that if I did this I would be permanently shutting the door on the Danuta room in my brain, the very thing that had fuelled this book, and made it such a joy to write (and, I was hoping, to read). They gave me a tight deadline to decide: ‘This offer is off the table at noon tomorrow’ (you don’t have to read that in a Scottish accent – a cabal of minor English aristocrats seized power a long time ago), a move that seemed heavy handed, unnecessary and just plain ‘orrible. Alarm bells rang, but when it came down to it I desperately needed the money, and I caved in. I can’t win every battle, and maybe I’m not always right about everything. Perhaps it really was time to put Danuta to sleep. Looking back, having accepted the decision to kill her off I should then have taken the book on to the open market. Because of its size (mainstream publishers, bless their hearts, love 108,000 word novels) and potentially broad appeal (well I think so, anyway) I’m pretty sure it would have generated interest. I’d had a gathering Bad Feeling about that operation for a while – so much about it just didn’t seem quite right – but I’d suppressed it. If I’d had more trust in my instincts I’d have got out sooner from what I subsequently realised was a Very Bad Situation. But it was what it was, and it all happened quickly. It felt as if I was selling a limb, but I signed the contract, cashed the modest but helpful cheque and hoped for the best.

Surprisingly, I soon got over my uneasiness. Thanks to my scraps with their god-awful bosses, I’m often guilty of forgetting that most people who labour in the book mines are excellent, and I worked with some great humans at that place. One of them helped me with my dismal French (I’d included phrases here and there, all of them wrong), the copy editor and proof reader (the engine room of the industry) were a pleasure to work with, and the cover… well, the cover was fantastic. I’m inclined to stand aloof from jacket designers. I don’t want to get under their feet; the last thing they need is an author hovering around offering ‘helpful ideas’. I can claim no credit for it at all. If you’ve seen the first edition, you’ll know what a beauty it is. It had fold-out flaps with a Parisian street scene that included little nods to things that happen in the story. 

Wowza. And just look at the inside: 

A total stunner from Dermot Flynn & Rafaela Romaya, in conjunction with the publisher’s in-house art department. I could hardly believe I had such a beautiful book out. It was printed on high quality paper, too. Bookshops loved it, it was picking up great coverage, and was selling well. It was the kind of book that’s in such a magical edition that people are going to want it even if they have no idea who I am or what it’s about. As a thing alone, it was an amazing object. I was so proud of it. Here it is in the window of Foyles at St. Pancras Station, home of the Eurostar, where it was selling like a dream. Look how happy I am. [I still have that shirt. I wear it when I’m decorating.]

Publisher, author and bookshop in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, the wheels soon came off. 

I’d noticed that the photo credit on the cover was wrong, and contacted the publisher to ask them to correct this for future printings. Routine stuff for a first edition. I heard back that they had already reprinted the book, but that there had been ‘no room’ for the photo this time. This didn’t sound right. I asked them to send me a copy. A few days later an ominously skinny jiffy bag arrived. Inside was a monstrosity. Get your sick bag ready:

Ugh.

Prior to publication, a proof edition of the book had been circulated. If you’ve ever worked in the trade you’ll be familiar with these – early copies, not meant for sale, that are printed on poor quality paper. There’s a move towards calling them ‘galleys’, but I’m too old to change. Either way, the idea is to get friendly booksellers, journos, etc., on side prior to publication by sending them advance copies, at the same time producing something that looks a bit blah, and won’t ever be confused with the finished version. What arrived in the post – the second printing of This is Life – was on exactly the same low-grade paper as the proof had been. I put them side by side, and apart from the bar code there was nothing to distinguish them. They were essentially selling a proof as though it were the finished product, which is 100% not cool. The spectacular flaps were gone, the inside covers were bare white, the ink was faint. Because of the cheap, thin paper, the book was noticeably less substantial than it had been. There’s almost a centimetre’s difference between the two versions.

I hit the roof, and ten years later I’ve still not come down.

They explained. The first run had sold out, and reorders were coming in, but the powers that be had crunched the numbers and decided that on a shorter print run they wouldn’t turn much of a profit if they maintained high production standards. So they had decided instead to scuttle everybody’s hard work, and churn out a wretchedly poor-quality run to fulfil demand. This was a failure on so many levels. The book had been off to a flying start, not least because of the sheer excellence of the edition. This is what was being ordered: a superb quality item, not a nasty knockoff.

For their trade customers, it was a seedy bait-and-switch – the ISBN was unchanged, so bookshops re-ordering what they thought was the same edition would in reality be ordering a wildly inferior physical product. I wonder whether this is even legal – if it is, it shouldn’t be. Having worked in a bookshop for many years, it made my blood run cold (and boil at the same time). Any reader ordering it wouldn’t know until it arrived that the publisher’s quality standards had disappeared around the u-bend, and anyone browsing in a bookshop would wonder why there was such an underwhelming-looking book on the shelves at such a disproportionately high price, and buy something else instead. Even now when people buy it on the collectors’ market it’s a case of Russian Roulette as to whether or not they’ll get the real edition or the bootleg-quality abomination. I’ve been in the biz for 28 years, and I’ve never known a book to suffer such a dramatic drop in its production values on the same ISBN. I can’t think of anything even coming close. 

All momentum was lost. What a rotten way to run a business. As well as it being two-fingers to their trade customers, and end customers (a.k.a. my readers, for crying out loud) it was a kick in the teeth for everyone – their own colleagues – who had worked so hard to get it to where it was: in the shops, looking great, and selling.

Accountants are sovereign in publishing, and I understand that balance sheets are important, but when those accountants have no understanding of what books are, what they mean to authors and readers, or even what their trade customers are expecting when they place an order, things fall apart. But you can’t blame the accountants for everything. The people at the top of the book side of the company must have had at least some knowledge of the basics of ethical commerce, and known of the importance to themselves and their authors, not to mention their colleagues, of not publishing worse-than-nothingy editions for the sake of saving a couple of hundred quid. Bollocks, to this day, to the people who run that company. 

When I challenged them about this move, they loftily asked me if I would rather it hadn’t been reprinted at all, as if I would suddenly see that they had in fact made a justifiable, perhaps even inspired, business decision, and would come around to their way of thinking. They must have thought that when it came down to it I was just as wilfully myopic and professionally slovenly as they were, and they seemed surprised and affronted when I told them that YES, I would so much rather they hadn’t reprinted at all than tricked my readers into buying a shitty edition. It would have been much more sensible to have the amazing edition sell out, and wait for the mass market paperback to come around. It would still be an e-book if anybody was desperate to read it in the interim. To their ongoing discredit they doubled down on their decision. Apparently I just didn’t understand the business. Throughout they acted exasperated, as if I was making a lot of unnecessary fuss over a minor detail.

If I’d had an agent, their role would have been to step in and help sort this out (whether they would have done is another matter), but as I was managing myself I had to deal with the publishing house’s senior management on my own. David & Goliath time again. Yawn. In this situation you have a simple choice: you either curl into a ball and let the Sloane Rangers get away with whatever it is they’ve been up to, or you make an absolute menace of yourself. Some of you with long memories may remember that at this point I used the only weapon in my armoury and went apeshit on the Internet. Unable to publicly defend the indefensible, the publisher at last agreed to stop the distribution of this edition. I don’t know how many copies were printed, how many left the warehouse, or how many were held back. I should have asked for figures, and supporting evidence, but the whole thing was so brain-sautéingly weird and disorientating I just wanted it to be over. [These people were supposed to be my allies! My team! It’s so odd!] I know, though, that far too many of the mutant editions got into the outside world. Maybe even hundreds. If you have one, I’m sorry. It was done behind my back, and they’d hoped I wouldn’t find out. Rest assured I was furious then, and ­– as you’ll have gathered – I’m still furious ten years on. If you got a decent copy though, well done. Good, isn’t it? I still frequently wake up in the middle of the night bubbling with rage about this wretched episode. It was the beginning of the end of my time with that particular publisher. 

Misgivings that had been pecking away for a long time reached critical mass, and all benefit of the doubt drained away. From that point on it was all about the exit strategy. Seriously, publishers – you can either have a good relationship with your authors, or you can deliberately bollocks up their editions. It’s one or the other. J.D. Salinger knew the score (from Joanna Rakoff’s ‘My Salinger Year’):

A perfectly decent small format paperback was quietly released a year later, and after just four years I had to pull it out of circulation, along with my other titles from that house, after I found a huge pile of my earnings had gone AWOL. The same finance department that had insisted on that cheapo edition hadn’t been doing its job properly in other ways too. Thanks to them, and the creepy management culture that surrounds them, it’s celebrating its tenth birthday out of print. Rats’ cocks. It lives on though, in its quiet way. Whenever my library loans statement comes in, This is Life is always the runaway winner, head and shoulders above the others. Also, I recently found a load of smaller format paperbacks in the cellar (decent editions, you’ll be pleased to hear – the one at the top of this long, long piece), and you can buy a copy – or even several copies – via the Big Green Bookshop while stocks last. [If you buy them elsewhere I won’t get paid a penny, and they’ll be second hand and most likely covered in a stranger’s jammy smears. Incidentally, did you know that 80% of strangers use toenail clippings as bookmarks?].

I’ll finish by tying up some loose ends.

The injection happened, and we had a good time at the shops in Stockport. We’ve been back many times since, and have grown fond of the place. We’ve finally made it to the Hat Museum, which is brilliant (see below for the long-awaited celebrity cameos), and the Air Raid Shelter. #visitstockport.

Rather than doing the right thing and leaving the industry in shame, the same core people remain at the top of that publishing house, where they regularly award each other promotions and pay rises. Don’t let the cheesecloth dungarees fool you – they are a bunch of Tories. For the good of my health I’ve not been in direct contact with them for two years. Our last exchange came when I wanted, not unreasonably I feel, to know the story behind the latest batch of missing money. They wouldn’t cooperate, but eventually they explained that they weren’t going to answer my questions because I ‘continue to ask’ them. Wonderful logic there. I kept at them though, and eventually discovered that many years previously The Little White Car had been a modest hit in a small European country, and the royalties hadn’t reached me. They were found in an audit by that publisher’s new owners, who were honest enough to forward them. Why I had to go in like Giant Haystacks just to get some simple information about something that was very much my business is anyone’s guess (mine being that they want my every interaction with them to be a crushingly demoralising ordeal so that I’ll stop requesting the basic information I’m entitled to – if so, to give them their due, it is quite an effective strategy. The longer they drag things out, the harder it is for the situation to be resolved). Seriously, publishers – when money goes missing it’s an extremely big deal that needs to be properly sorted out. It’s your mess, and it’s your responsibility as human beings to make sure the author gets through a traumatic episode of your making in one piece. When even more money is found to have gone missing, the same applies – perhaps even more so. Don’t just send them some Snoopy books, languidly announce that you’ve had a glance at the accounts and found everything to be fine, and come over all indignant when they tell you they don’t feel that either of those are an adequate substitute for straight answers and external scrutiny. That would make you the same as them, and I would like to think you’re better than that.

A few months before the book came out I let go of the excellent little office I’d been renting and got a steady job, outside the book world, which I still hold down. A while later we were able to hypnotise the bank into lending us enough to buy a cottage on a hillside, where we live to this day. A month after moving in we had our second baby, and he’ll be turning ten this year too. Tempus fugit. And after several years of being too demoralised to pick up a pen I managed to get a new book, Sour Grapes, written and released at the end of last year. Don’t forget to buy a copy while it’s still an excellent hardback.

Danuta de Rhodes hasn’t forgiven me for betraying her. I don’t blame her. I can’t see her ever coming back. Balls.

The vaccine didn’t take – a couple of years later everybody in the house except me came down with chicken pox. But something pretty amazing, for me anyway, came out of being sent to Stockport: This is Life. Of all my books, it’s the one I’ll turn to in old age, when I remember I used to be a writer, and wonder whether I was any good or if I was just wasting my time.

Happy birthday to Herbert & pals.

À bientôt.