Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nabokov on coincidence

Since it's the birthday of Vladimir Nabokov, here's a little quote from this great writer. 

"A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish - but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence."

I didn't know this quote by Nabokov when I wrote She Is Not Invisible. I wish I had because it sums up perfectly the way some people have tied themselves in knots trying to explain and find meaning in the phenomenon. And it makes me smile. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who is it 'for'?

This post first appeared on Waterstones.com 

I’ve written about thirty books, of which all but one, A Love Like Blood, is ‘for children’. Or so I’m told, and so I am led to believe by the fact that it’s the imprint of a children’s publisher that appears on the spine of all of them, apart from this new title. But is it all that straightforward? What makes a book for children, and another for adults? And indeed, what does that innocent preposition ‘for’ even mean?

The world of children’s books has changed over the years. It used to be pretty obvious what was a children’s book and what was an adult novel. That was the case when I was a teenager at least, and I should probably specify that in this train of thought I am speaking about the reading that teenagers choose. Perhaps we can all agree that not many adults are picking up Horrid Henry’s latest outing. Perhaps.

Of course, even back in those dim distant days of teenagehood, there were strange books that threatened to make things more confusing; Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies are the ones that are most often touted as hovering somewhere in a liminal space between the worlds of the teenager and the adult, but there were always other books that appealed to the young adult as much as the more mature version of the human being: Camus’ Outsider, the science-fiction of Heinlein, the horror of Poe, the epics of Tolkein. Publishers, being canny people, have over the last few decades been instrumental in defining a new area of the bookshop – the notion of the YA novel was born, with those at the forefront being writers like S.E. Hinton, like Alan Garner (I defy many adults to fully appreciate Red Shift on first reading), or Robert Cormier, who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to find in a book ‘for’ children. There were many others. So now we live in a complex grey area of what’s-for-who, and I can say that at least four of my books have been widely perceived to be as appropriate for adults as young adults. When John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let The Right One In) read Revolver for example, he told me he couldn’t see why it wasn’t published as an adult novel. To confuse things even further, some of the foreign editions of my books have been published as adult books.

And yet, despite this, I can see that A Love Like Blood is the first of my books that is ‘for’ adults. Why?

To unpick this, it’s necessary to understand what motivates a writer. I’ve spoken to many writers about this, and with a totally unscientific guess, I would say 99% of them don’t write a book for anyone other than themselves. This can sound a bit arrogant at first, but if you think about it, it’s quite the reverse. What would be arrogant would be to assume that you, the writer, knows best. That you know what a 40 year old male commuter in Berlin would like to read on their Kindle, or a 16 year old girl in Rio, or a 65 year old pensioner in Penzance. No. That’s not how you write. You write the book that you yourself would like to discover. Nothing else is going to make you sit at your laptop for 8 hours a day for months on end until the thing is finished. That’s the only honest and true way to do it – to write something that excites and moves you, and then, when it’s published, you can hope that someone else might be excited by it too.

Looking at it from the other side, the reader doesn’t by and large choose a book because they think it’s ‘for’ them. Of course, things might put a certain reader off reading a certain book, but all the reader is looking for is a book that grips them. That’s why, as a teenager, I was reading Arthur C. Clarke alongside Hemingway, and why any adult now is as free to choose The Hunger Games and Twilight as Martin Amis’s latest, an author I mention for his contention that he would only ever write a book for children if he had a serious brain injury (Faulks on Fiction, BBC 2011). And we know adults are reading these apparently teenage books because the sales figures could not possibly be as high if they were only being sold to teens. Although, Amis went on to reinforce the very point I make above when he added that ‘the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me’. Quite.

Like the White Queen, I also believe in the possibility of thinking six impossible things before breakfast, and here’s just one: at the same time that I am writing the book purely for me, I am also aware that it has a publisher waiting for it, and beyond that, a logo that will be printed on the spine and an area in which it will be placed in the bookshop. So, once I had the concept of A Love Like Blood, I knew no children’s publisher would publish it. For one thing it’s just too unpleasant, for another, I wanted to delve more fully into psychological depths which would be deemed uninteresting to the young adult reader. Who knows? Has everyone forgotten what the landscape of their teenage mind was like? These questions are not mine to ponder, however. It’s only up to me to write the best book I can. And do I care who it’s ‘for’? Ultimately, no, I don’t. All I hope for is that someone will like it, that people will buy it, and I for one am glad to be selling books to adults as well as their younger selves.

MS 15/3/14