When I woke this morning there was an email of congratulations from my agent in London. “Happy Publication Day!’ it said. Today’s apparently the day Devil’s Dance, my third Spandau novel, gets officially thrown out into the world — at least into whatever part of the world that constitutes the UK these days. It’s not supposed to be released in the US until January. I have no idea why.
The ways of publishers are arcane to us mere mortals. Civilians assume that authors are actually on top of what publishers are doing with their books, but in fact we don’t know much more than your typical soldier marching into battle. We simply hope that whatever they feel is in their best interests fishtails into what might be in ours, and that it will all work out mutually beneficial in the end.
For instance I’ve not yet actually seen a copy of the book, though you’ve been able to buy the thing online for a few weeks now. I’m assured however my author’s copies are on their way via whatever tortuous Silk Road llama caravan surface mail uses these days. (Ha! Surface mail! I’ll bet Stephen King gets his FedEx!)
It’s not as if, though, I don’t know what the thing looks like. For months there were the usual discussions over jacket art and copy, and before that the editorial process of picking the thing apart and making changes, with the invariable result that you are more than a little sick of the whole thing.
This sounds awful to say – and more than a little ungrateful, considering how lucky anybody is to get published these days – but it’s true. It’s also true that this exhaustion has nothing to do with the book itself. It could be a masterpiece but certainly by now you have lost all perspective on it and are perhaps the last person on the planet to hold a valid opinion.
Consider that in the process of editing a book, you concentrate over and over again on all the things that might be wrong with it. I can’t remember ever having more than a ten second conversation with an editor about how clever I am, but there are endless flashbacks of being gently (or sometimes not so gently) informed of the ways in which I’ve screwed up.
I’ve been lucky so far in that my books haven’t required heavy editing. As relaxed as they may read, they’re structured pretty tightly, and getting edited hasn’t been the nightmare it is for a lot of writers.
But I do make mistakes, particularly with anything that involves math. In Devil’s Dance, for example, I could never accurately compute the vigorish owned to a loan shark. In all fairness I can’t do this sort of thing in my own life, so I don’t see why I should be expected to be able to do it for my characters. On the other hand, there’s this illusion of Authorial Omniscience that has to be maintained, so I ended up taking the word of my editor, whose math skills, unlike mine, have thankfully progressed beyond the third grade.
It may be true that you can get dressed all by yourself, but an editor is the one who’s going to say you look fine, then point out that your fly is open and your socks don’t match, finally brushing the dandruff from the shoulders of your tuxedo before patting you gently on the bottom and sending you out onto the dance floor.
So I wait for my books to arrive. The legendary Author’s Copies. I’ll open up the box and immediately complain about two things. First, shouldn’t they have sent more copies, the cheap bastards? And second, how frail the books seem. For some reason when you hold your own books they never seem big enough, substantial enough. What was I doing all that time? All this effort to produce a thing so much less considerable, say, than a canned ham or a pair of boots?
Of course if they were heavier I’d bitch about that too. Who’d want to schlep around a tome like this? Who’s gonna want to read a cinder block? There’s never enough or there’s too much. No matter what it’s a failure. No matter what we’re all going to end up bankrupt and humiliated. Our last days spent, as Allen Ginsberg once imagined, sitting on the bed of a transient hotel room with pee stains on our underwear.
The next thing I’ll do is set one book aside for my own shelf, and another which I will inscribe and give to my son, as always. Then the others are given to various friends or associates, whose curiosity will finally be satisfied, since I never talk about my books while I’m writing them. Aha, so this is what he’s been up to!
After this… not much. Do whatever promotion I’m asked to do. Wait for reviews. There’s a conflict that begins. Your book is out, you want the world to jump up and take notice. You want people to tell you you’re the best thing since Silly Putty (you’ll deny this) and you want millions to buy your book because you really don’t want your final years spent battling someone else for the chance to sleep on the subway grating.
Against this is the roiling desire just to be left the hell alone. You do love being lionized but you hope to god nobody wants you to travel. Or photos. (Jesus, I could have spent more time at the gym. I could have actually gone to the gym. Too late now. There’ll be one more sensitive journalist writing about me being “round at the corners”.)
You’re already two hundred pages into a new book and you don’t want anything that’s going to screw that up. The only author I’ve ever heard of who could write on the road (besides Anthony Trollope) is Alexander McCall Smith, who apparently can write chained and suspended upside down in a Houdini tank. This isn’t me. I require conditions as rigid a Ghost Orchid’s. When I’m on the road, whatever I’m working on gets frozen like a mastodon, hopefully to be thawed more or less in tact when I can get back to it.
Anyway whatever you have ever written before got pushed out of your mind months ago. The other books have escaped you. Like having raised a child, whatever flaws you can see now are somebody else’s burden. But you do suspect, if given the chance to do it all again, you’d make exactly the same mistakes. Which implies that “style” is less a matter of control than merely the tracks you make hobbling along on your peg leg.
Truth is, somebody else wrote those books. They’re not mine. That guy I used to be, that’s who wrote them, and thank god I’m not him anymore. I’m somebody else now. This new book I’m writing, I’m writing it for the same reason I wrote the others. I’m writing it to find out just who this new fellow might be.