Getting it Covered
If you - as I do - think of yourself as a reader of novels rather than as a consumer of book products, if you dislike the notion of your tastes being analysed, targeted and generally “marketed to” in any commercial sphere, then you may find the following little story intriguing, or puzzling, or even a little annoying.
All my books have been published both in Britain and America. Way back when things were simple, the first three, the Sara Selkirk mysteries, were sold in both territories under the same titles and with substantially the same jackets. That was over a decade ago.
The next three were published with the same titles, and although the jackets were different, in each case the differences weren’t so great that a comparison between the USA and UK editions would have led you to wonder if there were two completely different kinds of novel between the covers.
Here’s the USA jacket first - simply because it’s out first, on 21 June 2011.
I think it’s arresting and disturbing – also dynamic, modern, a great piece of design. To me it suggests something of an urban thriller, which the novel isn’t, though I hope it’s thrilling, of course, in the sense that it will grab you and not let you go until the final page. And it’s true that many of the events that unfold in the story are very dramatic. But if I’ve pulled this one off, the narrative will engage you not just in plot terms but because the characters develop unpredictably but compellingly, and their predicament will touch you on a few other, non-thrillerish, levels. That’s what I was after, anyway.
And here is the UK jacket, with the British title, which will be out in September 2011.
I think Alma’s jacket design is beautiful. It's also rather romantic, which the novel isn't, although love comes into it. And, as intended, this jacket suggests “literary”, and that’s a fair reflection of my endeavour, if “literary” means aspiring to write, quite simply, very good prose. I’m not sure it can or should mean any more than that. Absolutely the last thing I would wish the word “literary” to convey is the idea that anything in this novel - the writing, or the subject, plot, characters or setting - is any less accessible, or requires a reader to have some higher calling to “Literature” before it can be enjoyed.
It’s the contrast between the two jackets that interests me – both the visuals and the different titles. Without the author’s name, would you ever imagine, seeing these books side by side, that Among the Missing and Across the Bridge were the same novel?
Do let me know your thoughts on this, or on book jackets in general. What works for you? What doesn't? What draws you to one book from among all the hundreds in a bookshop?
Tuesday, March 08, 2011 | 12:45:44| View comments (8)
It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men under the title Something That Happened, but that’s what Steinbeck first intended to call it. I’d say it was his lucky day when he came across Robert Burns’ poem Tae A Moose*, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, November 1785, and found the lines:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promised joy.
James Joyce wrote and abandoned a novel called Stephen Hero, and finally re-wrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Could Catch-18, Heller’s original title, ever have become the universal phrase that Catch-22 now is? Would the sight of Daniel Craig striding out of the sea be slightly less memorable if the film Casino Royale had the same title as the Fleming novel on which it’s based, which is You Asked For It? (That’s a difficult one.)
My seventh novel is coming out in America in June this year under the title Among The Missing, which both I and everyone at Random House are very pleased with as it refers to both the plot and the novel’s bigger themes of loss of identity and reinvention. Like many good titles it’s been used before, as I discovered when, after thinking it up in the isolation of my study, I ran a check on Google. But we concluded that the previous Among the Missings were far enough back in the past, and sufficiently different kinds of book, to make the danger of confusion for readers and buyers insignificant.
The novel is also, to my delight, being published in the UK in September 2011, by Alma Books, but under the title Across The Bridge. Elisabetta Minervini and Alex Gallenzi, Alma’s inspirational founders and owners, think Among The Missing not quite distinctive enough for the British market, and I’m happy to bow to their judgment. We finally decided on Across The Bridge just yesterday and it grows and grows on us all. It’s the right title, every bit as right as Among The Missing which I had thought, wrongly as it turns out, was the one and only title.
In just three words, Across The Bridge has an intriguing, forward momentum, and also reflects the novel beautifully. It was editor Alex who came up with it, and in doing so he’s focused on an important aspect of the novel’s setting which features, of course, a bridge. In this case, the bridge spans a river in the Highlands of Scotland. I won’t go into detail about the story here, except to say that the bridge is central to the action in straightforward plot terms. But I’ve also exploited, I hope unobtrusively, the underlying symbolic power of the bridge. In the mythologies of many cultures, the crossing of a bridge is always a transformative act; those who endeavour to cross a bridge undergo a rite of passage, or some test or other, and thereby pass, or fail to pass, from one state of being to another: from life to death or vice versa, from childhood to adulthood, from earth to paradise, or to the underworld.
I’ve just realised this brings us back to Robert Burns. In his wonderful narrative poem Tam o’ Shanter, Tam escapes a hellish coven of witches by galloping across another Scottish bridge, the Auld Brig over the River Doon at Alloway. The witches cannot cross running water and thereby fail the test, but one grabs the tail of Tam’s mare, Meg, and pulls it off.
I was brought up less than twenty miles from Burns’ birthplace and consequently was forcefed his poetry from the age of five. I loathed it then, but admire it now. I’m a late convert. You can take the girl out of Ayrshire…
The Auld Brig
*Moose in Scots dialect means not the huge deer also known as the elk, but mouse, the small rodent with no antlers.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011 | 15:12:21| View comments (2)
Highlights from the Low Countries
Think of a city a little bigger than Sheffield.
Now think of a complex of concert halls not unlike London’s Southbank Centre (www.dedoelen.nl) but made of marble and glass rather than concrete, arguably easier to love and indisputably more pleasant to be in.
Put them together in mainland Europe, add a major art gallery (currently showing a stunningly comprehensive exhibition of Munch), waterways crossed by bascule bridges, vast docks, a tiny extant 17th century quarter and a lot - a lot - of landmark, post-war architecture, and you’re in Rotterdam.
Or rather I was, to visit my brother Neil Wallace who is Programme Director of the aforementioned de Doelen, which is why I, with Neil and his partner the composer Vanessa Lann (www.vanessalann.com) went to half each of two concerts happening on the same evening, the second being a recital by the brilliant German pianist Ragna Schirmer (www.ragnaschirmer.de). Ragna is a leading interpreter of Bach, Handel and Chopin, as well as a world authority on the life and work of Clara Schumann, some of whose music she’d played in the first half of her recital. We heard her play the Chopin Études Opus 10, and there’s no need for me to describe her vibrant interpretation of this work because you can hear it for yourself here: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wb15qltw9E). Brilliant, isn’t it?
At dinner together afterwards, the conversation was funny, serious, gossipy, at times all three together, and ranged over many things: Clara and Robert Schumann, the quirks of famous pianos and pianists, where to get the best chips in Rotterdam, and it was wonderful to discover that Ragna has an encyclopaedic recall of Monty Python sketches that outclasses even Neil’s, and by some way. Brava!
Wednesday, December 08, 2010 | 18:44:17| View comments (0)
Overhanging the lane near the place where I live there’s a scruffy-looking tree. I usually notice it in the spring when it’s covered in thin white blossom but after that I don’t, really. For the rest of the year it doesn’t stand out from the hedgerow the way other things do, the briar roses and honeysuckle when they’re in flower, and in winter it’s just as twiggy and bedraggled as everything else around it.
So I was surprised to see, driving in the gate one day in mid-July, that this boring old tree was laden with what looked like big, fabulous cherries. The fruits must have set weeks ago and I hadn’t noticed, so this amazing harvest has just snuck up on me. I think – think – this is the first year since I’ve been here that the tree has borne a crop. I couldn’t have just failed for the past three summers to notice thousands of luscious red fruits clinging the length of every branch, could I?
When I went to look, I discovered they’re not cherries but wild cherry plums (Prunus cerasifera). The flesh is juicy and sweet and slightly fibrous, the skin is tart. I picked nearly two pounds in about three minutes. The colour of the ripe fruit is lovely, ranging from pinky-red, to crimson, to a rich, purplish, er, plum.
I made some jam, entered it in the village flower show at the end of July, and won First Prize in ‘Class H: Jam, other fruit’. Result! High fives all round the marquee. And as if that weren’t enough excitement, I also have a recipe for plum schnapps.
I could go on, only slightly ironically, about Nature’s bounty and all that, but the fact is that this plum-laden tree was a small pleasure for which I was glad and grateful in a month when, for reasons too tedious to relate, I had been feeling rather beset.
It so happens that the new novel I am writing (working title: Our Picnics in the Sun) has in it, guess what, a woman who is rather beset. I don’t think I’m going to let her make jam, but I think that giving her a small pleasure – a secret solace – might be a way of revealing her (to me, at this stage, rather than to the reader) and illuminating how she will go about confronting the big things that beset her. So, Art mirrors Life, or Life, Art - and turns out to be in this instance a bowl of not cherries but plums, or a jar of jam, or something.
Friday, August 20, 2010 | 10:22:58| View comments (0)
Pride and Joy
This is personal; I can’t stop myself from posting here some wonderful news. My daughter Hannah has just learned she’s got a place on the Directors Course at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London (President: Dame Judi Dench). It’s a one-year postgraduate course (she’s just graduated with an excellent first degree in Drama from University of Kent) so from September she’ll be following a path trodden by people who have gone on to work at the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, the Almeida, Old Vic, Young Vic, Donmar, English National Opera … just about everywhere, in fact, that a young theatre director could be excited about.
A year from now, if all goes well, she will be embarking on the really hard part, trying to make a career in an intensely demanding and precarious profession. There will be trepidation, highs and lows, and much uncertainty ahead, but for now she is feeling only the pride of her achievement at getting in to Mountview, and I am feeling pure joy. And there is no joy quite like seeing one’s child under sail, entirely on her own merits, towards the thing she has been single-mindedly determined about since the age of eight.
Here is Hannah around the age of eight. I’m glad that in this picture she looks just happy rather than single-mindedly determined. I remember she was very agitated about the size of her feet which were, though I insisted at the time they weren’t, enormous. I don’t think they grew more than half a size from that point on, and of course the rest of her has long since caught up.
And on the right is an early self-portrait, done when she was two and a half. Is it just a dotty mother’s delusion to see something both happy and determined in the shout, the punching of the air?
Probably. Don’t care. It’s a good day.
Saturday, July 03, 2010 | 11:45:35| View comments (0)