I keep threatening updates and they never come. Here’s kind of why.
It’s coming up on four years since my first book came out, and two years since my last book came out. I’m going to sound ungrateful as fuck but four years on, I feel like I’ve got nowhere. My three novels sank without a trace, maybe because they weren’t very good, maybe because my publisher… I’m not getting into that. Everyone at Freight has a story to tell. You, dear reader, decide. Maybe I was cursed from the start, when one of my oldest friends and I ended up head-to-head in the Guardian Not The Booker. Maybe then the writing was on the wall, or at least heavily featured below the line. Word to the wise: never, ever make your friends choose between you and another mutual friend on a public forum unless you are incredibly sure of yourself. It’s entirely possible your self-confidence will never recover. Not really.
Sobering. And I don’t like things that are sobering.
But you go on, don’t you?
Still, it’s hard not to feel discouraged.
Since I handed in The Waves Burn Bright I’ve written another novel. I’ve begun and ended a successful series of stories based on living in rural Japan which I’d hoped to turn into a book. I’ve started three other novels and I’m spending a huge amount of my own money researching a non-fiction book that everyone’s told me is a brilliant idea except anyone who could, you know, help financially to make it a reality.
I didn’t mean for this post to become a whine/rant but it’s clearly going that way. Feel free to bail out now.
The novel. I love it. It’s what I want to be writing. It’s fucked up and weird and makes no sense unless you read it and even then maybe not. But that’s what novels are supposed to do. A novel that fits into the idea of a novel is a failed novel. Every novel should be, you know, novel. It’s literally what the word means. If Will Self is right (and he’s not, ever, just on principle) and the novel is dying, it’s because we’ve accepted the idea of The Novel. The Novel. Mr Dickens makes exceedingly good ones. The English Novel. With its endless chapters and mirroring sub-plots and the way it sprawls just like the empire. The novel is as multi-faceted as the human mind, and until we’ve got that figured out, the mind that is, the novel isn’t dead. It’s us. It’s publishing. We’ve given up. We’ve got Netflix and phones and why do we need novels?
Because novels are the closest thing we have to replicating empathy in art. Because the novel is the closest we’ll get to experiencing life through someone else’s brain until we find a way to hack the brain.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
But I still have high hopes for the novel as a form. And I would like to at least die on the north face of those high hopes.
I think all I’ve done so far is make it, breathless, to base camp with all the other tourists.
I don’t intend to fuck around making snow angels.
I’ve written three novels that obey the rules of what novels are supposed to do and while I’m so grateful and humbled to have even one book published, let alone four (including my poetry collection), each of them feels to me like I’m limbering up. I feel like the batter swinging the bat. I’m getting the hang of the weight and heft. I can sense which way the wind is blowing and can feel the catcher trying to put me off. But the pitcher is still playing with his cap and I haven’t swung yet. I feel like I’ve still got three strikes and a few balls ahead of me.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve had my strikes and I’m out. Maybe no more balls for me. Maybe I had my chance. Maybe this is how it ends, as a footnote in someone’s PhD 40 years from now. The also-rans. Mentioned by an undergrad in a case study on publishers who failed. A wannabe ten minutes from base camp dead of hypoxia and hypothermia.
The novel’s been out at a publisher I had hopes for and so far nothing. I’ve started three others. A story about a Japanese punk band. A sequel to First Time Solo. A science fiction novel. I start. I write words. They trail off.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
You tell yourself that every word is practice. The first couple of novels I binned, they were practice. Then I stepped up. I’m proud of First Time Solo, Silma Hill and The Waves Burn Bright. Realising that the one after The Waves Burn Bright might just be practice, that hurt. Being told it was no good when I think it’s progress, that hurt. I didn’t see that coming. A sucker punch, right in the gut. I hit three in a row then…
In the analogy, what is a strike and what is a hit? Is publishing a hit? Or is publishing the swing, and the call “strike” comes after?
I lost money on every book I published. Not the publisher’s money, my money. For three books, four times I flew back to Britain to promote them. I paid for the flights from Japan, the hotels, the trains and spending money. I absorbed the loss of income taking time off from my day job. I was paid three figures for my first novel and very, very low four figures for the second and third. Literally as low as you can go and still use four figures without a decimal point. And at the end of it all the liquidators offered to sell me the unsold copies of my novels at 20% off RRP, shipping not included. I couldn’t afford that. They all got pulped, I assume.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
Sights on the future. I wanted to turn The Only Gaijin in the Village into a book and thought I could. Shows what I know. My editor rode me longer and harder than ever anyone rode Shergar. It seems, for my sins, I am gullible. I trust people too much. Take them at their word. I was strung along for six months. Lied to my face a couple of times. There’s one born every minute.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
It should be hard. Of course it should be hard. That’s where the challenge is. That’s what makes it interesting. But it could just be a little easier.
Just a little. Because in that, is all the difference. (One for all the West Wing fans. Coz Sorkin’s a writer and probably needs a hug too).
Bit of an update. The winter is finally over in Japan and the spring festivals are just around the corner. I love this time of year, despite the hay fever, and feel energised again.
On the writing front I’ve sent my latest novel to a publisher I think will make a good home for it so all fingers, toes and protruding limbs are crossed. In the meantime, here are a few other things I’ve been doing:
I had a short story included in Gutter 17. It’s called Blackwaterfoot and was originally commissioned for an anthology that didn’t see the light of day. It’s good to be back in Gutter as well, in its new home after the demise of Freight.
The last in the twelve month cycle of The Only Gaijin in the Village is here. From April I’ll be trying something new with the series, so keep your eyes peeled.
I’ve been writing a lot for the Japan Times as well, but in an editorial changeover most of it got pushed back in the schedule and will appear over the next few months. First up is my review of the latest issue of Tokyo Poetry Journal.
I recently took part in a Snowshow Trek organised by Satoyama Experience. Read all about it here.
End of the year and I’m pretty burnt out. I started a new job in April which has been great but juggling that alongside all the writing has been tricky. Still, I have two weeks off and nothing to do but write, read, draft a textbook, sand down the living room door, prune the trees… oh god.
Anyway, here’s a few links to things I’ve published recently. The latest chapter of The Only Gaijin in the Village is up on Gaijinpot, as is my overview of Miyuki Miyabe‘s translated career. Over on Japan Times I had the good fortune to attend a symposium on translation in Tokyo which you can read all about here.
So a happy winterval to you all, enjoy the year-end list and another viewing of Die Hard and as I said to my students in the last class of the year: don’t study too much and don’t forget to drink… I mean… you know what I mean.
Some of you may know, and others may have heard, that the publisher of my fiction, Freight Books, has gone into liquidation. I’m not going to go into the whys and hows here. There are plenty of articles online that go through the salient points, some objectively, some accurately, many just recirculating gossip or grinding axes. I’m not going to get into that. Freight Books were exceptionally kind to me over the years, first as my publisher and then employing me as an editor. They were never perfect and mistakes were made, then compounded. It ended badly and while there certainly is blame to be apportioned, that’s not an avenue I wish to drive. Others fared far worse than I did and they have every right to speak out and I support them in that. However I feel that adding my complaints won’t change anything. I’m simply so tired of the whole mess.
The reason I’m bringing it up at all is because of what it means for my books. As a novelist I am now ‘out of print’ although I prefer the euphemism, ‘sold out’. The liquidators have all the Freight stock and are asking the authors to buy it back at a ridiculous price and so far, I refuse. The very least that could be done to all the authors affected by this is to give them books that are otherwise going to be pulped. But capitalism doesn’t work that way. Our books have most value to us, therefore the liquidators can expect to leverage the highest return out of the very people being screwed. Yay capitalism.
I have a handful of copies left that I can sell if you contact me directly. There are quite a few second-hand copies available online as well, sold by third party sellers and independent bookshops via AbeBooks and Amazon, some very cheaply. Depressingly, many of them are described as ‘unread review copies’ meaning they are, at least, mint condition.
Ideally I would like to get back into print as soon as possible but that’s unlikely until I have something new to offer. I’m working on that at the moment. In the meantime, my novels have become incredibly niche collectors items, so if your shelf is lacking a copy of The Waves Burn Bright, Silma Hill, or First Time Solo and you were putting off the purchase for a rainy day, then you can get one from me directly, online, or from all good charity shops.
Additionally, my poetry was published by Tapsalteerie who are very much still a going concern, and my haiku collection would make an unusual Secret Santa gift.