Archive for February, 2010

Readers’ Letters

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

From time to time every author has readers’ letters forwarded to them by their publisher These vary alarmingly in content, and I thought it might be amusing to delve a little deeper into  the ‘readers’ letters syndrome’. I had one of the very best sort last week. It came in a sealed envelope, and with a covering letter which began: ‘Will you kindly forward this (polite!) letter to Mario Reading.’ It went on to say - in relation to my recently published The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, that ‘this is the best edition of the Centuries with interpretation that I have seen by a long way - he has actually solved Nostradamus’s method’. Now, as far as a sweetener goes, this technique definitely wins the Kewpie Doll! I could hardly wait to open the letter. And it didn’t disappoint. The gentleman concerned was obviously deeply read in the prophecies, and was kind enough to say that my book was ‘the book I could say I have been waiting for for fifty years. I think that your publisher and you yourself in the Introduction if anything understate your case. You write of a major breakthrough - in effect you have solved the problem of how to interpret Nostradamus.’ He went on to make a few extremely well-thought out points, and also to make a suggestion regarding one of the Undated quatrains that I shall certainly take into account when and if we bring out an updated edition. This, if you like, is the ideal readers’ letter, and I immediately wrote a handwritten reply to the correspondent concerned.

I’ve also had the other kind, however. These letters can vary alarmingly in content. I had one letter [six pages long] which was allegedly written in English. But I was damned if I could make out a single word of it. When next I saw my publisher, I asked him if he could make head or tail of it. He couldn’t either. All we knew for certain was that there were a number of rather curious (and possibly diabolical) symbols drawn on the torn out frontispiece to the foreign language edition of one of my books. And no return address. For which I was extremely grateful.

And then there are the ones from students who want me to write their exams for them - one or two have been very nice tries. A lot of flattery first, and then the punchline, usually consisting of a list of questions the student concerned would like answered ASAP. And most of the questions are already answered in the book - only they couldn’t actually be bothered to read it themselves, and presumably reckon that, as the writer, I might conceivably know what I am talking about. A likely story. One or two are genuinely affecting, however, and are obviously from High School kids, often in the USA, saying things like ‘This book is meaningful to me in many ways you might predict and interpret from reading my letter… I truly will not disregard or forget about this book.’ Such letters always get a reply from me, as they are written with obvious sincerity, and a clear desire by the correspondent to reach out and connect with the writer. This is very precious.

Then there are the letters telling me that if I get in touch with the correspondent, I might learn something to my advantage. These are nearly always elliptical, and presumably are meant to act in roughly the same way as chain letters used to - or those e-mail forwardings that warn you that unless you send on the e-mail concerned to a certain number of friends within, say, three days, you will be doomed. These I don’t answer. And neither do I answer the ones where the correspondent wants me to publish, under my name, the upshot of their research into my subject. I mean really….

The strangest one I ever received was ‘From the Spirit World, with love’. This was a genuine first for me, and the letter concerned was beautifully handwritten on seven sides of foolscap, and purported to be written by my guardian angel. It was actually a very sweet letter (if slightly prescriptive), and I certainly took it in the spirit in which it was clearly intended - i.e. friendly, if rather odd. This one again didn’t have a return address, and I somehow feel, in the case of such letters, that the correspondent does not actually want a reply - the actually writing of the letter is enough for them. They are reaching out in some way, and this is probably the real purpose of the communication.

And lastly there are the Amazon critiques, which act in the same way as letters, you might say, in that the reader/writer presumably expects that the author concerned will read the critique one day, without, needless to say, either obtaining or deserving the right of reply. These are, for the most part, benevolent. Most rational people will feel that it is only worth putting pen to paper when you particularly like something - and thereby wish to share it with others. But then there are the naysayers, too. The ones who feel empowered by their ability to criticise something without actually having to identify themselves. Although in the clear minority, I’ve encountered a number of these. Some are, oddly, competing authors who appear to believe that by trashing a competitor’s book online, suitably forewarned readers will smoothly move on to their own, competing title. Amazon is very quick to excise these, just so long as one is able to prove, to everybody’s satisfaction, the source of the slander. Others are harder to fathom, and seem to be genuinely malicious. It’s unsettling to imagine a tontine of disgruntled readers sharpening their virtual quills and then darting in, like Barracuda, to exsanguinate whichever unsuspecting writer they have chosen as their victim that day. I mean, why bother? Haven’t such people heard of Karma? That by fomenting good thoughts, a greater good is done?

Well. Maybe not. Either way, it’s a strange world out there. As for me, I’ll take the rough with smooth - simply because the smooth, as is the way of things, eventually benefits everybody, whereas the rough only inspires callosity.

The Difference between Fiction and Non-Fiction

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

I finished writing the second novel in my Nostradamus trilogy two months or so ago. It will be published in the UK by Corvus (a new imprint of my regular publisher, Atlantic – Corvus, in Latin, means a raven) in August 2010, under the title The Mayan Codex. Over the Christmas and the New Year period I have been completing two other books for Watkins (my non-fiction publisher), one of which is illustrated, one not. Now I am winding up to starting the third and final part of my fiction trilogy, and it occurred to me in the run-up to actual lift-off (and somewhat belatedly, you might say), that the process of writing fiction and non-fiction is so fundamentally different that they may as well stem from entirely different constellations in the mental mindset.

Non-fiction is a largely intellectual exercise. You work things out – set yourself problems – happen upon clever wrinkles that give added value to the book – allow research to lead to further research – pursue right brain serendipity with the enthusiasm of a catechumen. And all the time you are adding and adding to an existing snow-pile of material which you know, through long experience, will eventually satisfy most, if not all, of your contracting parties.

Fiction is another matter entirely. You get an idea. Then another idea. You flesh out a character or two. Then a character you didn’t rate at all, and meant to spend little, if no time on, muscles his/her way into your plot and threatens to hijack all your carefully laid plans. You are perpetually being hoist, in other words, with your own petard. The novel, and its meanderings, is never far from your thoughts. Every single thing you experience while writing it is potential grist to the novelistic mill. You open your mouth like a basking shark, filtering plankton, and only really close it when the novel is done and dusted and perched on a shelf marked with your name. It lives in the mind of its creator, in other words, like no non-fiction book ever can. It becomes a part of you. And when its parturition is over, it still reverberates with a strange sort of afterlife, forcing you, every now and then, to revisit it and check if its okay.

That’s why I hate starting work on new novels – and why I love writing them.