Good books and bad books…
When I began my life as a publishing author, I knew nothing about the literary world. I didn’t really know any other authors and I didn’t know much about the politics and hierarchy that exists in the realm of books. I assumed writers were writers, and when I did run into them, I didn’t give a toss what they’d written, I simply respected them for having the discipline and imagination to get a book finished and out into the world.
So it came as a surprise to me when others did not share this viewpoint.
There is just a bit of snobbishness in people who produce books. No one likes to talk about it, but it is definitely there.
I grew up in a house where books were appreciated regardless of what existed between their covers. I vividly remember the bookshelves in our living room: James Herriot sat side-by-side with Walter Macken; Arthur Conan Doyle shared shelf-space with a huge volume of true-life ghost stories; the complete works of Shakespeare snuggled up against a Dennis Wheatley novel. My mother read everything from Frederick Forsythe to Jilly Cooper to James Joyce and encouraged my siblings and I to do the same.
Time with your nose stuck in a book was never wasted time. There was no snobbery in our home – my mother didn’t even acknowledge good books and bad books; as far as she was concerned, there were books she enjoyed and books she didn’t, but just because certain authors or titles weren’t for her didn’t mean someone else might not like them.
When I told her I thought I wanted to work in child protection, the first thing my mother did was to go to the library and find some books she thought would help me get an understanding of what that kind of work might involve.
And that’s when I first encountered the inspirational memoir genre – also commonly referred to as misery memoir, or just plain misery lit.
One Child and Lovey
My mother brought home two books from her visit to the library, and I devoured them both in a marathon reading session. These books confirmed to me beyond any doubt that I wanted a career working with kids, but they did something else, too: they sowed seeds that would blossom and bear fruit years later, when I was encouraged by an academic supervisor to write my own story of working in the field of child protection.
In short, they showed me what is possible.
The titles my mother chose for me were One Child, by Torey Hayden, and Lovey, by Mary McCracken. And they quite literally changed my life.
I’m not going review these books (that’s not what this installment is about, but I will be doing posts about books that influenced me later, so keep any eye out) – suffice it to say they are very, very good, and if you are a fan of true stories or misery memoirs or stories that deal with the human experience, I can’t recommend them highly enough. What I loved about them was that they were absolutely not what I had expected. When my mother decreed that if I really wanted to work with kids, I should know what I was letting myself in for, I assumed she would return with dry, academic text books.
What I got instead were stories: both authors wrote about a year in their lives working with children with profound emotional and behavioural problems. But these books were not in any way case notes. There was dialogue and character development and plot twists and laughter and tears and in each instance I was hooked into the narrative right away.
I didn’t get the ideas or philosophy of either author shoved down my throat, instead it felt as if I was being taken by the hand and invited into their classrooms. Spend a little time with us, they seemed to be saying. You might just learn something.
I read One Child and Lovey before I was even aware they belonged to a genre. As a reader, I met them with an open mind and an open heart. I came to the stories as someone who needed to learn about a world I wanted access to, and Torey Hayden (whom I have since been privileged to get to know) and Mary McCracken (who sadly passed away in 2014) opened a window and showed me a little of the landscape.
And for that, I am very grateful.
For me, in the tradition my mother had established, I did not judge these as good books or bad books (they are definitely good!) but as truly important books.
A misery memoirist walks into a bar…
I was in Waterford on a shopping trip with my wife and daughter one day in February 2007 when I got a call from my sister, Tara, informing me my first book, Wednesday’s Child, had gone to number 1 on the non-fiction bestseller lists. It had been on the bookshelves for one week.
I was surprised and delighted – I had envisioned when I sat down to write the book that a few of my family and friends would buy copies, and very probably no one else. I would, I reckoned, be able to stick a copy on the shelf at home, and I could point out to visitors that, look, there was a real book with my name on the spine.
That anything I had authored might be a bestseller was utterly beyond my wildest dreams.
“You know, it’ll probably win awards,” my editor at Gill, Fergal Tobin assured me. “It’s that kind of book!”
I was flattered, but I was too scared to ask exactly what kind of award he thought my little book might garner.
It was clear people liked it, though.
I was asked to appear on high-profile TV and radio shows, I started writing for the newspapers and people were constantly telling me how much the book meant to them.
But no awards came, and I started to cop that I wasn’t getting asked to any literary festivals, either.
I was getting loads of work and plenty of exposure – just none of it from the world of books or publishing.
I couldn’t work out why I was such an outsider.
Around this time, I pegged that certain writers who hailed from the part of Ireland where I live, when asked in interviews about other local authors whose work they admired (or even to list other writers who were doing well) never so much as gave me a mention.
I was at an actual literary event one evening, listening to a Wexford writer speak. I was sitting directly in his line of vision, and when he began to list off other Wexford writers (not even writers he liked, just other publishing writers) he still didn’t give me a mention.
The local paper would occasionally profile Wexford writers, and, yet again I was overlooked.
I figured this had to be because my titles weren’t selling in adequate numbers to merit serious attention, but when I looked into it, I learned that some of the local authors who were being heralded as creators of whom we should all be hugely proud, had only sold a couple of thousand volumes (some considerably less than this), while I had clocked up hundreds of thousands of sales.
So why was I being ignored? It just didn’t make any sense to me.
I finally asked my agent (I was with Jonathan Williams in those days) what was going on, and he begrudgingly suggested it might be because of the kind of book I write.
“The sort of writing you specialise in isn’t seen as being very literary,” he said. “In the UK, most of your books are bought in supermarkets. Authors whose work is commonly sold in Tescos don’t get much of a look-in at the Hay Festival.”
I should have seen it coming, but in my innocence, it had just never occurred to me that my books, which people told me they loved on an almost daily basis were too low brow.
“People tend to associate them with a certain type of reader,” he continued. “And readers like that don’t pay attention to awards and they don’t attend literary festivals.”
“I’m not surprised they don’t if the books they enjoy aren’t represented,” I retorted.
But I knew what he was telling me was true – it made perfect sense. The reason I was never asked to attend literary events, and why certain authors didn’t mention me as a writer-to-watch was because it wasn’t very seemly to be associated with a common misery-genre writer like me.
In short, I wasn’t kosher.
I wasn’t respectable.
Turning to crime
I’ve written before about how I ended up authoring a series of crime novels.
Suffice it to say, it wasn’t part of my game plan, it just kind of happened.
By the time I was asked to try my hand at crime writing, I had completely resigned myself to the fact that misery memoirs were my stock-in-trade.
Then out of the blue I was asked to make the leap to fiction. And specifically, to crime fiction.
Ciara Doorley is my editor at Hachette Books, Ireland, and she is hugely talented. Astute and instinctive, she believed I had a crime series in me, and suggested I go away and write a pitch for one.
I didn’t need to be asked twice – an idea (the ‘what if’ that is the spark that ignites most fiction) had been ruminating in my subconscious long before I wrote my first misery memoir.
How I was going to tell this story, what my fictional voice was going to be, was the unknown quantity.
The success of the Dunnigan series was hugely gratifying.
And it really did open a lot of doors to me. Suddenly I was being invited to literary festivals (I even ended up helping run one in the form of Wexford Literary Festival). For the first time in my life I had good friends who were authors, and some of these are people I really do cherish.
For the first time in my writing life, I was almost respectable.
People have told me they find the Dunnigan series dark. Readers have commented on the violence (one of my best friends sent me a text message the other day informing me that, while he is loving the book, the opening scene in After She Vanished made him feel a little ill).
I had a conversation with a prospective literary agent last year about my work. This agent was interested in representing certain aspects of what I do, but categorically did not want anything to do with my crime novels.
“I had to read them with my fingers over my eyes,” the agent told me. “I just don’t have the stomach for that kind of fiction.”
“Have you read my non-fiction?” I asked. “It lives in the same world.”
“Yes, but when it comes to crime, I like mine to straddle the line between literary fiction and mystery.”
And there we had it again. My stuff was too… genre.
I am ashamed to admit that I tried to change in a bid to be more respectable. With this particular agent’s needs in mind, I drafted an outline for a new historical crime series, one set in the wake of World War I and featuring an Irish veteran who returns to his country of origin, only to be drafted by De Valera into joining G2, the newly formed Irish Intelligence Service.
I gave my new hero a layered, sympathetic back story, a unique side-kick and a mystery to solve that was thoroughly cerebral with a bit of geo-politics thrown in for good measure.
I had a notion that this series could be more literary, less pulpy. The only problem was that, as I researched it, I constantly had to fight the urge to reference authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle; Peter Cheyney and Dashiell Hammett; Sapper and Rex Stout – in other words, I was being drawn back to genre all the time.
It became clear pretty quickly that this agent and I were not destined to work together. And I knew that, if I was to go forward, I needed to reach an accommodation with my dark materials.
I had to accept what I am.
And I am genre.
The joy of genre
I read a lot of genre books for pleasure, and I have never been embarrassed to admit it (although I now realise I may have embarrassed those who had to listen to me going on about it). I like crime novels: the older stuff, like Chandler and Hammett and Sapper and Robert B Parker, and newer works like Liz Nugent and Tana French and Jane Casey and John Connolly). I like sci fi and fantasy and horror, and along with most of the world, I have in recent years become hooked on true crime.
I have read each and every one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, even though they were recommended to me as an example of how not to write by an author I know (I picked up Killing Floor in Easons with the intention of glancing through it, and realised 10 minutes later that I was still standing in the aisle, totally engrossed – so I bought the book).
Lee Child is accused of being low brow, too. I defy anyone to pick up one of his books and not be entertained. To be able to write such compelling prose takes great skill.
I still read and love a lot of misery memoirs, too. I still work in the area (as a consultant and a journalist) and I have friends who are authors and write amazing books about the incredible work they do.
I have been told by certain writers that misery memoirs are the literary equivalent of The Jeremy Kyle Show (or Jerry Springer if you’re American), but people who think that have missed the point completely and probably haven’t read any of the books they are criticising. At their best, misery memoirs celebrate the beauty of the human spirit.
I love genre.
In all its forms.
I have great friends who work at Big Finish, an amazing company who write and produce audio dramas featuring characters from the Doctor Who universe and other pulp TV classics (Blakes 7, The Prisoner, Dark Shadows, Survivors and loads more). I absolutely adore the stuff they make, and I believe they are a hugely important publisher, doing work that will, in years to come, be seen as quite historic.
I still regularly read comic books. I keep up to date with Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s Walking Dead comic series, and I keep myself informed about what’s happening with British sci fi publications like 2000 AD. One of my favourite books in any genre is Garth Ennis’s graphic novel Preacher (the plot of which I am not even going to attempt to explain) and I am currently watching DC’s Titans on Netflix and loving it (last night I nerded out completely when I watched the episode featuring Doom Patrol).
I am proud to be a part of this world of genre.
When I signed on with my current agent, Ivan Mulcahy, I stated, right up front, that this is the kind of writer I am.
“I write misery lit/true crime and crime fiction,” I told him. “If you’re not comfortable with that, let there be no hard feelings and we’ll part company now.”
“Why would I be uncomfortable representing someone who writes books people love to read?” Ivan laughed.
And that was what I needed to hear.
My promise to you…
To finish this week, let me promise you this:
- I’m done with trying to be respectable.
- I am going to continue to write in the genres I feel comfortable with, and more importantly, the genres where I have something to say
- I am going to break new ground in these genres, while remaining true to the essence of what they represent
- With new publishers and new creative teams, exciting things are afoot in 2020
Thanks for reading – more next week.