You had a thirty-five year, international career as a Civil Engineer, Economist and Technical Writer. Why, in early retirement, have you taken up writing novels?
The short and superficial answer is that I have always been an avid reader of fiction, both highbrow and lowbrow. The type of personality drawn to reading fiction has many of the characteristics of the type drawn to writing it. A more practical consideration is that it is nearly impossible to raise a family and make a living writing novels. Early retirement, a longer life span and an adequate pension make it possible to pursue one’s passions.
My other passions are gardening, landscaping, interior design and residential construction, all of which receive more or less equal attention from me. They all have two things in common as I practice them -- isolated, individualistic effort and clear physical results. Novelists are not team players, and a completed novel is a free-standing, well-defined artifact that can be held in the hand. The same can be said of a poem, a painting or a musical composition. The great Otto Rank, a student, and later a competitor of Sigmund Freud, maintained that such people had "productive personalities", which describes but doesn’t explain much. You figure out the "why" part. I can’t.
That sounds like the engineer-economist speaking. Isn’t a novel a work of art as well as an artifact?
A novel is first and foremost a story, greater than 50,000 words, that entertains the reader and transports him to another place and time. It is a direct descendent of the oral tradition of tale telling, evoking the image of primitive peoples squatting around a fire, slack-jawed and entranced, eager to hear what comes next from the mouth of the storyteller. At some point during the progression through the written word, printing, plot and character development it became a craft and, in the hands of some, perhaps an art. With years of reading, lots of practice, criticism from those who know, and some talent or predisposition, the craft can be learned and occasionally mastered. Whether a well-crafted novel is deemed a work of art or not depends on current and future tastes over which the writer has no control. Best to leave the art question to the taste makers and the book chat people.
Many years ago I was living in Addis Ababa during the time of the collapse of the Ethiopian monarchy. There was martial law and a fair amount of violence so we were confined to our houses for days at a time and most evenings. I began a novel set in post independence Malaysia, a time when the British where phasing out and the Malaysians were taking over. I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer living on a rural construction site and witnessed the changeover. I saw the sadness of the departing British and the tensions between the Malays, Chinese and Indians who were assuming power. My novel reflected the sadness and the tensions. There was an interracial love story, a homosexual relationship, and a suicide by a British engineer who could not face the changes. I knew nothing about the business side of publishing and submitted the manuscript to a British house. They praised the writing and said it gave an accurate picture of the changeover but would be banned in Malaysia and Singapore for that and other reasons. I put the manuscript away and got on with career and family. In retrospect it was a good first effort.
I had a fantasy one day as to what the military leader of a poor country like Pakistan would actually say about his ten years in power if he perversely decided to "tell it like it really was"-- just as his regime was collapsing and power was slipping from his grasp. It was five chapters of first person narrative and a cathartic exercise since I was not constrained by political correctness and institutional requirements. It occurred to me then that each chapter of the "old man’s" story would make a fine opening to an ambitious five-part novel in which his would be the view from the top. The view from the bottom would be five chapters of the Afghan truck driver’s tale of vengeance which would provide the closing chapter of each part. Between the opening and closing chapters would be three or four chapters of the main intercultural love/adventure story. Taken as a whole, the five-part novel would be richly satisfying and illuminating with so many perspectives on the same one year period. It took me ten years with spare time stolen from family and leisure to finish it. It was entitled, Fragments of a Plan, and I loved it for its structure and symmetry and comprehensiveness.
After retirement I showed it to a New York editor who knew a lot about the craft of fiction, next to nothing about South Asia, and cared little for structure, symmetry or comprehensiveness. Instead of being richly satisfying, she found the five-part structure and multiple perspectives confusing, annoying and kiss-of-death boring. Her most telling point was that the poor reader and his reaction must be considered and that mine had been a self-indulgent exercise. She recommended that I keep the original version for my personal satisfaction and from it extract a new and much shorter novel wherein the characters were integrated by a coherent plot and a story that moved.
One of the most painful lessons about the craft of fiction is the need to cut extraneous material and to rewrite, and then rewrite again. (The novelist, Stephen King, follows the twenty-five percent rule. At least twenty-five percent of the early versions of his novels are cut.) The listeners around the campfire mustn’t be allowed to lose interest in what will happen next. A first draft is the raw material from which the finished work will eventually be extracted. The passion, imagination and main ideas will be in the first draft, but not in a form fit for human consumption.
The first thing I had to do was get rid of the five-part structure which broke up the flow of the main story. That meant throwing out all five chapters of the "old man’s" story, my deeply satisfying first person narrative that had gotten the whole thing started. I mourned its departure for weeks. The tale of vengeance then had to be expanded and more closely integrated with the main story. That meant expanding the Karachi underworld characters. Finally, almost everything that smacked of economics, planning and development had to be excised because it lacked entertainment value and slowed down the action. Fragments of a Plan was becoming Punjab Nights.
It was a sellout in the sense that a writer of fiction who wants to be read needs to consider the reader and his atavistic desire to be entertained and transported to another time and place. A novel is not an essay, a sermon or an article for a scholarly journal. It is, in the vocabulary of the drug culture, a "good trip", a socially acceptable flight from boring or stressful reality. The integrity of a novelist is based on providing a story and characters to which the reader can resonate together with a non-obtrusive subtext which gives the receptive reader the added satisfaction (illusion?) of painless understanding and learning. The serious, potentially boring stuff, may be introduced quietly through the subtext. The sensitive reader then sees it from the corners of his eyes, so to speak, hovering in the wings away from center stage. The less receptive reader may not see it at all and will be none the worse for it.
The major difference between so-called literary novels and popular genre novels is that the literary novelist starts with a serious theme at center stage and finds a story and characters that will carry this burden. The popular genre novelist starts with the primitive, satisfying story at center stage and bootlegs the snore material, if any, through the subtext. The other big difference, especially in America, is that few people buy, and even fewer people read, literary novels -- a harsh reality for lovers of serious literature. But there it is. Sadly, both approaches, if done with integrity, require a high level of craftsmanship. It is not necessarily easier to write a popular genre novel than a literary novel. It is easier to write a bad novel of either type rather than a good one. Selling out does not simplify things for the writer of fiction. It merely enlarges his audience.
The American, Daniel Silva, is my favorite example (http://www.danielsilvabooks.com). After a successful career in international journalism, and later, TV production for CNN, he decided, without training in the craft of fiction, to write a thriller/espionage novel in the John Le Carre mode -- action combined with psychological elements, a thinking man’s spy story. He succeeded with his first effort, The Unlikely Spy. The action begins in chapter one and continues non stop. His characters are well-drawn and, for the most part, believable. It would, however, be fair to say that the book was plot-driven, not character-driven, and aimed at commercial, not literary, success. He followed this with two similar books set in different parts of the world. He kept the primitive story at center stage, traveled to faraway places with his characters, and introduced the politics and psychology that the story could easily carry. He hit his stride with The Kill Artist, his fourth book. There, he struck gold with his middle age hero, art restorer and reluctant assassin for the Israeli secret service, Gabriel Allon. His next three books feature the attractive, conflicted Allon, art lover, killer and implacable foe of the holocaust instigators and those who would destroy Israel. He begins to load his stories with the controversial historical issues of the active connivance of the Swiss banking establishment and the Catholic Church with the Nazi regime. In a later book he takes on an ailing, but still lethal, Yassir Arafat, the PLO and the new killing technology, suicide bombing. In A Death in Vienna, he addresses the issue of the current attempt to downgrade the savageness of the Nazis and the effort by some to deny that the holocaust had ever taken place. Here, Silva comes close to producing a literary novel. The theme moves to center stage. The story serves it. He pulls it off because he has a devoted following from his first four novels, a publisher that can’t say no and a theme that is, to the sensitive reader, as compelling as the story. The murder of six million Jews only sixty years ago is not the soporific that planning and economic development are. To the non receptive reader, however, it must be, relatively speaking, his weakest effort.
Must all successful novels deal with violence? What about family and relationships? The coming of age? Religion? Philosophy and the essential absurdity of life?
All successful novels deal with conflict, physical or emotional, preferably both. Nobody wants to spend fifteen or twenty hours of their life reading about happy, well-adjusted, unconflicted people who have no desire or need to experience change. There will always be a limited market for the all-emotional, psychological conflict novel. For the American, male audience and most male writers, however, the basic ingredients are war, espionage, crime, exotic locales, attractive technology, dark humor and sex -- the testosterone divide. If religion can be worked in as a source of mayhem (no problem there), so much the better.
Punjab Nights evolved from a ten-year, self-indulgent exercise to hard-eyed, commercial fiction. What are you planning for your next novel and how does that reflect your new view of fiction writing?
I have completed the first volume of a four-novel series, The Travels and Adventures of Baltasar Albueno, Renegade, Secret Agent and Gentleman of the Spanish Nation. It is sixteenth century historical fiction set in the Mediterranean region, the Portuguese Indies and Spanish America. The forthcoming volume is entitled, Venetian Exile. Baltasar (b. 1480, d. 1550), is the illegitimate, but only, son of a noble Spanish father and a Moorish slave girl. He is sent off to Venice with a gentleman’s education, divided religious loyalties, no inheritance, and a missing foreskin. The Ottoman Turks, North African pirates, a corrupt and expansionist papacy, the emerging nation states of France, Spain and Portugal -- all threaten the well-being of the Venetian Republic. Gun powder weapons of mass destruction are changing the rules of war. Global exploration, trade and warfare proceed abreast. Coalitions of the willing form and dissolve with bewildering speed, and good intelligence is at a premium. A harried Venetian spymaster sees where the young man’s true talents lie and recruits him as a secret agent. Baltasar, hand-reared, home-schooled, pampered and trusting, is thrown into an unforgiving world of intrigue and violence.
You get the picture. Because it has strong female characters it straddles the testosterone divide, and this is a big risk. Relationships and religion are important. So are violence, crime, attractive technology, dark humor and sex.
A fiction writer needs to lay claim to a time and place. I choose the world of the sixteenth century and the Mediterranean littoral. The action was there, and the similarities between then and now are compelling. Historical fiction because I have made the investment in knowing a time and place that my competitors have not. History, like gardening, is a middle age passion. The young will entertain it only if it is presented as painless and entertaining. I offer it to them as an attractive escape from the boredom and stress of the present.
If they are in their twenties or thirties I advise them to get a life first. Get a real job, earn a living, travel, fall in love, have a family, read a lot. Learn something about life and death. Any writer unlucky enough to get published very young is almost certainly headed for long term trouble, the experience of Gore Vidal and John Updike to the contrary. Daniel Silva is an excellent example to follow as are Michael Connally, John Sanford and Karl Hiassen. All were successful journalists covering the seamy side of life for their newspapers in a part of the world they came to know well. They laid claim to time and place early on, learned to write correct English under pressure, and had a store of experience to draw on. They went the full-time, popular genre route and produce a new novel ever eighteen months or so.
The other route is via the university. Get a PhD in history or English Literature, or a MFA in creative writing. Teach for a living and write on the side. Produce a serious literary novel every five or ten years and attend a lot of writer’s conferences. Enjoy interacting with other writers. Complain about the decline of literary standards and the greed and materialism that dominate the publishing industry. Don’t expect to earn much money from teaching or writing. It helps to have an income-earning spouse and to forego having children.For post retirement aspirants, the suggestions are different. Income and family are settled issues. Time and place, material and writer’s block should not be a concern. The problem for the post retirement aspirant is that time is running out, time to learn the craft, unlearn bad writing habits, produce the work and, most importantly, time to find an agent and get published. This latter concern is dealt with in my treatment of publishing which follows.