A Grand Vizier writes: “‘And so / The beginning is near / And we face / The opening curtain …’ The uncorrected proofs of THE BIG O arrived in the post from Harcourt yesterday, sparking all kinds of conflicting emotions in the Grand Viz’s heaving-but-manly breast. Delight and pride, obviously, that a life-long dream has inched another step closer to fruition, given that, as with the niche genres of Western movies and jazz music, America is the spiritual home of the crime novel. Yes indeed, I shall – for a moment or two at least, on September 22nd – be a bona fide Yankee doodle dandy.
“The delight and pride lasted all of three seconds, of course, after which I was assailed by the usual doubts and uncertainties. How will it be received? Are American tables as wonky-legged as Irish tables, and thus in need of a one-size-fits-all book to prop up bockety workmanship? Will the book sell well, badly, or at all? Will Elmore Leonard and / or Barry Gifford sue? Questions, questions …
“Coincidentally enough – especially given that THE BIG O has its fair share of coincidences – the proof edits of its sequel, currently labouring under the unlikely title of THE BLUE ORANGE, arrived on the same day. The woman behind the metaphorical green pen, the inimitable Marsha Swan of Hag’s Head Press, pronounced herself reasonably satisfied with the contents, declaring that it largely replicates the good things about THE BIG O, only moreso. She has some issues with various aspects, of course, as any self-respecting editor would, but nothing to cause the Grand Viz to throw himself from the battlements of CAP Towers in a veritable tizzy of despair. Happy days.
“Naturally, once the correction process begins, the entire story will reveal itself as utterly incomprehensible, totally unbelievable, and collapse into a heap of dust. But we don’t have to worry about that until Monday. Huzzah! In the meantime, we’re going to take the fact that the corrections arrived on the same day as THE BIG O’s uncorrected proofs as A Good Omen.
“That’s not a very logical state of affairs, but then life – and particularly the writing books bit – is rarely logical. That’s not to say that writers are necessarily a superstitious bunch, but most writers are more than pleased to embrace the concept of ‘happy accidents’. As often as not the writing process will involve a blind reaching forward into the darkness in the hope of finding some meaning or cohesion to the chaos and anarchy you’ve established, and only belatedly discovering that you were always aware of where the Eureka! moment lay, you just had to wallow in the bath long enough for it to drift into the front of your brain. The sparkity-spark fusing of synapses, the unnatural juxtaposition of two or three or four factors coming together in a situation you might have found yourself in ten or twelve years ago, that throwaway remark a secondary character made in Chapter 3 – suddenly the cave explodes into light and the paintings on the wall start to dance.
“A confession: I’m not a good writer. By that I mean, as I’ve said before, that I’m not a naturally instinctive elegant writer. When it’s going well for yours truly, it means that the grubbing out of words, one painful syllable at a time, is progressing at an unnaturally rapid pace – a thousand words in a three-hour session would represent a good day at the desk for the Grand Viz. That micro-writing approach also applies to such fripperies as plotting and narrative arc – although I usually have a general idea of how I’d like things to work out, the plotting tends to run roughly a page or two ahead of the writing. I like it when I’m surprised by something a character might say or want to do, and being curious as to what they’ve cooked up in my absence is one of most powerful draws that brings me back to the desk every morning. That sounds a little infantile, certainly, but here’s the thing – I heard Richard Ford interviewed on the radio once, and he spoke very eloquently about how meticulously he plots his novels before he begins to write. As a callow page-blackener – I’d yet to have a novel published at the time – I thought that I certainly didn’t have any right to argue with Richard Ford. But I also thought, y’know, where’s the blummin’ fun in that?
“Maybe writing isn’t supposed to be fun. The publishing business is exactly that, a business. And the most successful writers will very likely be those who approach the process of writing in a pragmatic way, asking themselves what the reader wants and delivering exactly that. And good luck to them all.
“But here’s the other thing. Being an adult with a young child, as yours truly is delighted to be, means becoming something of a machine that benefits from being pragmatic, logical and forward-planning. But even adults with young children get time off, and the Grand Viz gets to spend his time off writing stories. There isn’t a lot of that kind of time available, so the last thing he wants to do is waste that precious time and imagination space being logical and pragmatic. What he does like to do is open himself up to happy accidents, coincidences and the possibility of magic. Which was why he was so delighted when Reed Farrel Coleman (right), so generously quoted on the back of the U.S. edition of THE BIG O, embraced the coincidences in the story so whole-heartedly, and in the spirit they were intended. Because the writing process itself – for yours truly, at least – is heavily informed by those happy accidents, coincidences and the possibility of magic.
“Yep, that sounds dangerously hippy. But here’s the other-other thing. How the brain – the mind, the imagination – works is still largely a mystery, even to neuroscientists. Why certain synapses should fuse and produce certain emotional reactions, for example, can be explained by chemical secretions as a response to a given situation. But when you go deeper, all the way down to the quantum level that sustains and generates everything we are and can know, what prevails is chaos and anarchy. It may be that we are yet not smart enough to discover the patterns in the apparent randomness, and it may well be that there are no patterns to be discovered. Either way, at least for the time being, yours truly is entirely content to embrace all those happy accidents, coincidences and the possibility of magic.
“Naïve? Yes. Impractical? You could argue so. Fun? Most certainly.
“It may not be a very logical way of conducting a writing life, but yours truly will go on not just embracing but anticipating those happy accidents. The day the writing ceases to be fun is the day I hang up the quill. Peace, out.”
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.