Today is rather special for me.
Today Victor Gollancz have published my latest novel The Disestablishment of Paradise. It has been a long journey for me – indeed: it is 12 years since I published my last book, The Burning Forest, and that is a long time in any writer’s life. I hope that any of you reading this will take a look at the small section of The Disestablishment of Paradise that I posted on this site some time ago: I hope too that some of you will be moved to buy it.
I am not being unduly mercenary in saying this. The fact is that if a book does well, or even reasonably well, it gives the publisher confidence to go on with that writer. It was the catastrophic ice-age which descended on me after I had written A Land Fit for Heroes that almost ended my writing career. That tetralogy was described to me by one editor as a ‘catastrophe’ even though it had been very well reviewed. What the editor meant was that the book had not sold well. And why had it not sold well? Opinions differ. In one view, Gollancz was in turmoil. It had been sold and on-sold and my work belonged to the old days. In another view, it was simply that the final book in the tetralogy, The Burning Forest, was not really given support in publicity or distribution. Why? Well. publishing was in the doldrums and middle list authors such as myself – that is authors who are well reviewed but who have never had a block-buster success – were being squeezed out of existence. “Write a best seller” I was told. To which I could only reply, “I would if I could.”
To this day I remain convinced the four volumes of A Land Fit for Heroes are among my best works. It is an epic tale and in some ways it is even more apposite today than when it was written. Its day will come – hopefully before I am pushing up daisies. Looking back on it now, I can hardly conceive how I managed to write it… but I did, and it still makes me laugh.
This new book, The Disestablishment of Paradise, has a special place in my mind because I enjoyed writing it so much. In part this was because I was returning to the kind of experiences which I tried to convey in my first book, The Eye of the Queen – the discovery of new worlds, a challenging environment leading to deeply personal discovery – but with one significant difference: whereas in The Eye of the Queen, all the main characters were male; in the Disestablishment of Paradise, all the main characters are women. This was not intentional – it just happened, and I am glad it did.
So: the new and the old. Here is a memoir of how I got started more than 30 years ago, and how I got started again, today.
Look at this photo.
I am indebted to Andrew W. MacDonald (www.zardoz.net) for permission to use this photograph.
It shows the sad state of this famous publisher’s house as it was in the Nineteen Nineties after the departure of Gollancz and before the building was upgraded. The figure asleep on the curb side reminds me of one of Gollancz’ most famous authors, George Orwell, who wrote a memoir in 1933 called Down and out in Paris and London – this being his first full length work. In this he detailed his own experiences of poverty in the two named cities.
Today, 14 Henrietta St, retains its façade, but the interior has been completely stripped and refurbished. Now the building serves as a modern conference and meeting centre. How different to the busy, cluttered, Dickensian building I recall! I hope some of the old ghosts remain.
It was 1980.
I had returned to England after spending two years working in Beijing as an English ‘polisher’ for Xin Hua Shi – The New China News Agency. In my luggage I carried the ms. of a novel called Thorndyke which I had written during the daylight hours when I was working night-shift in Beijing: this being the first time in my life that I had enjoyed the kind of job that had fixed hours. At Xin Hua Shi you worked, and then you stopped: there was no possibility of slipping-back-to-the-office to finish a piece of work.
Night shift was special – always exciting and the news unpredictable – and it led to a new pattern of life for me. In the mornings I slept late. In the afternoons, I wrote. And when I was not writing, I explored the narrow back-streets and lanes of Beijing on my old sit-up-and-beg woman’s bike that I had inherited from the artist Frank Wylie. In the evening and well into the night I was at my desk ‘polishing’ the English for news broadcasts to the rest of the world. Increasingly, however I found myself writing more and more in the afternoons – and thus the hours and days slipped away and the seasons changed.
When I came to what proved to be the final full stop, I felt empty. True I had satisfied a private ambition and had proved to myself that I could write over 100,000 words on one theme: but that hardly seemed important. As I was soon to discover, the thrill of finishing a book is short-lived, and it is the next one that suddenly comers knocking at the door, demanding all one’s attention.
If this seems a bit naive, it is because becoming a writer was never my ambition: it just happened, and I am wholly self-taught. However, let me not give the impression that I was a complete neophyte when it comes to writing. I was 38 years old. I had travelled widely. I had written many short stories that had been well received, and I had completed plays. More privately, I had managed to keep up a steady flow of poetry but without ever seeking to publish it.
So, with China behind me, I eventually found myself back in the North of England, close again to the rough North Sea and the wild Moors that are filled with so many happy memories. My mother still had a little flat in Scarborough (“Just so there’ll always be a roof over your head, lad.”) The big question was to whom should I send the manuscript of Thorndyke. I did not know any publishers in England. I had shown the ms. to one publisher in NZ, who had told me that there was not much market “for a work of speculative philosophy.” That had rather dampened my ardour.
At my mother’s suggestion, I nipped down to Scarborough library to borrow a copy of The Writer and Artist’s Handbook. The Library building has a lot of history for me as it was here that I had first encountered the Theatre in the Round under the direction of Stephen Joseph. I was also reminded as I strolled beside the shelves of the times my mother had come home, staggering under the weight of books she had borrowed, many of which had a bright yellow cover. Indeed, that yellow dust-jacket, the trademark of Victor Gollancz books, had figured prominently in my youth as a symbol of excellence. I had never read a disappointing book with that cover and I associated it with SF writers such as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Clifford Simak.
The Gollancz entry in the Writer’s and Artist’s Handbook, proved very tempting. Unlike many publishers, Gollancz were prepared to accept submissions directly from writers. In other words, you did not have to have an agent. That decided me, even though I thought I was walking with giants. “After all, “as I explained to my mother, “there’s no shame in being rejected by the best, is there?”
“It’s the only way,” she replied. To this day I have no idea what she meant.
So, following the directions in the handbook, I composed a letter explaining (briefly) the plot. I enclosed a copy of the first few pages as well as a stamped self-addressed envelope for return of the pages, and dropped the small package in the post. Then I did the best I could to put the matter out of my mind. Some days later I received a note from Gollancz stating that the pages had been received and inviting me to send the rest of the text, which I duly did.
Being asked to send the rest of the book had a strange effect of me. I realized that I would not mind being rejected, for I knew that was the fate of most new books, but I was pleased that at least the book would be read. I was warned in the note that the process could take some time. “Take as long as you want,” I thought.
The weeks passed. I wrote a play (since lost). I composed some short stories (also lost). In short, I got on with living. After about 6 weeks I received another formal post card saying the book was still under consideration. This arrived shortly before I was due to return to NZ. I did not read anything special into this post card. As far as I was concerned, Gollancz was behaving as a decent publisher should: keeping one informed, but without creating false hopes. I certainly did not get very excited but I did think that when the book was finally rejected, I would receive a decent critique explaining where I had gone wrong. That alone would be encouragement.
I returned to New Zealand. I had been invited to direct Nicolai Erdman’s superb play The Suicide (1928), described in Wikipedia as, “a spectacular mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime”, and “universally recognized as one of the finest plays written during the Soviet period.” Indeed it is. Originally the play was banned by the Soviet censor. It was only after the great Constantin Stanislavsky had written a letter to Stalin in person, pointing out the virtues of the play, that permission was finally given for a performance … only for that to be withdrawn again just before the opening night. Those were sensitive days in the Soviet Union with many writers, artists and musicians bullied into submission… or worse. Erdman survived – he died in 1970 – but many who had collaborated with him such as the brilliant director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the playwright/poet Mayakovsky did not. Thus the play had a significant theatre history which I wanted to honour. But I digress…
I more or less forgot about Thorndyke, my attention being focussed on the hurly-burly of rehearsals. I did receive another post-card more or less saying the same thing as the earlier one, and, as before, I assumed that this measured pace was how things were done in the publishing world – quite unlike the back-stage frenzy I was used to. The opening night of The Suicide was approaching rapidly.
It was the night of the technical rehearsal… For those of you who do not know, let me just say that this is arguably the most stressful rehearsal in the whole production process. At Downstage in Wellington we had a three or four-day turn over between plays. During this period, the set from the old production was dragged out and the new set shifted in; the lights were stripped, checked and re-hung in their new positions; the dressing rooms were cleaned; costumes completed etc. The whole production comes together at the ‘technical,’ and if there are problems, they have to be fixed on the spot, and with the clock ticking.
Let me just say that I have been through far worse technical rehearsals than the one we had for The Suicide. I think I was quietly confident that the production would ultimately come together – though I would never say that! We had a fine cast and crew. I trusted we would have a good dress rehearsal and then… well, no-one will predict the opening night. In fact one does not talk about it. As Hamlet said, ‘the readiness is all.’
It was well after midnight when I finally got home from the tech. rehearsal. I was surprised to find that my wife was still sitting-up. Normally, I prefer to come down from the tension of a ‘tech’ alone, except for a beer or two – and she knows that.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Not bad,” I replied. “What are you doing up?”
“There’s a…” She paused.
“Well go on. There’s a what…?”
“There’s a call coming in from England.”
“Oh heck. Is it my mam? Has something happened?”
“No. No. She’s fine, as far as I know. It’s something else.”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Oh for f….” and at that moment the phone rang.
I picked up the receiver, all the while staring at my wife who was looking on with a mock-surprised, innocent, “I know nothing” look on her face. “Hello,” I said, and in reply I heard this rich, sporty, Oxbridge English voice say, “Hel-low. Is that Phillip Mann, the writer?”
“Er… Yes, its Phillip Mann.”
“So glad. John Bush of Victor Gollancz here. We’ve been trying to reach you. We rang your mother but she said she didn’t know where you were.”
“Yes. We want to publish your book. We love it.”
“You… you’re not joking are you?”
Unbelievable as it may seem, I actually said that. I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought a friend was pulling my leg, though it would have been a cruel thing to do. John Bush was clearly a bit surprised by my question.
“No, not at all. We love it. Is that all right? We’ll get a contract to you straight away if you will give us your address.”
“Yes. Yes. That’s…. fine.”
He then went on to mention a few more things, but my memory is hazy. He was wonderfully cheerful, I recall. He told me the editor, Malcolm Edwards had some suggestions and that he would be in contact with me shortly. And that was that. I put the phone down.
I didn’t get much sleep that night, I can tell you. But I did one thing. I rang my mother.
“Mam. Mam. “
“Oh hello Pip. What’s up?”
“Mam. I’ve just had a man called John Bush on the line from Victor Gollancz. They want to do my book.’
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“Yes but he said he’d rung you, and you’d told him you didn’t know where I was. What the hell were you playing at?”
“Oh, it was him was it? I thought it was the police, so I wasn’t going to give you away, son.”
Thus began a steep learning curve.
It was an epiphany of a sort. For the first time I came face to face with the challenge of what it means to write, to be taken seriously, to go public. It began as self-examination. When the ms. of what was now called The Eye of the Queen (Malcolm Edwards came up with this title,) was returned to me, I was horrified to see the spelling mistakes, the poor punctuation and the cramped style on almost every page. The mistakes glared at me, as too did the careful corrections and the little note suggesting that I should use more commas in future.
I vowed then and there, that I was going to learn to write properly and I would never submit a manuscript in that state again. This was, of course, before the advent of spell-checkers. Over the following days, it gradually dawned on me that if I wanted to write seriously – and I did – I would need to learn about and ultimately take responsibility for, the English language. I know that sounds a bit grand, but it is not: it is actually the acknowledgement of an apprenticeship, one that has no end. It does not mean using long words or being pedantic, or clever, or erudite: but of finding the right words so that finally the words begin to disappear as the story comes alive.
One of my first acts was to buy a good dictionary, the best: The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a giant of a book, published in 2 hefty volumes and with a magnifying glass in a little drawer – necessary since the print is so small. Nowadays this dictionary is available on a DVD, but in 1980, the act of looking up a word was a physical adventure. One does not use this dictionary for spelling – though one can – but more to discover the meanings of words, their etymology, and how they have changed over the ages, and how other writers have used them. Just to use a book like this makes one feel better.
One of my second acts was to buy a little book on punctuation. I was astonished to discover that punctuation is both simpler and more flexible than I had imagined, but vital if one want’s to make one’s meaning clear.
A third conscious act, and this is ongoing to this day, was to read critically in order to observe the craft, the style, the economy and the diversity of a text. This led me back to Herman Melville, whose prose rolls like the sea he loved; to Charles Dickens who can put more energy into a sentence than some writers achieve in a paragraph; and, last but by no means least, to Eric Arthur Blair whose intelligence and wit is only matched by his social conscience. I mean of course George Orwell. These are just three names. I have plucked them out because they mattered to me at that time – and still do. All writers need other writers under whose shadows they can grow.
I could go on – and perhaps one day I will for the act of writing remains a mystery – but I now look back on those days while The Eye of the Queen was in preparation as a turning point in my life, and I have no regrets. I knew I had a second book to write, and I was hungry… so very hungry, to learn by doing.
The Eye of the Queen was published and received good reviews, especially in the Times where mention was made of C.S. Lewis and H. G. Wells. That was in the days when the Times ran a special column devoted to SF and their reviews could shape a book’s destiny. I was a bit out of things as I was in New Zealand. Later I returned to England and was invited down to visit the Gollancz publishing house in Henrietta St and to meet Malcolm Edwards who had looked after the whole thing, and who – as I was later to discover – had plucked my book out of the slush pile. In the course of correspondence we had discovered a shared passion for cricket.
Why I mention these things now, apart from rambling down memory lane, is because history has repeated its self. Let me explain. I started this website, not only because I had a lot to say, but because I wanted to feel that I was still a writer. The rejection of my work had hit me hard and undermined my confidence. I know the wise people say “never give up” but it is hard to be a story-teller when no one is listening. I never expected the Website would become a two-way communication – but that has proved to be the case and it is lovely to receive reactions to the material on the site.
One day, I received a message from, of all people, Malcolm Edwards. He had left Gollancz in the late 1980s, but was now involved again in a management role. He had heard that I had died – from whom or from what I had no idea – but was glad to know that this news was ‘greatly exaggerated’. He told me about SF Gateway and wondered if I would be interested. I certainly was as I had been thinking about e publishing for some time, and we agreed to meet when next I was in London. At the meeting I tentatively mentioned that I had a new book; that I had already submitted it to Gollancz once and it had been turned down, but that I had reworked it again and would like to resubmit it. He looked at me a bit strangely. Evidently he did not know I had written a new book – and that is a bit strange since he had edited and help shape my first four books and one would have thought that normal courtesy would have meant that he was informed of a new work, even if he was not going to edit it.
To cut a long story short, I did resubmit the book. It was handed over to the new editor Marcus Gipps who liked it well enough and there we are: the process began. It is not quite how it was in the old days, but that does not matter. Words can not really express my delight in being published again… but I want to state my gratitude to all who have had a hand in this.
And lastly, I hope that you, the readers, will like the work too. You can let me know… via this website.