By Gareth Crocker for The Sunday Times
Now that I’ve churned out a few novels, I’m often asked what it’s like to live the life of, quote, an ‘established author’. What are my routines? How long do I write for each day? Until recently, these questions were mostly accompanied by a smile and a polite air of curiosity.
But as I discovered during a panel interview at a book fair, that calm and tranquil air must have been carrying a storm on its back. A rather hefty woman with a face like thunder rose up from the audience – like a rapidly forming cumulonimbus, to offer a bad simile – and slapped a hand on her hip.
Stopping just of making bunny-finger quotes, she said, “I’m interested to know what life is like for authors on, say, an average Monday morning.”
What she was really asking was: “While the rest of us hard-working salt-of-the-earth folk have to get up at an ungodly hour to ride the corporate hamster wheel, what time do you eventually roll out of bed, you pampered and undeserving git?”
It was the unmistakable, bitter wheeze of a disgruntled and wannabe author with an axe to grind.
“Um… Normally my day begins with a light breakfast out on the pool deck, followed by a spirited session of Yoga or Pilates. I have 15 minutes in the sauna and then a long bath. At about 11 I shuffle to my studio where I write for about an hour before heading off to lunch with friends.”
Lightning flickered in her eyes. I had just confirmed her darkest suspicions. She nodded the way a mob boss might nod to his henchmen when it was time to start shooting people. I cleared my throat.
“Actually, I normally get up at around four-thirty. I go for a quick run before helping my wife get our daughters ready for school. After that, I shower and head off to work.”
This gave the woman pause. By work, you mean you start writing?” The threat of bunny fingers still lingered in the air.
“No. By work I mean I head off to my corporate job which normally keeps me very busy for 10 or 11 hours. After that, I fight my way home through the traffic, just in time to read my children a bedtime story.”
“And that’s when you start writing?”
“Er … no. There’s invariably a few important emails that need answering or a report that needs drafting.”
“So when do you write?” the cumulonimbus rumbled, running out of patience.
“On a good night, I start at nine-thirty or so and work until either I can’t keep my eyes open anymore or I’m crying so much at the sheer futility of it all that I can no longer see the screen.”
“B-But when do you sleep?”
“Well, given how much I’m worrying about poor sales, scathing reviews, looming deadlines and a world in which reading seems to be slipping farther and farther down the totem pole of things people do in their spare time… some nights I don’t sleep at all.”
It’s worth noting at this point that almost every South African author – indeed 95% of all authors around the world – do not enjoy the luxury of writing during the day, and cannot survive on the proceeds of their novels alone (unless, perhaps, they live in a tent, eat tree bark and drink their own urine). Indeed, most authors make little to no money out of their books and spend the best part of their days riding a 9-to-5 hamster wheel of one sort or another.
So what am I really on about here? What, you ask, is the single illuminating gold thread of this column? What infinitely and indisputably noble point am I making here?
Well, it’s quite simple really. Stop playing computer games and buy my bloody novels, please.
Gareth Crocker’s latest novel is King (Penguin). Before being published, Gareth estimates that he received enough rejection slips to wallpaper his entire house.
An Open Letter to animal lovers, everywhere
A friend of mine was recently involved in a rhino relocation programme and the experience both moved and haunted him in equal measure. The rangers explained that rhinos are particularly easy to poach for two reasons. One, they’re quite obviously enormous – it’s a little like setting one’s sights on a parked truck – and two, in many cases rhinos have personalities not entirely unlike Golden Labradors. The net result of this is that when a member of their family gets shot they often remain in the immediate area, refusing to scatter. They watch on, heartbroken and stressed out of their minds, as their loved one lies bleeding on the ground. The whole family is then picked off in a matter of minutes. Often all falling in an area no larger than a football field.
I’m very pleased that rhino poaching is getting the attention that it deserves. Hopefully plastic car horns, public outrage and media bluster will ultimately translate into meaningful action and we can, at the very least, get a handle on the slaughter. The sad reality is that we’re down to our last 20 000 white rhino and 5 000 black rhino (depending on which report you read). This, in global animal terms then, is a tenuous state of affairs to say the very least.
And yet there is, I believe, an even greater tragedy unfolding across the world – and most people are oblivious to it.
As I write this, the White Lion sits precariously on the very edge of oblivion. You see, there are barely a few hundred left. In total. In the whole world.
With the aid of a strong will and a pair of very thick oven gloves, you could theoretically fit them all in my garden. However, their low numbers – while immensely concerning – is not the real sadness. It’s their individual fate that’s so tragic.
Less than 10 White Lion currently roam free in the wilds of their endemic habitat – an area known as the ‘Kruger to Canyons Biosphere’ – and yet, unbelievably, it’s still legal to hunt lions in this sacred place.
Instead of protecting the White Lion as a precious living heritage for future generations, South Africans have been exporting them to international zoos and circuses for decades.
But by far the majority of White Lion are held in private death camps where they wait to be shot by wealthy trophy hunters. And where, you ask, do these private owners acquire their White Lion? Well, often from those seemingly wonderful animal farms and nature venues where the public are allowed and encouraged (for a fee) to handle and pet the cubs. The problem, of course, is that at some point the adorable cubs grow up into powerful predators that the public can no longer touch and feel. When that happens, the young lions become far less of an asset to the venue in question. Until, that is, they can be sold to a private game reserve, aka: a death camp. Sometimes the petting camp is the death camp. And the general public, without knowing it, is funding them.
Sadly, the White Lion is regarded by international trophy hunting syndicates as arguably the highest value trophy in the world – made even more desirable by the fact that there are so few of them left. It is not only legal to hunt White Lion in the wild but they can be shot in an actual cage – where they’ve been living their whole life. If you can believe this, hunters can even select them from a catalogue on the Internet.
Of course, trophy hunters, certain tourism folk and other interested parties will no doubt tell you that hunting provides much-needed employment and generates a significant amount of revenue.
I don’t argue that for a moment. I’m sure trophy hunting creates dozens of jobs and brings in great bricks of foreign currency (although a recent international economists’ report claims that only 3% of the proceeds of trophy hunting reaches the local community in which it occurs, but let’s not digress).
I’m afraid the issue of whether or not White Lion hunting makes financial sense, is not the point. It’s a little like saying we can make large sacks of money by selling our children into slavery and, thus, we should consider it. In fact, based on this way of thinking, you could excuse and rationalise almost anything as long as it generates decent income.
Similarly, the notion of being able to take the life of an individual animal for sport, based on the argument that its numbers are high and healthy is, in many respects, just as flawed.
On this basis, I should be able to waltz into your home and, armed with a crossbow say, take aim at your family. I would of course explain that this shouldn’t upset you in the least as there are a great many more healthy families out there in the world. The important thing, I would assure you, is that there’s still lots of ‘human ground’ to mine. Lots of runway, to use the corporate cliché. So stand aside, friend, my money is good.
And yet, still, there is some faint hope.
Thanks to The Global White Lion Protection Trust and a team of international scientists who last year identified the genetic marker that makes White Lion unique (they are not albinos, as some people think), plans are in place to try and have them protected by law.
If you would like to see what you can do to help The Global White Lion Protection Trust, I urge you to visit their website and have a look around (www.whitelions.org). Everyone can make a difference, however small.
For my part, my latest novel King has been written as an emotional tribute to the White Lion – to try and shine a light on their plight, I guess. I plan to make a sizeable donation as well once the book has sold. Just for the record, when I set out to write King I had no idea what was happening to the White Lion.
Linda Tucker and her team at The Global White Lion Protection Trust are trying to raise funds to expand the protected reserve in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, where they have successfully reintroduced three prides of White Lion to their ancestral pridelands (in a long-term scientific reintroduction programme that has taken more than a decade).
I hope they are successful. I hope that, in the months and years ahead, they don’t have to battle alone. I hope that at some point government, tourism and wildlife officials will finally take a stand to defend the White Lion.
I hope my daughters will one day be able to see them roaming free in the wild, legally protected from the most savage predator that the world has ever known.
As I see it, there are quite a number of problems with being an author these days.
Firstly, there’s the rather unfortunate issue of it not paying very much. Sure, there’s the joy of holding one’s own book in one’s tear-stained hands and the thrill of seeing your cover for the first time, but those feelings of euphoria soon lose their sparkle as you hunch, zombie-like, over a splotch of fresh road kill because you can neither afford to shop in, nor even drive to, an actual grocery store.
Secondly, consider the rather herculean-like challenge faced by authors when their latest book is unpacked into a large bookstore. After all, their shiny new novel only has to compete against, say, 11.3 million other books. For that novel to stand out, one would have to staple a Rottweiler to its cover which, when you think about it, is likely to end badly for all concerned. This, plainly, is nothing compared to the challenge of trying to make your book stand out on, say, Amazon. This is rather like trying to find a certain green leaf in the rainforest of the same name.
To put the issue into perspective, consider the choices available to you when you visit your local cinema. On average, there are probably in the neighbourhood of eight or ten films running at any one time. Two are animated features. Three involve Adam Sandler. One is about a group of drugged-out folk singers who meditate around a bowl of jelly while smoking each other’s hair. This leaves you with two or three legitimate choices.
I like those odds. My head can make sense of those odds. What I can’t fathom is how some random reader is supposed to waltz into a cavernous bookstore – where not only are the world’s current best novels on sale, but so are several thousand back titles – and somehow emerge with your book.
It’s a little like playing football against the best players in the world … both past and present … at the same time … on the same field … all at once … by yourself.
Forget, for a moment, what the odds might be of the prospective buyer’s eye even landing on your book for the merest of moments. Even if by some miracle this happens, the person still has to decide whether or not your jacket blurb is more enticing than all the other jacket blurbs in the store. Which doesn’t matter in any event, considering that he’s destined to buy the latest Dan Brown or Wilbur Smith offering anyway.
Then, of course, one has to consider reading as a general premise. Gauging by the current literacy levels in our schools it’s conceivable that, in a decade or so, an entire generation of people will communicate in grunts, videos of hamsters water-skiing and unfortunate bursts of word and number acronyms like ‘2GTBF’ (Too good to be forgotten), 4COL (For crying out loud), AWGTHTGTTA (Are we going to have to go through this again) and so on. At this point, to have any chance of connecting with these people, one would have to write novels with titles such as ‘LOL my BFF, Shizel Manizel Peeps Boyaa17!’. The stories themselves would, correspondingly, need to be written in a combination of house music and drunk computer code.
Forget also that quote, ‘existing readers’ are turning away from books in their droves and now absorb their daily dose of narrative nutrition through grainy YouTube videos and pirated DVDs from the side of the road (one or both of which are bound to feature water-skiing hamsters at some point).
But, actually, as challenges facing novelists, these are all whispers to a thunderstorm.
The single biggest problem facing an author these days is that … well … people are a good deal more interested in telling their own stories than reading someone else’s.
Consider, by way of example, the sheer number of people who self-publish their own ebooks. Then there’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a hundred other social media platforms designed to give people, well, a publishing platform. The truth is that most folk don’t really care what their Friends or Followers have to say. They are, in fact, obsessed with posting their own content (mainly photos of themselves and hamster videos) and then watching to see what sort of reaction they get. In short, the world is rapidly becoming a marauding army of narcissists who couldn’t give a flying monkey about the poor writers sobbing into their road kill. To drive home the point, one of my friends was recently rather angry with me. After much prodding and pleading, it emerged that she was annoyed by the fact that I hadn’t ‘Liked’ a particular Facebook post of hers. Of course, I threw myself at her feet and promised to Like and Favourite everything she ever posts until the very end of time. I even offered to poke her regularly, but that seemed a trifle over the top.
But I digress.
In short then, the world is being overrun by … well … authors. Which brings me to my point. These self-obsessed, conceited and egotistical megalomaniacs need to stop what they’re doing.
Because we were here first. And the land is ours.
So I once studied the dictionary. That’s right. You heard me. Studied the dictionary. And it wasn’t one of those pitiful ‘concise’ or ‘pocket’ editions either. Pfff… Oh no, dear reader. It was a monster. A paper behemoth. It could origami itself into a replica of the moon. It put the Ox in Oxford, if you know what I mean. Although, having said that, it might well have been a Collins or a Merriam Webster. Oh, I don’t know. All I remember for sure was that it had a dust jacket roughly the size of the two stone tablets that bore the Ten Commandments and that once, while I was pushing it around in a wheelbarrow, it tumbled out and crushed a Doberman to death.
So the question, really, is why? Why would anyone subject themselves to this sort of cruel and unusual punishment? Are words my fetish? Do I have a dungeon at home featuring a swing, a dozen gimp masks and five hundred boxes of Scrabble stacked against the wall? Is there a safe word in my subterranean lair and is it ‘acetoxyacetylaminofluorene’? Which, incidentally, is a biochemical tool used in the study of carcinogenesis.
No, dear reader. I have no such dungeon and the last time I wore a gimp mask it didn’t go down especially well. It turns out that gimp masks aren’t ideal when you’re trying to surprise your wife with a candlelit dinner at home and you leap up suddenly from behind a couch with a face of black leather and zippers for eyes.
But I digress.
The reason, you see, why anyone would choose to do something as utterly inane as study the dictionary – which, it’s worth mentioning, took almost two years to complete – is the same reason why so many idiotic things are done the world over: rampant insecurity.
The truth is that when I was starting out as a writer, I thought I would gain an advantage over my fellow scribes if I could use bigger (and thus better) words than them. Before you groan and roll your eyes at this admission, you must understand that I was young, particularly foolish and had hair like Vanilla Ice (thus the glorious ID photo inset). You see, anticipating that I would soon be standing at the hallowed writer’s urinal, I was more than a little worried that all the cool kids were going to laugh at my meagre equipment.
But how could they laugh when I would have to stand out in the corridor to make use of their facility? Guffaws would surely be replaced with gasps of admiration for my enormous wordhood.
And so the adolescent word monster was born. Where other writers would use plain and common language like jargon or irritate I would meet them with nomenclature and exasperate. If they brought vocabulary to the table, I would stuff lexicon down their throats. It was to be a bloodbath. I almost felt sorry for them. They were bringing soggy ice cream sticks to a nuclear war. And my monosyllabic radioactive wordheads were all new and shiny and positively gleaming with joie de vivre (I would sometimes toss in foreign phrases just to twist the knife – often, as in this case, misusing the phrase completely).
And so it was armed with this herculean knowledge of words that I set out to write my first novel. Oh how the book world would swoon. I could already picture publishers capitulating at my feet; yielding to my magnificence. So you can imagine how confident I was when I sent off the first few chapters of my debut novel to a handpicked selection of editors and agents in London and New York. My masterpiece was entitled Malevolence which, in hindsight, was a slightly ironic foreshadow of the word storm that it preceded.
Several weeks later, I received my first response from an agent. I still have it in my studio.
Dear Mr Crocker,
Thank you for submitting your novel, Malevolence. You should know that when it comes to writing novels, less is always more. Large and complex words should be used much in the way one wears an expensive shirt – seldom and only when an impact is required. And perhaps not even then.
I’m afraid that you’re wearing your entire closet on every page.
You have talent, but it’s lost in the trees. Simplify your writing and submit again.
And there, in a single page, a line had been put through two years of my life (four, if you count how long it took to write the aptly titled Malevolence).
Studying the dictionary had been such a colossal waste of time, I might as well have spent those months licking windows. But, as with many of the best lessons we are taught, they are often painful upfront but invaluable in the long run. I have no doubt that my four published novels to date would never have made it to bookshelves, were it not for this single letter.
And so I no longer use words like gasconading and perfidiousness. I now understand that writing in its purest form is always about painting pictures that form effortlessly in readers’ minds. It’s about the meeting of imaginations between writer and reader. Storytelling, after all, is a team sport.
In describing mist at a lookout point, Bill Bryson once wrote ‘The mist was so thick, you could kick holes in it’. And that really makes the point. No thesaurus in the world could improve that sentence and my seven year-old can understand what it means.
And so, today, I’ve forgotten most of those complex words I spent months drilling into my head. Partly because I’m getting older now and have the memory of a retarded goldfish, but mainly because I have no place for them in my stories. If I’m trying to create a particular world in one of my books and I use a word that the reader doesn’t understand, then I’ve painted a picture with a question mark in it. Either that, or the reader has to step away from the story to pick up a dictionary. In which case the illusion is broken and we both lose. That’s not to say, of course, that authors should never use words that seek to challenge their readers, but just that these words should be carefully considered and handled with puffy oven gloves lest they burn the hands of everyone involved.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed by the sort of writer I was in the beginning. Arrogant, intent on being superior and just lacking in common sense (again, I point you to the photo). But I take comfort in knowing that it was all part of my journey. These days I’m riddled with doubt and self-loathing. I’m convinced that the publishing world will soon look upon me with a shake of its head and a wag of its long finger, saying ‘You fooled us for the first four books, but now we see you for the talentless git that you are.’ And yet, ironically, I think this constant fear of failure makes me a better writer than perhaps I ought to be.
But still, if my vocabulary met yours in a dark alley, I would suggest you run. Because I still have enough in the tank to stab you in your sternocleidomastoid.
In Michele Rowe’s acclaimed debut novel, What Hidden Lies, there’s a thought-provoking dedication in the front of the book which describes Cape Town as ‘Crime with a view’. Given that I live in the utopian city of Johannesburg, my first thought was that perhaps the phrase is a little, well, overly dramatic. But after this weekend’s trip to the city’s Open Book Festival, I’m not so sure anymore. To put what you are about to read into perspective, I was in The Mother City for precisely 22 hours. This was my experience:
My plane landed, with me in it, shortly before 12h00 on Saturday. Immediately upon leaving the airport, my rather anaemic little rental car was almost crushed by a speeding bus followed by a speeding truck. The drivers were either drag racing or playing a rousing game of ‘once-I-catch-you-I’m-going-to-rip-off-your-head’. Odd as it was to see such large vehicles tearing down the highway, it’s not as though I’m a stranger to speeding vehicles. Johannesburg highways aren’t exactly paragons of road safety.
As I made my way into the heart of the city, my gaze fell on a man chasing another man. The guy doing the chasing was clutching something in his hand that might’ve been a hotdog, but looked more like a large knife or a club of sorts. I briefly considered pulling over and getting involved, but what would I do? I had no idea what was happening and who, in fact, the bad guy was. Perhaps they both were. I figured it would be quite a challenge to conduct an in-depth character investigation while a knife (or possibly a sausage) was being thrust into my ear. Besides, who was I kidding? They were running at roughly the speed of light. At almost 40 now, my top wobble is more akin to continental drift.
A little unnerved, I made it to my hotel and checked in. I stuck around in the lobby to watch more violence (welcome, this time) in the form of the Springboks mauling the Aussies. After the game, I decided to quickly pop out to a landmark book shop, literally two blocks from the hotel.
During my short walk, which couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes, I was offered drugs twice. ‘No thanks, Mr angry-looking guy dressed in Checkers packets,’ I said, cheerfully and then twenty steps later, ‘Oh, I think I’ve smoked as much heroin as I dare today, Mr dirty dreadlock hair with the shifty eyes’.
Drug free, I arrived back at the hotel and, an hour later, was due at the Athol Fugard theatre for the first of two events. After I was done, at around nine pm, I was invited to dinner at a small roadside Pizzeria around the block. So together with fellow author, Damien Brown, and two senior managers from Penguin, we legged it to the restaurant. Choosing a table on the sidewalk (a typically non-Joburg thing to do), we sat down just in time to witness the first of half a dozen vehicles racing up and down the street, barely metres away from us. Having something of a tough guy reputation to protect (as much as authors can be tough guys), I tried my best not to flinch as consecutive tons of death barrelled up and down the road veering wildly from side-to-side.
Then came the requisite drunk guys staggering onto the pavement. Noticing that one of them was wearing a pink rodeo hat and possibly no pants, I surmised that this was probably a bachelor party in full swing. They burped and stumbled their way past us before, a few metres further on, Mr No Pants Rodeo Hat vomited against the side of a parked car. The sound of puke meeting sheet metal was followed, predictably, by the arrival of our pizzas. I stared down at mine and couldn’t help but notice the resemblance between the toppings I had chosen and what was now painted against some poor soul’s car just beyond my line of sight. The vomit, unfortunately, was not beyond my line of smell. At this point – and I’m not making this up – a mad person ambled past. He was holding his head and screaming to himself. ‘No .. no … no’, he chanted, followed by an alien cry of ‘*F&g&h^j%l$rf#ew@w$%^&.’ It was at this point that we all picked up our plates and wisely, if not somewhat after-the-fact, headed inside the restaurant.
An hour later, we began a rather brisk walk back to our hotel and I don’t mind telling you that I was on full alert. I figured that if we were to be confronted by face-eating zombies, say, I wouldn’t need to outrun the zombies as much as I would need to outrun my – if you’ll pardon the irony – dinner guests. Walking beside Damien, who is like a thinner, fitter and better looking version of myself, I quickly figured that the bastard would outrun me on one leg. However, if push came to shove, I could possibly pick him up and use him as a sort of human food shield.
While more drugs were proffered and we were accosted by either some very hardened looking street children or a group of particularly short gangsters, we finally made it to the hotel in one piece.
Back in my room and after re-watching the Springbok game, I eventually drifted off to sleep at around 1am. At 3am, I was woken by the sound of more screaming. My first thought was that the mad chap from outside the restaurant had somehow made it into my room and was now standing, drool-faced, over my bed. Thankfully, this was not the case. I stumbled over to the window and peered eight storeys down at the street below. What I saw, was quite remarkable. There was a car parked on the side of the street with its doors splayed open. The occupants of the vehicle had alighted from their transport and were now punching each other with some enthusiasm.
The surreal scene was made even more difficult to decipher by the thick layer of dust attached to the windows in my room (the hotel is being renovated). It was like watching television with a brown paper bag over your face. By the time I managed to open the complex locking mechanism, it was too late to do anything about the fight. I watched as a man ran up to what I could now see was a rather fierce looking woman and punched her square in the face. She then retaliated with a punch of her own, after which the other male in the picture came to her aid and together they pummelled the first man down to the ground. I was about to reach for my phone – to do what with, I couldn’t tell you – when they inexplicably stopped fighting and climbed back into the car. As the vehicle started up and its taillights vanished into the night, I remained beside the window in my sleeping shorts, mouth agape, for some while. I wondered if perhaps I had accepted some of the drugs that had been offered to me earlier in the evening and that I was now tripping my tits off. But, of course, I wasn’t.
I debated calling the police, but what would I tell them? That a group of people had just beat the crap out of each other and were now driving consensually around Cape Town in, wait for it … a car. From my vantage point, my witness account would’ve sounded something like this: ‘Yes, officer, it was definitely people fighting and not reindeer. The car they were travelling in was either blue, black, green, brown or silver. It was either a hatch or a sedan. License plate? Yes, I imagine it had one.’ So, instead, I stumbled back to bed and switched on the television. Unable to sleep, I watched the Springboks win again.
Ironically, and looking back now, my first event at The Open Book Festival was a fun session where Mike Nicol and Margie Orford teamed up against myself and Angela Makholwa in a sort of Joburg versus Cape Town showdown (which we won, just by the way – in your face, Nicol). It was a light-hearted session with lots of tongue-in-cheek humour until, that is, we got on to the subject of crime. I was quite surprised by how suddenly the tone changed. Both Mike and Margie spoke rather soberly about the differences in crime between the two cities and how increasingly in Cape Town there seems to be a certain depravity attached to crime. Margie made the point that in Joburg often the crime, while violent and abhorrent, makes a sort of awful sense. That criminals attacked and robbed for financial gain. ‘At least there is often some terrible logic to it,’ she explained.
She then went on to say that in researching her latest novel, she came across the case of a 12-year old girl who had been murdered in Cape Town. The youngster was found with more than a hundred stab wounds. Now I know that drawing any sort of conclusions between my 22 hours in Cape Town and the actual levels of crime and violence in The Mother City is of course unfair, invalid and completely absurd. Maybe I was just unlucky. Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, repeatedly. A single swallow not a summer doth make and all of that.
But I tell you one thing. When I finally arrived home some hours later, I was completely taken aback by how I felt when I stepped off the plane. It just about surprised me to death.
I felt safe to be back in Johannesburg.
Note: For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed The Open Book Festival and hope I get invited to participate again. It is brilliantly run, has a plethora of wonderful events to attend and the audiences were kind, enthusiastic and engaging. Although, having said that, being forced to write four separate stories on stage … in under three minutes each time … competing against seven top authors … and then being asked to read out your stories to the audience … upon which you would be judged according to a crowd ‘clap-o-meter’, was undoubtedly the most traumatic hour of all the 22 hours I spent in the city. The sadistic yet charming, Ben Williams (Sunday Times books editor), however, was a remarkable host. How the man doesn’t have his own radio show is beyond belief.
(Original version written in 2009)
History is littered with tales of how great discoveries were made purely by mistake. Consider the likes of penicillin, brandy, the microwave oven, artificial sweetener, X-Rays and, according to the Interweb, half a bajillion other items. In fact, even Viagra was apparently a bit of a happy accident. According to urban mythology (slash Wikipedia), the drug was actually being developed to treat angina. The fact that it landed up benefiting ‘ginas’ of another sort, seems more than a little ironic to me.
In any event, I’m very pleased to announce that I can now add my name to the list of luminaries who – through a bit of arse, it must be said – have stumbled upon an invention of such magnitude that it has the potential to revolutionise our lives.
But before I share any more, we must first step briefly back in time.
The origins of my discovery can be traced back to the early 2000s when I set out to become a published author. After several years of abuse, tantrums, put downs, hysterical crying fits and enough rejection slips to paper-mâché the Statue of Liberty, a very small publisher in London finally agreed to take on my debut novel.
True to my word, I released the publisher’s daughter from the tool shed in my garage and was soon dizzy with visions of Hemingway, Dickens and Salinger all winking and nodding in my direction. I was one of them now; part of their world.
Or so I thought. Right up until the moment my publisher informed me that they planned to print a rather miserly 500 copies of my masterpiece.
Now considering that maths is my Kryptonite nemesis in the shape of an Achilles Heel, I was struggling to work out how several billion people were going to absorb my story when only 500 books would be on offer. I hauled out my calculator and did the equation. Approximately 500 books divided by, say, 3 billion English-speaking adults. The answer? A rather bewildering 0.000000166 books per person.
So, in order to share my story with the planet, my best bet would be to call an enormous meeting of the English-speaking adult world and to then read out my novel on stage.
But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my strength lay not in producing the sort of magnificent prose that the world was destined to read. Quite the contrary. My destiny – and thus my discovery – was in concocting a sort of potent ‘word recipe’ – a spell, really – that would have exactly the opposite effect.
Allow me to explain.
My novel seems to possess the almost supernatural ability to repel readers completely and absolutely. In fact, so far as I can tell, these days my book doesn’t even get picked up by that most heinous of all bookstore browsers – the non-buyer who’s wandered into the store because he or she has 15 minutes to kill before the Adam Sandler movie starts downstairs.
I know this sort of thing because I make weekly visits to bookstores where I painstakingly count out the amount of my books that have been sold in the seven days since I last visited. Of course, the number is always the same. If there were eight of my novels available last week in a particular store, then there will be eight available this week. I also know that they have not been picked up for closer scrutiny because I also happen to carry my high school maths protractor with me to check the top book’s ‘angle of display’. It is always precisely the same – more consistent and reliable than the very rising of the sun.
The only thing that changes is the sheer amount of dust attached to my small pile of novels. And thus to the rub we go. It’s gotten to the point that I’m beginning to suspect that my books are made out of some sort of weird and unholy pulp that repels humans but sucks dust like a nuclear-powered Kirby vacuum cleaner. While the other titles appear so new and shiny that their covers seem almost wet to the touch, mine look like cheap props in an Indiana Jones film.
And so it is easy to consider the numerous applications of my invention.
What’s that, you say? You can no longer afford a housekeeper? Don’t fret. A single application of one of my novels is sure to cleanse your home of even the vaguest sprinkling of dust. If you’re a struggling corporate, why waste thousands on cleaning bills when all your dust can be gathered by popping one of my novels onto the nearest bookshelf.
And now, I’m sorry to say, things are getting worse. During a recent trip to my local bookstore, I discovered that my normally constant stack of eight Crocker novels had inexplicably and ominously grown to thirteen.
That’s right. My novels have now achieved the power of mitosis. Which, if I’m honest, has me more than a little worried. It may be good and lucrative news (for me, at least) in our global war against dust capture, fair enough, but it may also spell our doom. After all, one might argue the point of living in a dustless world if, in fact, you are dust yourself (and thus attached to my novel).
I can tell you that I now know how those scientists must have felt after they had created the atomic bomb. ‘How can we undo this?’ one of them is believed to have whispered at one point. I hear you, apocalyptic scientist guy. Ours is indeed a heavy burden to bear.
Now that my novels are multiplying on their own – self-publishing, I guess – I fear that it is only a matter of time until we are so inundated by my fiction that you will have to swim through an ocean of my novels just to visit your bathroom. The upside is that you will have something to read, or wipe with, when you get there.
Our only hope is to attempt something so outlandish, so far out of left field, so unthinkable … that it just might save us. It’s a desperate measure, but what choice do we have?
You see, I believe to break the spell we need to start buying my work. To get rid of whatever twisted voodoo is at play here, actual cash needs to be exchanged for my books. I urge you to buy as many copies as you can. Spend as if your life depends on it, dear reader.
Because it most surely does.
The reality of being a South African author is really quite interesting.
On a recent publicity trip to promote my current novel, Never Let Go, I found myself standing in the lobby of a fancy hotel, preparing to sign for my room. Feeling a little bored, I decided to have a bit of fun. When the lady behind the desk asked for my name, I answered, ‘Gareth Crocker … you know, like the internationally-renowned, world-bestselling author.’ When she issued me with the blank stare that I both deserved and knew was coming, I shot her an incredulous look as if to suggest that it was utterly impossible that she had never heard the name before. ‘He wrote Finding Jack, Journey from Darkness,’ I pleaded, stopping just short of thumping my fist on the desk. ‘Never Let Go! Look, I have a copy of it right here!’
‘Sorry,’ she replied, scanning the jacket. ‘Never heard of him. Are you related?’
I glanced at my publicist just in time to see her drop her head into her hands. Her patience, like her sense of humour, stretches only so far. I test both on a regular basis.
An hour later, I was on my way to a fairly standard book store event. This typically takes the form of a sort of ‘coffee morning’ at a nearby restaurant where a group of readers or a book club come together for a cappuccino, a slice of cake and to hear about the book store’s latest releases. If you’re invited as an author, the host (almost always the book store manager) will eventually introduce you and your book and then the floor is yours. You have around ten minutes to tell the assembled readers a little more about yourself and to discuss your latest offering in some detail. Invariably, you’re standing in front of a table stacked high with your novels and, once you’re finished punting your work, your host invites readers to come up to the table to buy your book.
‘And Gareth will even … sign it for you,’ your host says, often in the sort of conspiratorial whisper that suggests she dare not speak too loudly for fear that passers-by might hear her and immediately trample everyone to death in an attempt to get to the front of the queue.
After this build up try to imagine, if you can, what it feels like to sit down at the lonely little table and stare out into a sea of faces – none of whom, you soon realise, have even the vaguest interest in buying your novel, let alone having it signed. What follows is the most uncomfortable five minutes of your life while you wait, by yourself, like a human cactus, while absolutely nobody buys your book. You smile, of course, as if you couldn’t be bothered either way, but inside you’re praying for a bomb to go off under your chair. You would practically offer up your right arm for some sort of almighty calamity that would bring an end to your suffering. You even consider faking your own death.
Of course, this is real life and there is no rescue from embarrassment. Instead, you sit at the head of the world’s quietest coffee shop exchanging awkward looks with the crowd who, by now, are starting to take pity on you. Eventually, some kind-natured soul stands up and comes over to you.
‘Uh … I’ll take one of your books,’ the voice says.
‘Oh okay,’ you reply in a casual tone, but your trembling bottom lip betrays your apparent coolness. ‘Who should I sign it to?’
‘Er … rather don’t sign it. You can’t return novels to the bookstore if they have any writing in them.’
After she takes her seat, you wait another three minutes or so – age twelve years in the process – and then you peel yourself off your sweat-soaked chair, thank your host, and beat a hasty retreat. As you leave, you steal one last glance over your shoulder at the forlorn stack of books and try not to burst into tears. That’s what parking lots are for.
Leaving the venue, you try to shake it off, but that’s a little like asking someone who’s suffering from the most apocalyptic case of diarrhoea if they can, quote, ‘hold it together until the next rest stop’.
To add insult to injury, you are about to head off to another event where, quite possibly, precisely the same misery awaits.
To be fair, this obviously doesn’t always happen – sometimes there is tremendous interest in your novel and your pile of books simply evaporates and, for the merest of moments, you feel every inch the successful author. But these events are not the ones you remember. They barely resonate. It’s the ones where you make an absolute arse of yourself that remain with you. After all, and as any author will know, ten positive book reviews are always sunk by one bad one.
I am pleased to report, however, that I am not alone when it comes to attending disastrous book events. I recently did a few events with the international best-selling author, Stuart MacBride, who told me that he was once invited to an event with the worst possible turnout.
‘What? Nobody pitched?’ I said, shocked that someone like Stuart would have to face an empty room.
‘Oh no,’ he shot back, in his thick Scottish brogue. ‘It was much worse than that.’
I looked at him and shrugged. ‘What’s worse than nobody pitching?’
‘One person pitching,’ he replied somberly. ‘And not only did he expect me to give my whole 45-minute talk, but he refused my offer of doing it face-to-face in the pub across the road. For reasons unknown, he absolutely insisted that we do it in the venue. And so I spoke to eighty empty chairs and one rather oddball guest for over an hour. And do you know what the funniest thing was?’
I shook my head.
‘He had driven almost a hundred kilometers to attend the event. He owned every one of my previous novels, but refused to buy the hardcover that was on sale at the venue. He told me that he could save two quid if he waited for the paperback.’
The truth about being an author with a new novel to promote is that some days you present to a room bursting with keen and enthusiastic people – some have even read your previous work and, at a stretch, you could even label them as … gulp … fans. Other days the room’s half empty and nobody really cares. But some days, if the weather’s right, it can just be you and one weird die-hard reader who may, or may not be, someone who likes to make lamp shades out of human skin.
On a final note, I was recently invited to speak at the Franschhoek Literary Festival which, I must say, is a brilliant event held in one of the most spectacular little towns on earth. The people are great and the food is heavenly.
The big star at this year’s event was the wonderful and charming, Alexander McCall Smith – and I can comment on the man with some authority having enjoyed a two-hour long chat with him over dinner recently. Anyway, his attendance at the event would ultimately spell disaster for me.
I was part of a three-member author panel who happened to be speaking at precisely the same time as Alexander was scheduled to talk at the adjacent venue.
As I stared out across the room, I counted twenty souls amongst all the empty chairs. Twenty folk who, bless them, had chosen to come and listen to us as opposed to the wonderfully engaging and all-round amazing gentleman that is Alexander McCall Smith (hell, even I wanted to be in the room across the road).
But then I noticed that seven people in the audience were, in fact, from my own publishing team. Ah, okay. So that leaves thirteen people who are genuinely interested in us. And then the two authors sitting beside me waved to their respective publishing teams. Twelve people winked, nodded and gave their authors the thumbs up. That left one last person in the room who didn’t work for a publisher.
Well, I thought, at least one member of the reading public is keen to hear from us.
And then the author to my left waved to the lone guest. ‘Hi mom, thanks for coming.’
‘My pleasure, darling. Wouldn’t miss it,’ she replied with a bright smile. ‘By the way, do you know when Alexander McCall Smith is speaking? I really don’t want to miss him.’