I while back I read an interview, I believe it was BB King, though it could have been someone else. Let’s say it was him. Anyway, he was asked – after so many decades as a professional touring musician – of his most memorable recollection of all those years on the road. The gigs he’d played, the musicians he’d jammed with, the sights he’d seen... Out of this wealth of extraordinary experience, what was his most abiding memory.
He paused, smiled wryly, looked away for a moment, and then said, ‘Airport waiting rooms...’
I know how he feels, and I am half his age.
It is the 1st of October. I find myself again in Paris. I have just flown from Birmingham, and now I have a three-hour wait before a four-hour train journey to Avignon in the south. I have been told that it is a truly beautiful place, and I have no doubt that it is, but I was in Paris for three days last weekend, and when I return home this coming Monday it will be merely a week before I leave again for Bouchercon Crime Fiction Festival in San Francisco. From San Francisco I fly directly to Toronto, and there I begin another eight days of touring before I am home once more. After Canada I have another week in France and Switzerland, and then the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul, and then there is only Italy before the end of the year.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! I love to travel, I love to meet new people, I love to spend my time with writers and readers. After all, as I keep saying, writers and readers are simply the best people in the world. Just to highlight the point, I came off the plane at Paris-CDG, and there I was hauled up by a man and his wife, both of whom had attended the Lincoln Festival last year. I refrain from giving their names here, simply to acknowledge their right to privacy, but both truly lovely people, and it is moments like this that make you feel that what you are doing has some significance and importance.
So, what is it that I am saying?
I’ll share with you another little anecdote. Bear with me...
A few weekends ago, my son – now thirteen – had three of his friends come over to stay. For the sake of this little anecdote we’ll call them Groucho, Chico and Harpo. What can I say about my son? An extraordinary young man, now taller than his mother, with a line in Wilde-ish sardonic humour the like of which you have never heard from the mouth of a teenager. Bright, inquisitive, a voracious reader (thank God!), who can sit and explain the difference between ‘sarcasm’ and ‘irony’ better than anyone I know. This is the guy – after years of tolerating my verbosity and tendency to talk too much – who will ask me a question, and then – quickly, before I have a chance to respond – will add, ‘But please dad, an answer and not a lecture this time, okay?’ Anyway, he has his three friends over. Groucho, Chico and Harpo. These are kids who’ve gone to school with my son for the past three years. They love to come and stay with us. They get to watch the movies they want, to sleep in, and though my son marshals forces to ensure they assist him with his assigned domestic chores, they also appreciate that my wife and I are not – by any stretch of the imagination – ‘normal’ parents. As an example, my son has to come down two or three times a day to tell me to ‘turn the bloody guitar down, will you? I can’t hear my X-Box!’ Sometimes I think we have a reverse relationship. He tells me to grow up, will you? every once in a while as well. Anyway, I digress. It is Sunday morning. The three friends have stayed over. They are having breakfast. They all want different things. No problem. My wife does breakfast. I do dinner, sometimes lunch, but breakfast is my wife’s territory. So Groucho wants cereal, followed by five pieces of toast with Nutella, and after that some fruit. Chico wants pizza. Harpo wants left-over Chinese takeaway. Good enough. Breakfast is on the way! My son, the thirteen-year old who will eat two bowls of dynamite chilli before he goes to school, goes upstairs to get something. In his absence, one of the young friends asks me a question.
‘What is that you do?’ he ventures.
I smile, somewhat bemused. These are kids my son has gone to school with for several years.
‘Sorry?’ I say. ‘I beg your pardon...’
‘Well,’ he says. “Like for a job. I mean, you’re either here all the time doing whatever you like, or you’re not here at all. We were just wondering whether you had a job...or something?’
‘I have a something,” I reply. ‘Yes, I definitely have a something.’
The three of them look at me blankly.
I am thinking: Has my son never told his friends what I do?
I say what I am thinking: ‘Er...well, has my son never told you what I do?’
Groucho looks at Harpo, Harpo looks at Chico, Chico looks at Groucho...
They start to smile, almost simultaneously. They snigger. There’s an inside joke. A thirteen-year olds’ joke which I probably won’t get.
‘What did he say?’ I ask. ‘Come on, spill the beans guys...what did my son say?’
Groucho speaks first. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘He just told us to ignore you. That you were pretty harmless, and that we should ignore you.’
‘Ignore me?’ I ask. “Why would he think you needed to ignore me?’
‘He said we should ignore you because you were a crazy old man...’
They knew I wouldn’t get mad. I don’t do getting mad. I found it funny. Hilarious, in fact.
A crazy old man.
Mmmm, I’m thinking, Never a truer word spoken in jest...
So here I sit, in the SNCF Gare at Paris-CDG. Another couple of hours’ wait, and then a four-hour train journey to spend two days in Avignon and Villeneuve answering French questions. I love France. I love the French. I love French readers the most. The questions I am asked in France are comparable to no other questions I am asked anywhere in the world.
Do an event, a festival, a library appearance in the UK, in the USA, in Australia, and I am asked such things as, ‘Where do you get your ideas from? and ‘When did you start writing?’ In France, they say things like, ‘Drawing an analogy between the first five chapters of your novel and the Parsifalian legend, can you justify the representative symbology you employ in delineating the relationship between the antagonist and protagonist, and from this can you hypothesize the direction your novel might have taken if the roles had been more Freudian than Jungian?’
In a word, ‘No, I can’t...’, and besides, I stopped justifying things somewhere in my late twenties.
However, despite the fact that I sometimes find the questions a little challenging, there is nowhere in the world where I have been greeted and appreciated like France.
‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’(Seul Le Silence) has been out for a while here, and that was followed by ‘A Quiet Vendetta’ (Vendetta), and on October 7th, they are releasing ‘A Simple Act of Violence’ (Les Anonymes). Last week I was in Paris to do some press interviews and receive the Livre De Poche Award for Seul Le Silence, and tomorrow I will receive the Villeneuve Detection Fiction Festival Readers’ Award for Vendetta.
If the response I get in France was replicated elsewhere, the UK, the USA as well, I would be a happy man.
Or would I?
This raises a question. I question I have long asked myself. What is happiness? Some say it is the journey, some the destination, others simply overcoming the obstacles attendant to pursuing a goal or aspiration, and once the goal is accomplished you need to find another goal with obstacles to overcome otherwise you will be simply unhappy again.
I know I get frustrated. Why, only this morning I tried three different WHSmiths outlets at the airport in Birmingham, and none of them had copies of ‘Saints of New York’, and this is a book that was released only yesterday! Unfortunately, I do not sell enough books to warrant the cost of putting my book in WHSmiths. It is a Catch-22 situation. Sell enough books and you can afford promotional campaigns and placement in bookshops. But how do you sell enough books to justify the staggering expense of such things when the books you write are not available in bookshops, and nor are they advertised or promoted anywhere? Like I said, a Catch-22 situation.
It comes down to word-of-mouth, and there’s no predicting those books that catch peoples’ imaginations, those books that people start talking about.
It is – without question – a crazy old business, and who better than a crazy old man to get involved in it.
However, regardless of my gripes and grievances, I love writing. It is all I ever wanted to do. That, and play music. Like Lennon said, ‘Find something you love and you’ll never work another day...’, and I have found something I love, and consider myself profoundly fortunate to be in a situation where I can earn a living doing something that actually doesn’t feel like work.
So I have done Dubai, and Holland, and France three or four times, and Australia and New Zealand and Montreal and New York so far, and I have more France, more Canada, the US West Coast, Istanbul and Italy yet to go...
And there are lots more flights, and lots more trains, and lots more waiting rooms...
And there are lots more restaurants within which to eat alone, and lots more anonymous hotel rooms and intermittent web connections, and trying to keep up with the e-mails (often the highlight of my day, by the way!), and all the while working on new material, and writing new songs, and getting on with this ridiculous business of being a professional writer...
I had a conversation with another writer a few weeks ago. God knows where we were. He said he’d read an article about artists, those individuals who create something and then put it out three for the world to admire and enjoy. This article postulated that artists – whether they be writers, painters, ballet dancers, musicians – were composed, personality-wise, on the basis of fifty-percent ego, fifty-percent insecurity.
That made sense. Arrogant enough to consider that what they have created is something that everyone will appreciate and enjoy, but maniacally insecure and hoping like mad that people do actually enjoy it.
I think I feel like that most of the time.
So ‘Saints of New York’ has been released. Not very many copies. Not a very big print run. Irrespective of how many copies of ‘A Quiet Belief In Angels’ might have sold as a result of the Richard & Judy Book Club promotion, the fact remains that those readers that buy R&J books are not loyal to the authors, but to the list. They don’t want the next ‘Ellory’, they want the next R&J selection. Makes sense. R&J was/is a fantastic method of getting people out of the reading comfort zones. So, ‘Saints of New York’ might sell five percent of the number of copies of ‘Angels’, but still it is out there, and people will read it, and they will give their verdict.
I have completed ‘Bad Signs’ for June 2011, and two days ago I completed the novel for 2012. As a working title, it is called ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’, though – as in many instances before, it may not keep that title.
I wait, insecurity intact and fully-formed, to hear what the UK makes of ‘Saints of New York’, as I will also wait patiently to see what they think of ‘Bad Signs’, and all the rest of them. I have spoken to authors who sell a million copies in every country they’re published, authors who are releasing their tenth or fifteenth or twentieth book, and the insecurity doesn’t go away. Not ever. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s what makes you try as hard as you can with every book you write.
And so I am going now. It is a new day. I arrived last night in Villeneuve, and I took some snaps and posted them on facebook. It is Saturday morning, and I am looking forward to the events I have to do this weekend, and the questions, the unmistakably French questions...
‘Monsieur Ellory...looking at the relationship of Ernesto Perez and Detective Robert Miller, I am struck by the similarity of Miller’s journey into the world of Perez and the legend of Orpheus into the Underworld. Can you please explain...’
Sure I can, I can hear myself saying. It’s like this...