We are living in a time when there are too many writers and too few readers. Who said that? Well, I think everyone said that. And so, six months after publishing my first short story collection and exactly ten months before my first novel comes out, it’s reassuring to be able to access Amazon’s recently introduced Author Central service, which allows me to check on my sales figures without having to chase down the publisher, who can be a bit of an elusive beast. Right now, I can tell you, my short story collection is riding high in 559,052th place on the Kindle bestseller charts, out of a total of 800,000 listed books. Its high point was on March 21st, when it climbed to a whisker above 59,000th place. As for the paperback, well, Author Central informs me that a single copy was sold in America between September 12th and October 9th. This, in Chicago. Whoever you are, rare-spirited denizen of Windy City, I thank you! Do I deserve more readers? Well yes, I think I do, but so do a lot of people.
Have you seen any photographs of Neil Gaiman lately? He stares at the camera like a startled child, woken up in the middle of the night to have his diaper changed. Neil Gaiman never realized he would turn out to be Neil Gaiman, and now, like most successful people, he has come to the erroneous conclusion that he is quite good. To be fair to him I think he can be quite good sometimes, but the operative fact about him is that someone on the top floor decided his books would sell. They have, because they had to. But my reader in Chicago may be interested in getting beyond the debate on sales figures and hearing instead how I came to write my first book.
I had rented a small house on a remote island in the Mediterranean, where I found myself in a promising position – a paid position with a film company that never gave me any work to do, just faithfully paid my salary and occasionally asked me to spend ten minutes “doing the crossword” for them. There was never any running about, no gas bills to worry about, no friends using me as a clothes-horse for their ragged misfortunes – just long empty days flooded in sunlight. After a few weeks of sitting on the beach, staring fixedly at the ever-blue horizon, I realized this was my chance to write whatever came into my head.
The house I had rented was haunted by an old woman who lived in the bathroom on the ground floor. When I first moved in I was unaware of her, of course. All I knew was that I had a strange reluctance to use the bathroom at night. Finally, with some embarrassment, I asked a neighbor about it, and she confirmed that the house (a Medieval construction with bad plumbing and a staircase only fit for mountain goats) had once belonged to a semi-lame wyvern, confined to the ground floor.
She invaded my sleep, and I had a nocturnal succession of the most vivid dreams of my life, many of which ended up as short stories. The title of my short story collection, “Love Doesn’t Work”, was initially going to be “Voices of the Ghost Room”.
Once you start typing, it is amazing how quickly a book takes shape. I found myself waking up like a rubber ball and bouncing down to the market to buy an aubergine or a bag of octopus. By the time I had climbed back up to my little study there was a fully formed story in my mind. Fertile as a wild boar!
One night I dreamed of a monk standing by my bed, asking me what I was doing in his house? The clerical theme found its way into my stories, which were often about sexual guilt or the impossibility of spiritual redemption in a corrupted world. I read up on the Cathars, an obscure group of European heretics (mostly butchered by the Church about seven hundred years ago) who were pretty negative about one’s prospects of achieving any real bliss down here on earth. One of my stories concerned a couple who never had sex at all, preferring to caress a little sculpture with wooden spoons as a sort of distancing technique. They called this “mental sex”. Again, you see, I was finding metaphors to explore sexuality without actually writing about it. Then there were the dictatorial dreams, dreams of what I would do if I held the world in the palm of my hand – I invented a telepathic Hannibal with the ability to zap his enemies. In one of my stories I had an Englishman confronting an ex-girlfriend and her giant pet amoeba – he ended up burying his fork in it. Finally, I wrote a story in which the state of Texas was being swamped by a deluge of beetles. This, I know now, was a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive procreation. Ultimately the beetles caused so much damage that it brought on a second American exodus to Paris, where the locals referred to this new wave of American bohemians as “Sexans” (for obvious reasons, at least to anyone who ever read Henry Miller). This last story never made it to final draft (also, perhaps, for obvious reasons).
After four months I found I had a manuscript with a beginning and an end, and this was a revelation to someone who had rarely found an ending before. It had been a painless process, each story rising up in my mind like a bubble of swamp gas – perfect for bottling, it seemed to me. After removing two thirds of the material and editing what was left – which took me about a year – I sent off the manuscript to an American independent publisher and, several months later while enduring a freezing winter in Stockholm, a pleasant letter arrived asking whether I’d consent to having my stories published. I consented; and so, here we are a few years later, I have hit 559 000th place on the Kindle bestseller charts. Was it worth it? Well, yes, it was.
But I still wonder if the old lady in the bathroom fooled me with her imaginings? Maybe if I had written a normal avatar kitchen-sink drama about robot invasion, zombie breakout and scheming psychopaths colluding with Old Nick, I would have been with Neil Gaiman now, having a cold beer on the roof of some hotel. In Kuala Lumpur. I will never know.