Sunday, 18 March 2012

I is for INTENT

And so we come to the thorny issue of authorial INTENT. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of getting published has been how readers have interpreted my book in ways I never intended or even foresaw. I’ve lost count, for example, of the number of readers who are insistent that the film Die Hard is referenced throughout. For the record, although I’ve seen the film (to date still McTiernan’s best) and think it a clever, pulse-pounding thriller it was never an influence on Afrika Reich*. As a follow-on, many of the intended references – everything from TS Eliot to Luciano Vincenzoni to Norse mythology – have gone unremarked.

At university I came across reader response theory. I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation (you can find out more here) but in essence it says that the reader is the primary force who gives a book its meaning by interpreting it. As an undergraduate, and as you know already a fledging writer, I was deeply suspicious of this. How could the reader have more of a stake than the author? How could my book not mean what I meant it to?

It’s only since being published and having hundreds of people review and talk to me about my book (often in totally unexpected ways) that I’ve begun to appreciate there might be more to reader response than I initially believed. I now see how my intent has become just one of a myriad of interpretations of the text... though I still believe mine – as the creator – is the definitive one.

So what was my intent?

Now that’s an even thornier question! And one I’m not sure I should answer. This is not coyness on my behalf but after everything I’ve written above perhaps it’s not right to privilege my interpretation over others and so determine people’s view.

What I will say is that I wanted to write something relentless and visceral; something with an epic, journey-across-the-continent quality that would leave the reader exhausted. On a more surprising note, it wasn’t necessarily my intention to write an alternate history thriller... though clearly the book can be read that way.


*However, since so many people found ‘footprints’ where none were intended, as a private joke I’ve now referred to the film in Book 2!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Norway - a writer's paradise?

Last year I went to Madrid and Barcelona on a publicity tour to promote the Spanish edition of TAR. That was before this blog got going properly, so I didn’t write about it. Last week I was in Oslo for the release of the Norwegian edition and I thought I’d write a few words about the experience.

The two trips were very different in nature. In Spain I got blanket coverage in most of the national and regional press as well as radio and (cringe!) TV. In Norway I was doing a single in-depth and exclusive interview with VG, Norway’s biggest circulation paper. It’s always intriguing to know what questions you’ll be asked. In Spain much of the interest was to do with the politics of the book; in Norway, the alternative history aspect, violence and literary heritage of TAR were the main topics of conversation. I think it went well.

Me and the journalist Jon Rydne

After the interview, a photo shoot. Originally this was going to take place in the jungle house of the Botanical Gardens (I did something similar for my TV interview in Madrid) but when the Gardens learned the book was about Nazis (still a sensitive subject in Norway) they refused us permission. Luckily my publicist snapped into action and bought a load of plants to turn my publisher’s office tropical! Swastikas were also found as well as a bust of Hitler. You can see the photos on Facebook.

Afterwards, the sales manager took me round various bookshops in Oslo. There were piles of Afrika Reich everywhere. Particularly exciting was to walk past Norli, a flagship store, and find a stack of TARs in the window (check out the video below). Seeing my book like that is a bizarre experience. I find it funny to think that something I worked on for years, mostly in isolation, is now not only out in the world but in a place with snow on the ground, fjords barely half a mile away and city views totally unfamiliar to me.

Touring all the bookshops also made me think how different the Norwegian publishing business is to the UK. Their net book agreement has not been dismantled which means the industry is like ours was a couple of decades ago. There are over 600 books stores and half a dozen major chains – this in a country of 5 million. It’s rather damning that the UK with a population twelve times bigger can barely support Waterstones. Books are valued. Hardbacks retail at £30-40, there’s little discounting and no Amazon. Once a year the Norwegians have a nationwide book sale that gets people queuing round the block to pick up a bargain; about the only thing that generates this kind of interest at home is Next’s sale. What does that say?

There are also lots of publishers, more than a hundred. Some are very small but with such diversity there’s more opportunity for people to get published and more risky books get a chance. I’m not saying it’s perfect (the two biggest publishers, for instance, have vertically integrated businesses i.e. they not only publish but also own the distribution networks and bookstores) but to me Norway seemed liked a writer’s paradise!

A-Z resumes next week.