Wednesday, 17 October 2012

E is for EDITOR

If you’ve trawled the bestseller charts in the past twenty years, chances are you’ve read a book my editor was behind. He’s worked with thriller veterans Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour; launched new writers like Conn Iggulden and Philipa Gregory; and most recently guided David Nicholls to a mega-hit with One Day. I was also delighted to discover he used to be Flashman’s editor! His name is Nick Sayers and as another publisher once told me, ‘he’s the best in the business’.

Nick & I at Clays where TAR was printed

1) Nick wanted the structure of the book tweaked, so that the reader would get to the alternative history sections more quickly. There are two extended passages of them (one explaining Britain’s peace with Nazi Germany, the other about the Casablanca Conference). In my edit these appeared, respectively, in chapters 8 and 12. Ultimately this became 3 and 8. I have to say that although I found my original structure more elegant, I can understand why getting some explanation in early was beneficial.

2) He also suggested that further context be added: details about Nazi Africa. I had already included plenty, but Nick insisted on more, everything from agricultural policies in Kongo to the ethnic mix of the conquerors. This had an implication on the text which I’ll come back to in ‘F is for...’

3) The use of the word ‘nigger’. I realised this was a contentious and sensitive subject so had employed it sparingly despite the virulent racism of the characters; originally it appeared 42 times (in a 120 000 word book) Nick felt this was too much, so I trimmed it to 26. Any more and the Nazis would start sounding a bit too PC, something one could never accuse Hochburg of!

4) Finally, and perhaps this was the point Nick was most adamant about, he wanted Burton to be more morally upstanding. My original vision of him was in the Leone mould. He was utterly amoral, disinterested in what the Nazis were doing, a man who killed for money with little principle. His assassination of Hochburg had nothing to do with right or wrong, simply a desire to avenge. The only chink in this was Madeleine: I liked the juxtaposition of his amorality with love. Patrick was similarly unscrupulous. Nick said he struggled to work out who was good and who bad and that the ‘heroes’ had to be more clearly defined as good guys. I tried to argue my case but was advised it would be commercially risky, so I relented and made Burton the more morally buoyant character who appears in the novel (though hopefully as I’ve shown there remains a certain ambiguity to his character). In retrospect this is the one change I have some regret over. My original plan for the trilogy was to have Burton begin as amoral and gradually change till the final showdown at the end of Book 3. By then, and influenced by his experiences, he would be attached to a more Manichean code.

Once implemented, the above changes amounted to less than 2% of the book. I think they were the right ones for the time (remember I was struggling to get my first publishing deal!) and in retrospect I don’t think they harmed the book, they simply made it different from my original. Whether readers would have reacted differently to that vision is something I’ll never know...


Once the book had been commissioned in the UK the next question was whether it could be sold abroad. To date four territories have bought the translation rights, not bad given that many big book markets such as Germany, Russia, Poland etc had understandable issues with the Nazi content. I’m reliably informed that one German publisher blanched when they got to the Schädelplatz!

The first to buy it was Spain where the book went to a three-way auction. Whether it was because of this… the superb trailer my Spanish publisher (Ediciones B) made for it… the publicity tour I went on to Madrid and Barcelona… or just because the cover matched my original design, EL REICH AFRICANO has a special place on my bookshelf.