Sunday, 21 March 2010

Novelist, publisher, teacher and eccentric

At work recently we were asked to name our heroes, and in particular people who had shown great integrity throughout their career (which I interpreted as meaning people who stuck to their principles, essentially). Later, one of the company’s directors asked me about my choices: “Obviously I know all about Bruce Springsteen and John Peel,” she said, “but who is JL Carr?”

A fair question, and one that is comprehensively covered in his Wikipedia entry (which is where I lifted the title of this post from). As authors go, he’s not actually that obscure – two of his novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and two have been turned into films. But he’s not exactly mainstream, either. He summed it up very well when asked by a journalist to provide a ‘dictionary definition’ of himself towards the end of his life:

“James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World.” (I love that ‘by himself’.)

The key thing about his novels for me is the way he creates a world that is idiosyncratic, yet recognisably related to the one we live in. And despite the fact that the stories are set in different parts of the UK (not to mention Africa and the US), this world is a coherent one, not least because certain characters appear in several of the books.

Indeed, the Quince Tree Press editions of his novels make a point of drawing attention to this. A minor character in one book may be the hero in another; others crop up in several books, contributing to the plot without ever playing a leading role. Some of them are encountered first in their youth, and later, in a different book, in extreme old age, and spotting these recurring characters is one of the pleasures of reading a Carr novel.

It’s an idea I’ve shamelessly nicked: to date I’ve completed three novels and started a fourth, and one character (Nigel Scullion) appears in all four. In Grown-Up People he’s a second-tier character, a friend of the hero; in First Time I Met The Blues and the as yet unpublished The Celebrity Next Door he’s not even that important; but in my new book Nigel finally gets to be the lead (well, joint lead). Other characters from Grown-Up People are also scheduled for walk-on parts.

And why not? Once you’ve created a character, it seems only natural to let them have a bit of fun. Carr understood that, I think, and that sense of fun transmits itself to the reader.

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