Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Amazon mystery

One of the beneficial side effects of buying your own ISBN number, as I did for First Time I Met The Blues (and, indeed, my next nine books - they come in batches of 10) is that you automatically get a page on Amazon set up for you. Having been advised that Amazon take a hefty cut of all sales, I went ahead and set up my own website anyway, so that I could sell the book myself and keep all the dosh, but it’s useful to have an alternative (and universally known) sales outlet.

However, it’s not entirely clear what happens when someone orders my book from Amazon. A friend did so over a week ago, and received a confirmation email saying ‘We’ll notify you via e-mail when we have an estimated delivery date for this item’ - but they haven’t notified me, the bookseller, at all. And I haven’t checked my bank account, but I very much doubt they’ve paid me my royalty either.

Because the purchaser is an old friend, I can reassure him that he’ll get his book one way or another. But what happens when a stranger follows the same route? They’re not going to be very impressed that their order hasn’t been fulfilled promptly and efficiently, and I’m the one who’s going to look bad.

There’s a complete lack of information about such matters on Amazon’s seemingly comprehensive website, so I’ve filled in the enquiry form. I’ll let you know the upshot.

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.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

My hometown

Recently I’ve been dipping into The Book Of Watford, a lavish publication that my friend Stuart found in a second-hand shop and gave me for my birthday last year. Subtitled ‘A portrait of our town’, it’s a collection of historical photographs of Watford accompanied by extracts from the local papers, and it makes for fascinating reading.

But while the details of the evolution of the town are lovingly covered (with particular emphasis on roads and buildings), there are some glaring omissions. In the entire section on the 1960s, for instance, there’s only one mention of the local football team and none at all of music. (And don’t get me started on the similar holes in the account of the 70s and 80s – but that’s a topic for my other blog.)

I’ll happily acknowledge that Watford wasn’t exactly renowned for either its football team or its music scene in the 60s. But the former did experience the greatest success in its history, gaining promotion to the Second Division in 1969. And as for the latter, I refuse to believe that kids in Watford weren’t going out on a Friday and Saturday night and grooving to local bands – facsimiles of more successful acts, no doubt, but no less worthy of attention for that.

I set my novel in Watford because it was the nearest town to where I grew up, and because there was no famous blues band that originated there, which made it easier to invent one. But quite honestly, it could have been set anywhere. If you had a time machine and you were able to return to any town in Britain on a Saturday in 1966, I’ll bet that you could find teenage boys who went to the football in the afternoon and a gig in the evening, whether they were in Wrexham or Walsall, Bury or Brighton. It was a universal experience – and for a book on local history to exclude it entirely seems quite extraordinary.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The old ones

On the Word magazine blog, a recent thread involved contributors listing the first 11 gigs they ever went to. Depending on their age, most people’s lists were full of bands from the prevailing youth movement of the era – prog, punk, ska, new wave, baggy, whatever.

I can’t actually list my first 11 gigs with any degree of accuracy, but I know that at least two of them didn’t fit that pattern at all. I spent the summer of 1982, before going to university, working as a cleaner in a printing works near the town of Ludwigshafen in West Germany. It was a grim and lonely period of my life, but one of the few consolations was that I did get the chance to go to some great gigs. Not in Ludwigshafen, which is rather like a German version of Stoke, but across the Rhine in neighbouring Mannheim, an altogether classier town.

It was in a theatre there that I saw two classic blues acts that summer: Sonny Terry (b. 1911) and Brownie McGhee (b. 1915), and the comparatively youthful Albert Collins, who was around 50 at the time.

I’m making a big deal about their ages because it was a major factor in the impact of their performances on me. Terry was blind and had to be led onto the stage by a helper; he wore a belt with pockets that contained his harmonicas, presumably in a set order so that he could reach for any particular harp and know where to find it. As for McGhee, he limped on stage with the help of a walking stick and played the entire concert sitting down.

I can’t recall any specific song they performed that night, but their raw, acoustic country blues had an ageless feel that plugged you right in to the medicine shows of the 1920s where they first started playing. If I’d had any doubts beforehand (from my limited exposure to the blues via the likes of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton) that this was music with a history, it vanished right then.

As for Collins, he was my first exemplar of the showmanship of the blues. He had two big gimmicks. One was to emphasise the ‘ice-cold’ sound of his guitar with instrumentals whose titles made full use of the thesaurus – ‘Frosty’, ‘Deep freeze’, ‘Icy’ and so on. The other was an extraordinarily long guitar lead that allowed him to free himself from the confines of the stage - most memorably on one song when, while playing a solo, he disappeared from view altogether, only to reappear (to huge cheers from the audience) up in the balcony. He never missed a note.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Tweet inspiration

(I suppose I could have gone with ‘Tweet home Chicago’, to fit the blues theme, but let’s be honest, it would have been a bit of a stretch.)

So I’ve finally taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter. Everyone keeps telling me it’s a great way to market yourself, and I need all the help I can get. I’m still feeling my way, so if you’ve got any tips, send ’em my way. All advice gratefully received.

Oh yes, you’ll be wanting the address (username?). It’s timturnerbooks