Word on the Wire

Month: June, 2015


The time between a commissioning editor accepting a novel to the actual date of the novel’s publication can seem like infinity. I often remind new writers of this when a story is so topical its sell by date has already come and gone before hitting an agent’s desk.

Published writers are familiar with the scenario. In short, it can be a frustrating business. For the uninitiated, here’s a brief rundown of the reality of the mechanics. It goes something like this: Your book has been accepted. Cue popping corks, big smiles and mega excitement. Some time later you’re asked to carry out edits. At this point it’s not uncommon to have a petulant ‘what is going on?’ moment. This is when the newly injured writer, creativity in tatters, calls his or her agent, moans like hell, and then flees to the garden and screams long and loud at the sky. Sound and fury spent, the sensible settle down and discover to huge embarrassment that the hotshot editor assigned to the book talks great sense, really gets the story, and his or her suggestions are worth taking on board. Chastened, you carry out edits. Months pass. You – if you’re very lucky – are asked to brainstorm cover design with the art department. If you’re not very lucky, your ideas are totally ignored. And.  Then.  Nada. For months.

Well, this hasn’t been my experience to date with US publisher Midnight Ink. Sure, the lead-time has been long, (which suits me because I’m switching from the spy genre with male main protagonist to psychological thriller with female lead) but some months ago I worked my way through edits with very little effort and no sound and fury.  A couple of months later, I spent a memorable evening with emails flying across the Atlantic discussing the cover. The finished design (sorry, folks, sworn to secrecy) is spot-on and all I could have wished for.  A huge confidence booster, it kept me sweet for the inevitable ‘news blackout’ that descended. What I didn’t expect was a comprehensive fourteen-page publicity sheet from the publicity and marketing department, which popped into my inbox last week. How I wished I’d received something like this prior to being first published in 2007.

No nonsense, clearly written, it explained precisely what would be done for the author and what, in return, the author would do (or not) for the publisher. Any questions that might have popped into my brain on reading were answered lines later in a peculiarly intuitive way. It felt entirely collaborative and the best bit for me was that this this was just the general sheet sent out to all ‘Winter Inkers’, the detailed stuff for my novel, ‘Beautiful Losers’ to be sent at a later date.

I could come out with a ton of clichés about being on the same page, and singing from the same hymn sheet, and rattle on about the confidence this inspires.   The truth is that in a hugely competitive market there is nothing like having a committed publisher on your side.   It’s been a whole new ‘baseball’ game and a damn fine week.



Years ago, when my children were little, we moved to a small village in Devon.   It was a tight-knit community in which people looked out for their neighbours. This was how I discovered that a widow who lived there had been married to a man who’d once been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. It was said that he never really recovered from his time in captivity. No surprise really as, on trying to break free, he’d been recaptured, beaten and his Achilles tendons sliced through to prevent further escapes. This all travelled through my head recently when I read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’

It’s an astounding book on many levels and richly deserved to take the Man Booker prize in 2014. The love story between main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, a young doctor, and his uncle’s wife, and portrayed in the early part of the novel, is beautifully told. It’s this relationship that haunts Dorrigo when held prisoner in a POW camp populated by Australians on the infamous Burma Death Railway.

Flanagan devotes a major part of the story to Dorrigo’s fight to save the lives of his men whose suffering is mind-blowingly incomprehensible.   And the author doesn’t spare the reader. Truthfully told, Flanagan describes in graphic detail the ulcerated limbs, bodies racked by starvation and disease, men little more than walking skeletons with shit erupting from distended anuses and running down into the wet bamboo, mud and slime. His description of young men in their prime looking like old men robbed of their vitality is heart-breaking. And that’s before you get to the beatings, casual cruelty and sheer mindlessness of forcing very sick men to labour in viciously hostile conditions. Flanagan also reveals the tremendous pressure under which the Japanese commanders were under care of their Emperor’s great desire to have his railway built at any cost, and with total disregard for those forced to work in pursuit of a twisted dream. Less easy to explain, vivisection without anaesthesia on US soldiers, an account so carelessly told by a Japanese doctor that it makes me shudder to write this.

There is a passage in which Dorrigo oversees a funeral pyre of rotting corpses. He curses God in the ripest of terms. It’s startling and smacks you right between the eyes and yet, more arresting, is the stark observation that three hundred men will stand by and watch three soldiers beat another sick and injured prisoner and do absolutely nothing because their survival for another day or hour or moment depends on submission and silence. And this great insight is where Flanagan, for me, really scores. The novel is packed with wisdom and emotional intelligence. Flanagan’s understanding of the life cycle of human suffering is as perceptive as it’s truthful. It explains why rescued men will embrace life and family, love and work, obliterating memories of the years spent in captivity with apparent ease, only for them to return with a vengeance, like some malignant disease, to haunt them later.

Be in no doubt, this is not a documentary style account of war and what conflict does to the individual and a nation. It’s a story of love and loss, of human endeavour and frailty. Not all who endured such terrible deprivation end their lives consumed by the past, but for Dorrigo Evans, a deeply flawed man, the ‘state of grace’ achieved by some proves horribly elusive. It’s sobering stuff, a triumph of storytelling, and a must-read for its sheer humanity and for creating something enduring and valuable out of the horrors of war.


Often you’ll hear writers admit that they are bad at maths. Occasionally, it’s trumpeted as a badge of honour, as if, by being lousy with numbers, one is de facto a whiz with words. Well, I’m genuinely embarrassed to confess that I’m rubbish at sums, always have been and always will be, without making great claims of literary prowess. The very mention of the word ‘percentage’ has me breaking out in a sweat. I hyperventilate at ‘algebraic equation’. Don’t get me started on mathematics’ close cousin, quantum physics because it elicits nausea, spots before the eyes and, finally, fade out. I put it down to consistently receiving a verbal thrashing from my father who, and without trying to go all Jeremy Kyle on the subject, found maths a doddle and couldn’t understand why his daughter was such a dimwit. My lifelong aversion to numerals explains why I’ve given Oscar winning ‘The Theory of Everything,’ based on the life of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, a wide berth.

Until last week.

And what a fool I’d been.

If only I’d had Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones) as my teacher. In a memorable scene, involving potatoes and peas, she explains an aspect of quantum physics in a way that even I got it. But what blew me away, and explains why Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar was so richly deserved, is the way in which Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, physically transforms from a healthy twenty-one year-old to a man in thrall to Motor Neurone Disease that robbed him of pretty much everything bar his ability to procreate and think.

In our image-conscious society, where so many of us worship the body beautiful, the film and Hawking throw up fundamental questions about attitudes to disability, the emphasis on what we look like versus who we are, and what we rate as important in a human being. I love films that make me think. And the Brits are very good at it.

And does a man who is physically bent out of shape by a disease cease to be sexy? Not a bit of it. The women in his life adore him because Hawking’s mind, along with his mischievous sense of humour, provides the big turn-on. It’s no accident that the most observant contemporary female writers allude to ‘bad sex’ as much as ‘good sex’ in the lives of their main protagonists because they recognise that a tight arse, rack of abs and pecs to die for, or the most beautiful features are not essential to attract members of the opposite sex.  I expect a smart bod will tell me that there’s a mathematical equation for falling in love too.