It’s that time of year and a chance to catch up with old friends. Even if you haven’t seen a lot of each other, you know with a long-standing mate that the passage of time makes little difference. So it is with books, which is why I grabbed Conn Iggulden’s ‘The Death of Kings’ from his Emperor series to read on the run up to Christmas. One of his earlier novels, it tells the story of young Julius Caesar. Rich with authentic detail and flesh and blood characters, the story really transports you back to life in ancient Rome. As soon as I read the first page, I felt entirely in a safe pair of hands, just as I did when reading his later novels on Genghis Khan. Sometimes, especially if you’re feeling a little jaded, you simply need an author on whom you can rely to entertain and enthral without gimmicks, and he’s one of them.
So what next? As you might imagine, books are big in our household and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an exchange of literary gifts. This year, I received a book penned by the great master of intrigue and storytelling, Frederick Forsyth. ‘The Outsider’ tells the tale of his adventurous life and reveals seeds sown in his childhood, which go some way to explain how he tumbled into writing. Before you run away with the idea that he had a tragic or tricky upbringing, he didn’t, as he is pretty keen to point out.
My gift to my other half was ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, psychologist and broadcaster. It provides a fascinating insight into the ‘disease’ that first afflicted the States and now, by default, us. The affliction is best summed up as a cycle of wanting more, getting it, but without feeling any sense of satisfaction. Miserable, you want more and so the deadly cycle of misery is sustained. If you’re feeling under financial pressure or are driven by a crazed desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ ‘Affluenza’ provides the perfect antidote. The good news is that the simpler (and more achievable) your desires, the happier you will be. Good news if you’re hard up. Rubbish news if you set your sights on becoming a writer – I put that in!
So what connects these two books, you may ask? To answer that, I need to cut and rewind to a conversation I had with my long-suffering husband a couple of days before Christmas. For a variety of reasons, which I don’t need to bore you with, I was banging on (in a slightly Divaesque tone) about how ‘civilians’ don’t understand what it is to be a writer. How do you explain to someone who is, for example, retired, or works 9-5 that you might like to party hard one moment and then crave and demand solitude the next without seeming flaky, capricious or an insufferably pretentious ‘artiste’? How do you convey that, all the time you have that fixed grin on your face at a social gathering, you’re really taking notes or dreaming about the next scene you’re going to write? How do you put across that, actually, you’re a tad odd without causing either alarm or offence? You might think why bother to explain any of the above? Social niceties, especially at this time of year, often dictate, I’m afraid. Writers often unwittingly give false impressions that they are one kind of animal when, underneath, they are something else entirely, and I’m guilty of this as charged.
In fact, both Frederick Forsyth and Oliver James more than touch on this very subject in the opening of both their books. Aside from pointing out that anyone who desires to be a writer, and worse still, make a living from it, must be cracked, they also discuss the strangeness that is part of the DNA of any writer. James goes several steps further and, rather bravely, ‘fesses up to having a hell of a job getting ‘Affluenza’ published and describes what initial rejection did to him mentally. To top it off, the much longed for (and expected) fat advance from his existing publisher was never forthcoming, which was why his agent found him another. My God, I thought, there’s honesty and audacity. Most writers would rather trudge chest deep through a bog than make such an admission.
So, if you’re planning on writing that novel in 2016, or you have a book that is about to be released and you’re anxious about how it will fare, may the force be with you, in true Star Wars fashion. And just remember, that should you have a wobble along the way, those old friends, both in book form and the real deal, will always stand by your side. Best of luck to you all in 2016!