In which a budding but feckless Twitter sensationalist (that would be me) takes Julian Barnes’s name in vain
I told a lie in my post the other day. Sort of.
The thing is, I’ve written to many literary giants down the years. Two alone have denied me satisfaction.
I don’t know why they slipped my mind. The silence of one of these lambs, Stephen Poliakoff, chimes very much with an even-more-deafening silence – the one currently engulfing me.
Maybe that applies to the other lamb too. His name? Julian Barnes.
This calls for a preamble. Way back in the mists of time, maybe a million years ago, having (more by bad luck than misjudgement) caught a repeat of a Jeremy Brett era Sherlock Holmes adaptation on TV, I reread said story.
I’d read it many times before but this time I recognised (or thought I recognised) a teasing, playful reference to a place I now knew well. And, as I let this sink in, it also began to dawn on me that there were other teasing, playful hints and suggestions here. There were veiled autobiographical allusions, surely, to a love affair.
Or were there? I’m always terribly suspicious of the sorts of people who seem more-than-naturally attuned to veiled allusions… whether in songs or pictures or stories or indeed the main evening news from the BBC.
Especially as this veiled allusion ran so unambiguously contrary to conventional wisdom. Leaving fairies to one side, the definitive biographical fact about the sainted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the notion that he was a devoted and faithful husband – a man who refrained from pursuing intimate relations with the woman who was to become his second wife until the first one was dead.
But hey, you know, it was a slow week… and having joined forces with my former partner-in-crime, Sebastian Bell, we set off on a plodding, unhurried investigation, low on expectation, high on (what I now strongly suspect to have been) life.
But blow me down if we didn’t start dusting off circumstantial evidence that we were on the right track; and then, in short order, we unearthed a weightier and (potentially) shinier nugget.
And of course, being as venal as we were narcissistic, we knocked together a feature proposal and sent it off to the arts desks of The Sunday Times and The Guardian, where Sebastian still had friends (or at least people he’d not yet managed to upset while in his cups).
We waited. I think at one stage, jointly, severally, we held our breath or breaths. How long should it take for your cloudy dreams, even modest dreams like this, to evaporate? Thomas Mann, in one of my favourite ever passages, writes compellingly about this – the process by which fervour and optimism are ever-so-slowly replaced by that sinking feeling… and as a serial-sufferer I’ve always been fascinated by the metaphysics of this sort of rejection, bittersweet and subtle rather than deep and dark.
But anyway, it took a week, maybe more, for us to steel ourselves to make the follow-up calls.
The guy at The Guardian said he absolutely wasn’t interested. His readers, he solemnly informed us, were Progressives and certainly weren’t interested in tittle tattle about a dead white male writer, especially one so complicit in war crimes. (No. Me neither. To this day, I have no idea what he meant.)
The lady at The Sunday Times had far worse in store for us. She’d taken some soundings, she said, not least from a world-renowned expert on Conan Doyle, who’d made it crystal clear to her that our story was arrant nonsense.
But we have a photocopy, we said.
Bung it in the post, she parried.
For one reason or another, and the details are hazy now, we declined to do this.
It’s no big deal. It’s not an essential part of the story. It’s in no way central to the brilliance of the book.
And I feel I must declare an interest here. I’d like it on record that I am a fan. I’d go so far as to state my belief, my IMHO manifesto, that Julian Barnes is the world’s greatest living writer.
But at some point, maybe a decade ago, I dropped him a line through a recognised channel. “Thought you might be interested to know,” I wrote, chirpily… “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t faithful to his first wife. Far from it. Might you be interested in seeing evidence?”
Julian didn’t reply.
It’s only now, in long hindsight, that I am able to work out why.
He clearly thought I was offering to send him dirty pictures. Possibly drawn by yours truly. In wax crayon.
Cheeky monkey that I am. Following on from last week’s post, I dropped off an email to someone (I assumed might be) an interested party – Agent G.
Answer came there none.
Did this surprise me? I think I reckoned the outcome to be about 50:50. If I’d written to the Prime Minister or The Queen or the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline or even, come to think of it, a Famous Writer, I’d have been mightily disappointed (slightly angry even) to have had nothing back, even a briefest of brief little notes.
But I acknowledge now that I’ve entered the world of Kafka’s The Castle. The rules of polite society do not apply here.
Of course there are any number of genuine reasons for Agent G’s radio silence.
She might be on holiday. She might be ill. The company server may be down. She might be busy. Terribly busy. Passionately busy.
Literary agency websites tend to go large on a couple of simple corporate messages. 1. How utterly passionate the agency is about serving the world of books; and 2. How chronically busy everyone is, so chronically busy that they barely know what day it is.
But cheeky monkey that I am – not just cheeky but cynical too – I suspect that none of the above applies.
And I more-than-suspect that, to move forward, I must accept this is a horribly deferential world, especially compared to the worlds I know best – media, advertising, tech.
For instance, it has been difficult to come to terms with the notion that magazine publishing and book publishing are as chalk and cheese.
There are lots of clever and talented people in magazine publishing (or at least there were, historically) but they tend to be rounded people (sharp edges smoothed off by daily engagement with the real world). Rounded, generous by-and-large, eminently approachable.
People in book publishing are, by comparison, astonishingly brittle. Brittle and horribly insecure. Just look, for instance, at the submissions pages of literary agents – they tend to be disfigured by cross little warnings about how final all agency decisions are and how impossible it will be to enter into any correspondence with anyone on any topic whatsoever.
They’re desperate to be seen as shiny happy people. They’re not. Absolutely they aren’t. Not in my (admittedly limited) experience.
And one thing I’ve learned, both from direct experience and from talking to those who know a thing or two about this world, is that literary agents absolutely loathe a cheeky monkey.
And yet, I half expected Agent G to make an astute calculation on the risks inherent in not replying to a wholly legitimate follow-up.
For instance, I’ve been round the block once or twice. And if Flying Over Ruins is ever published and I subsequently bump into Agent G, I will share some of these thoughts with her. More in sadness than anger, of course. But forcefully.
It’s unlikely, I know. She’s getting on a bit.
But maybe, in a roundabout way, she has helped make this a possibility. A couple of days before I emailed her, Agent G retweeted a link to the announcement of the publication of Why Will No-one Publish My Novel? by Fay Weldon.
How terribly prescient of her.
But oh Fay! If only more literary agents could be a little bit more like you.
In which your humble correspondent is overcome by feelings both of wonder and jealousy at Corey Mead’s ability to find a publisher for a book about two interwar era aviators
Imagine my astonishment when I opened a newspaper culture section at the weekend and found a Clare Mulley review of The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead.
Astonishment… and joy, consternation, wonder, alarm, despondency… I could go on.
My head, in short, has been spinning like an airscrew.
Why? Well, because, for the last few months, I have been trying to interest the trade in a book set in a very similar line of country.
The Lost Pilots is the tale of two interwar era aviators, the immortal Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller. Whereas my book, Flying Over Ruins, is about the exploits of two interwar aviators, the obscure husband and wife team of Anne and Charles Lindbergh.
There are major differences clearly (though I haven’t read The Lost Pilots yet): my book plays out rather more on the ground than in the air. It’s a blend of political thriller, love tragedy and a portrait of the artist as a young woman. More complex and, dare I say it, more ambitious.
But yes, the book definitely sports flying goggles.
Anne Lindbergh was easily the most glamorous female aviator of the interwar years, not just in terms of looks, social connections (the Kennedys for instance) and the fact that she was married to the most celebrated man on the planet.
In my mind she was (and is) glamorous because she was one of the most intellectually accomplished women of the age. Her gift in conveying the terrors and thrills of seat-of-the-pants flying was unparalleled.
It was Anne’s fondest hope that one day she might be regarded as something of a poet. I believe she was. Absolutely she was.
I’ve been angling to write about her for years, ever since I contributed a piece – on Arthur Christiansen’s fascination for the pioneers of the first Golden Age of aviation – to an Express anniversary supplement.
Imagine my joy when, in reading more about her, I stumbled on a rattling good yarn. I almost pinched myself. If you have any interest at all in the era, it’s sensational stuff.
Thus Flying Over Ruins, a work of historical fiction about Anne and Charles’s relationship with Harold Nicolson (and Vita too, of course, but mainly Harold) in England in the late 1930s.
It turns out that Charles Lindbergh (with Anne an increasingly unhappy observer of events but still guilty by association) ended up doing the bidding of the US Government in dirty intrigues against a friendly ally. Charles was the man, in an episode of extraordinary drama, who betrayed British interests during the second Czech Crisis. The man whose actions almost certainly guaranteed that Britain’s subsequent disgrace at Munich was inevitable. The man who, not to put too fine a point upon it, unwittingly set the start date for the Second World War.
The whole amazing tale is there in the public domain just waiting to be gathered up but only one person has previously (as far as I’m currently aware – and this in a now-obscure political memoir) managed to join the dots.
And oh how I thanked my lucky stars when I realised I had lots of other strands of richly suggestive material to work with. Harold and Anne were among the most accomplished diarists of the era and there’s a wealth of secondary sources too.
(And as an added hook, I’d add, meretriciously, that Anne was a dead ringer for Meghan Markle, the recently elevated Duchess of Sussex.)
My style may be third-rate (but I don’t believe it is) and my structural craftsmanship inept (ditto) but I reckoned Flying Over Ruins would tick enough boxes to merit some level of book trade interest.
Well, dang me, but it hasn’t. It just hasn’t.
Three agents have responded to my submissions emails. The rest haven’t even bothered to send an acknowledgement. The sole constructive reply I’ve had seemed to imply that the subject matter was not of sufficient interest to “the general reader”.
It’s a notion that has been confirmed to me by the editor of a history magazine and, separately, by a former colleague who knows a thing or two about how the book business works. No-one, apparently, is interested in the interwar era any more – and especially not the Thirties. The War, yes. Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-Day. Churchill. The only interesting thing that happened in the Thirties was the Abdication, and goodness knows that has been done to death.
Thus, to cut a long story short, my astonishment at finding Clare Mulley’s review. Especially when she revealed that The Lost Pilots has at least one major flaw. It’s the sort of flaw that, I’ve always assumed, agents and editors were minded to leap upon with a savage intensity.
“This is a hugely entertaining book,” writes Mulley… “But in the end, it all feels a little inconsequential.”
Well, having read a little around the subject, I can’t say I’m hugely surprised. And having been a journalist, I know how rare it is to be gifted a story where the stakes just keep on getting higher and higher.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no feelings of ill-will towards Corey Mead or The Lost Pilots. I really don’t. How on earth could I?
If it succeeds it will merely make it extremely difficult for me to find a publisher for Flying Over Ruins. If it fails, it will be impossible.
But I’d still like to know. One day, perhaps not tomorrow or next week, but soon, I’d like to understand this. How the blue blazes has Corey Mead managed to pull this off?