The View From Here Interview:
Jon Haylett won The Bridport Prize in 2003 and The Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Memorial Prize in 2004. Jon's first published novel, Cry of The Justice Bird came out last year with the publisher, Paperbooks. A year later I catch up with him to talk about his journey to publication and his writing.
For part 2 of the interview click here.
For part 1 of the interview click here.
This is your tenth novel, but your first one to be published. Did you ever consider self-publishing and were there any times where people sought to take advantage of you as a new writer?
Justice Bird was my eighth novel; I’ve written two since. Yes, I’ve considered self-publishing but never seriously because I know I’m lousy at marketing.
I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of me as a new writer, but please don’t get me started on how arrogantly rude some agents are.
O go on, give us some examples!
Okay, I'll give you a recent example. It's not an untypical sequence of events involving a novel and Pollinger, a large and well known literary agency in London.
Jan: Sent synopsis, 3 chapters, CV and covering letter with SAE for return.
May: Follow-up call to see if they are interested. They've lost it. Spoke to an agent who said he'd like to see it.
May: Proposal re-sent, to him personally.
Early September: Rang. He's away. Colleague says he is interested, but not to send the book just yet.
Mid Sept: Rang. He's very busy but he'll get back to me within the week.
Late September: Follow-up call. He's away.
Early Oct: Follow-up call. He's out. Colleague promises he'll call me.
Early Nov: Rang. Managed to speak to him. He's terribly busy but promises to get back to me the following day.
Late Nov: Email arrives asking me to send the book, which I do.
Late Dec: Emailed - no reply.
Mid Jan: Emailed - no reply.
Late Jan: Rang. Not available, but I was invited to leave a message, which I did.
End Jan: Rang. Spoke to him. Yes, he has looked at it and has passed it to a colleague for a second opinion. He'll get back to me shortly.
Feb: Over a year since I started, so I gave up. I never heard another word.
If this were abnormal I'd put it down to one arrogant idiot, but it's happened to me several times. Yes, I know agencies are very busy and they are inundated with proposals but there is such a thing as common courtesy.
Do you hope that some of your other books will now be published and can you tell us a bit about some of them?
I have the three-book deal with Tom Chalmers who has taken over PaperBooks from Keirsten Clark. The remaining two I’m offering in the contract are written. They’re set in Africa, one, Black Mongoose, in a country which might be a cross between Kenya and Zimbabwe. It tackles the thorny problem of what its citizens should do about their leader, one of the greedy, corrupt, ruthlessly violent politicians that Africa is parading across the world stage: Amin, Mugabe, Moi, Bokassa, Mobutu, Mengistu, Taylor, Doe of Liberia and so, so many more. The book offers a simple if rather bloody solution to their problem.
To be honest, I’m much more keen to see my literary works published, particularly The Tourmaline Pool which is based on the Bridport-winning The Crossing. I fear that the system will now label me as a writer of what you term ‘extreme action/adventure books’.
Can you tell us about what it was like to win the Bridport prize for your short fiction?
Very rarely in life does one set oneself a goal which one believes is unattainable yet, after working at it for years, suddenly reach it. When Frances Everitt, the Bridport Arts Centre Administrator, rang to tell me that Rose Tremain, the principal judge, had selected my story from thousands of entries from over fifty countries, I couldn’t take it in. When that was followed by the success of Bendera Beach in the Royal Society’s VS Pritchett prize, I had proved to myself that I could write first class fiction.
What’s so good about these competitions is that they’re anonymous, so there’s none of the influence of celebrity that distorts so much appreciation of modern British art. It’s such a shame that short stories are the Cinderella of literature. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t tried to write a short story has any idea how much goes into it. Short story writing is a far more intense process than novel writing, and the editing is excruciating. The Crossing is an almost perfect short story: even today, five years later, there are few words or phrases I would so much as tweak.
Did winning the Bridport prize help you in approaching agents and publishers and getting you out of their slush piles?
Stupidly, I thought that someone who could take on some 4,500 writers from all over the world, anonymously, for what is still one of the top international short story prizes - the prize in 2003 was £3,000 – and win, could write, and that, therefore, agents would show an interest.
I don't think that being an agent these days has anything to do with nurturing talent. It's a ruthless rat-race in search of the next Harry Potter.
Do you have any tips for new writers?
I think any writer has to have utter confidence in what they write: given that, in today’s literary bear garden, never let the buggers get you down.
Have you started on your next book and can you tell us anything about it?
As I said, my next two books for PaperBooks are ready in draft. At present, between writing more short stories, I’m editing The Smiling Chameleon, the first book of a semi-autobiographical trilogy, Fifty-two Days. The blurb for it goes as follows: “Chameleon describes nineteen days in the life of a teenager who has just returned to paradise. Sadly, paradise, this year, is due to last exactly 52 days. After that he must spend the rest of the year back in hell.”
Let me explain. Paradise is the tropical coast of Kenya where I spent my summer holidays, with its large colonial house, five servants, white-sand beaches and pretty girls in bikinis. Hell is a barbaric public school and holidays in a dismal London flat.
I like it best of all my novels but the trilogy runs to 520,000 words: door stop material.