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Author Archive: "John Niven"

Spontaneous Combustion?

We're now officially into the Twilight Zone with regards to the plasterer. To recap: he calls me at 8:57 a.m. to say he's nearby and to ask about parking. At approximately 9:05 a.m., my fiancée sees his van drive slowly by the house. Then... nothing. He vanishes. I call his mobile (or cell, as you have it) no less than 14 times between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. It goes straight to voicemail every time. I send him a text message and get no reply. I call again last night and — his phone is answered! I hear someone breathing and then they abruptly hang up and when I call back, you guessed it, straight to voicemail again.

What in the good name of Satan is afoot here? Has he had a massive heart attack and died? Are his grief-stricken relatives unable to answer the phone? Has he been abducted by aliens? By a roving gang of plasterer-nappers? Perhaps he's simply spontaneously combusted. (As Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls points out, lots of people do spontaneously combust every year. "It's just not widely reported.")

I've had tradesmen not turn up before. ...


Virgins and Generals

It's been very odd, doing this blog. Truth be told, I'm not much of a fan of the blog. I read the odd one — someone will send me a link if they think the person is talking about something I'm interested in — but, really, I find it so sad when you read these huge outpourings of opinion and revelation and then scroll down to the bottom where you see the dread phrase — "0 COMMENTS."

It points up the other big problem with the internet as publishing forum, too — the world's a blog, a cyberspace Speaker's Corner: everyone's up their soapbox, shouting their heads off, reckoning their two cents is worth the same as everyone else's . But it never is, of course. Traditionally in creative fields, filters have been required: in publishing there are editors. There are A&R men and record companies in music, and producers and studios in the film industry. Now, this is far from a perfect system. Given that many of the aforementioned professionals — the editors, A&R men, and studio executives — are, of course, utter, utter spastics, a whole load ...


A Nerve-Wracking Time

I'm dangling in another sense at the moment: copies of my new novel are currently going out to friends, family, and reviewers. It's a nerve-wracking time. Now and then — every day or two — an email, or a text, or a call will pop up from someone saying how much they've enjoyed it and well done. And that's great — no matter how many books you sell, or how great your reviews are, you still need to hear it. Ideally from people whose taste you trust. Ideally all the time.

Then there are the ones who respond with a frosty silence. Days become weeks become months and you forget that so-and-so would have been sent their copy. Then something reminds you and you're plunged into a torrent of icy panic: have they received it? Why haven't they gotten back to you? Christ — they must have hated it not to respond at all.

You definitely develop a thicker skin the longer you do this. Kinglsey Amis said that a bad review might spoil your breakfast but it should never spoil your lunch : putting the shelf ...


The Dangling Man

So, and almost inevitably, after a frantic burst of work on the first two days, the contractors (I've decided I'll stick with the Americanism for the benefit of all you lovely Powell's readers. Also, the novel I'm about to start writing features American characters, so I'd better get used to it again. Haven't written me a novel in American since Music From Big Pink back in '05) have ground to a halt. The whole structure is up. Doors and windows are on, and it's weatherproof. But they can't finish the interior until the electrician comes and does all the wiring. And now the electrician can't come tomorrow as originally planned, so nothing's happening until Thursday. I'm sitting at my desk gazing sadly out of my window at this half-built thing.

Actually, I went up there to have a look around this morning and had something of a Proustian rush. I went inside and the smell of sawn timbers, the sense of being inside an unfinished building, with putty smears on the glass and tools lying around, took me powerfully back ...


A Room of One’s Own

The builders arrived today. Or the "contractors," as I believe you call them on that side of the Atlantic. (Or do you say "construction workers"? Always makes me think of the Village People, that one...) Anyway, they've arrived to begin constructing my new office — a grandiose shed at the bottom of the garden. They only started at 9:00 this morning, but already the thing has foundations, a floor, walls, and windows. It's all happening alarmingly fast. I have a view of the whole operation from the window of my current study: as I sit writing this, I can see timbers being hauled up the path, the grass being trampled down, hammers, saws, and ladders strewn everywhere .

Writers and their lairs — fascinating ground. There's Stephen King writing Carrie and, I think, Salem's Lot on a kiddie's desk across his knees in the laundry room of a rented trailer home. Then, at the other end of the scale, there's John Updike in his mansion with his fabled four-study system. ...


33 1/3: ‘And what do you do?’

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

Being a published writer who is not yet a household name brings its own unique set of pressures. One of the most tedious of these is being asked what you do at parties. If you can reply 'I'm John Grisham,' then all well and good. However, few of us can say this. In fact only John Grisham can say this and not be completely lying his tits off. If you're talking to someone who doesn't read an awful lot, the kind of person who says, for example, 'I only read biographies' then the conversation will contain several inevitable questions. Let's pick up the exchange from where he/she asks the fateful opener. 'Ah, I'm a writer,' you reply...

1) 'So, have you had anything published yet?'

No. I just go around saying 'I'm a writer' even though the closest I've come to book publication is when I walk by a branch of Barnes and Noble. Do people think you're a total maniac? The kind of person who goes around saying 'I'm an astronaut' because they caught the last fifteen minutes of The Right Stuff on cable the night before? If you say you're a writer and you haven't published a book — or had a movie made, or whatever — then either a) you're 18 years old. Or b) you are a total maniac. And, by the way, you're not allowed to call yourself a writer until that is how you earn your primary living. And by 'living' I mean an income capable of supporting a person living on more than rice crackers and rainwater. Who doesn't live with their parents. Also, don't get suckered into saying 'I'm a writer' then having to backtrack and shuffle when the next question is the invariable 'What else do you do?' Or 'Do you make enough money to live on from that?' Then you have spend a 'lively' five minutes making out that you stayed on at the Dairy Queen — or teaching Grad School, or working at the library — for the love. (Nothing wrong with working at the library mind you — Philip Larkin did it all his life.)

2) 'So, what's your book/film/quartet of poems about?'

Do not, under any circumstances, be drawn into a detailed plot summary. Unless you are Martin Amis/Martin Scorsese/the ghost of T.S. Eliot no one really cares. They're just saying it to have something to say. Personally I favour one of two responses to this question: 1) 'Oh a whole bunch of crap happens. Anyway...' and then changing the subject. Or, b) 'Oh, they live, they love, they learn. Normal human stuff. Anyway...' and then changing the subject.

Actually if you spend any time around writers, musicians, or whatever you'll notice that the last thing the really talented ones want to do is talk about is their work. Those of mediocre — or zero — talent will happily drone on in cerebellum-frying detail about the difficulty they're having with the protagonist's motivation/Act II climax/tricksy, multi-viewpoint flashback sequence. The good ones will try and change the subject immediately. Usually to either sex or sports. (That's when you know you're talking to a real writer: they don't want to discuss the merits of first-person via localised third-person narrator. They want to know who won the game and if you can help get them laid.)

3) 'So, where do you get your ideas from?'

AHHHAGGGHHH!!!! You know, I'm having an idea now right now. It involves removing your liver with a corkscrew and feeding it to you...


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