by John Niven, January 23, 2009 9:57 AM
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. I've had them not return your calls, turn up on the wrong day, arrive late, you name it. (In the UK in the last few years, with the property boom, if you wanted a carpenter or a plumber or a painter, you had to call about 10 of them to ensure maybe three called you back. Out of those three, maybe two would give you a quote, and you might be able to talk one of them into reluctantly doing the job. But — recession, credit crunch and all that — you'd think they'd be a bit keener now, huh?) But I have never, EVER, had one call you to say he's here, arrive outside your house, and then drive off never to be heard from again!
I keep wondering; did he see something about our house that is completely repellent to plasterers? The colour of our front door? The curtains? It's driving me a little nuts and my plan is this — I am going to keep calling this guy and leaving messages every day for the rest of my life until I find out what happened. When I die my children will be furnished with his number on my deathbed and instructed to keep ringing the plasterer's children. When my children die, surely they will program their robot to auto dial the plasterer's children's robot until the end of time or until the robot's plutonium power cell runs out, whichever is sooner.
Anyway, the upshot is I've just had to hire a new plasterer, and entry to the shed will be delayed by at least a week. More dangling.
To break the monotony, I am off into London today where I have no less than six meetings. I loathe meetings. When we moved out of London after 10 years of living there, I wondered how I would adjust to living in the sticks. Four years on and now I hate going into London. (Although it's only 30 minutes on the train to central London from where we live.) Anything that takes you away from the desk is just a distraction, really. So, in order to minimise my visits, I tend to cram as much as possible into every trip. This afternoon I need to: meet with "representation" (film agents and book agents), have tea at the Ritz with a friend (reason for "tea": neither of us is drinking at the moment, so restaurants and bars are out), do an interview with a magazine, meet my screenwriting partner Nick, and have my photo taken for my publishers.
I know that most of that lot doesn't look like a particular hardship. And I can't grumble — I'm not "down the mines," as my Dad would have said. But still. I hate doing stuff. Maybe I should have been a plasterer.
Well, it's been fun. Maybe Powell's will let me come back in a few weeks and post a photo of me enjoying the completed shed? Then again — "0 COMMENTS." (And see yesterday's post for an explanation of that.)
Cheery bye, as we say in
by John Niven, January 22, 2009 9:15 AM
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 of good stuff is rejected and a whole bunch of crap gets printed, recorded, and filmed. But at least it's a system.
I'm very old (40) and so I don't understand the younger generation's throbbing compulsion to share everything from holiday photos to your innermost thoughts with the whole world. The total abandonment of private space. (I keep wondering — would Joe Orton have had a blog? Oscar Wilde? Would Orwell?) Indeed, writing this has been a bit like being forced to publish your diary every day: thrilling in a way. But odd.
Of course, I don't actually keep a diary. I did for a few years, when I was struggling to get published, to have a career. Then, when all that happened, I didn't seem to have time anymore. Perhaps it's just as well. I'm very fond of that old dictum "Only virgins and Generals keep diaries." (And who said that? Sounds like Churchill to me. If in doubt on a quote, always go with Winston.) Anyway, being somewhere in-between the two, it's probably best I don't bother...
Oh, shed update: the plasterer is arriving this morning. I'm not sure what the American term for plasterer is. Probably "plasterer." Perhaps someone can enlighten me? (You see, I'm pulling out all the stops to avoid the dread "0 COMMENTS" at the foot of the page...) Or at least, he's meant to be. He rang me nearly an hour ago asking where he could park, Helen saw a van with "PLASTERER" on the side drive by the house, and then... nothing. I've tried calling his mobile, but no answer.
UPDATE! It's four hours later — lunchtime — and the guy seems to have driven off into some Plasterer Bermuda Triangle at the end of our street. He was literally outside our house, and then he never appeared and he will not answer his phone! I hope he comes back — the painters arrive at the weekend and then the guy comes to do the carpeting. None of which can happen until the plasterwork is done.
The mystery of the disappearing plasterer. Seems as good a cliffhanger to end on today as
by John Niven, January 21, 2009 9:10 AM
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 life of the review's effect at around four or five hours.
Early on, when I first started writing, a very negative response to something would mean that I had to go and lie down for the afternoon. It might be days before I could go near the desk again. Nowadays, I shrug most things off pretty quickly, but, at times like this, with copies in the mail, winging their way to God knows what kind of reception, I sometimes fantasise about how nice it would be to do a Salinger: just write the bloody things and then throw them into a bank vault to lie unread forever. Because, really, it's the process that's the fun. The rest of it is just so much nonsense.
Anyway — an update on the shed. She's insulated, the electrical wiring's gone in, the plasterboard (or drywall, as you call it over there) is all in place, so today I had to have a bit of a meeting with the contractors: about internal doors, final positions of power sockets, light switches, and the like.
Now, I really am something to behold on these occasions, because I:
a) Am the world's least practical man.
b) Have absolutely no aesthetic sense in terms of buildings, clothes, furniture, etc. (A bit, I fondly imagine, like the aforementioned Mr. Amis, who, according to his ex-wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, had "absolutely no interest in his surroundings whatsoever." Once, responding to a criticism from my girlfriend that my shirt did not match my jacket, I said "All colours go with each other.")
c) Am mind-bendingly impatient.
So I stand there while they talk to me about timbers and building regulations and conduits, nodding but not understanding anything (see a above), not caring where they put anything or what colour they paint it (see b), and finally (see c) telling them I really have to go and to just use their best judgment before running out of there.
I'm probably going to wind up in a tartan office with one plug socket and light switches on the ceiling.
It really wouldn't bother me.
One final thing — and just to show I am conscious of a world going on outside my shed — congratulations on your new president. How funny the inauguration was: Bush looking numbly on as Obama stood there basically saying, "The world's a cesspit, the country's in the toilet, and it's all your fault!" But a sobering reflection on how interested many Brits are — no less than three people tried to call me today during the inauguration speech. Morons that they
by John Niven, January 20, 2009 10:41 AM
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 to childhood. I grew up in Irvine, on the west coast of Scotland, in what was called a "new town": basically, an old Scottish town that had been very rapidly developed in the late '60s and early '70s. They built new roads and factories and lots of council housing to accommodate people who were being moved down the coast from the inner-city slums of Glasgow.
Thousands of these new houses were still being built when I was a kid, and it was the greatest playground imaginable: games of soldiers and hide and seek amongst the empty terraced houses. Bulldozers and stacks of 2x4s to play with. When I walked into the shed this morning and inhaled, I had a brief, lovely flash of feeling 10 years old again: running around those construction sites, trespassing. Then, of course, the adult kicked back in and I started grumbling and cursing the electrician for the delay.
The thing is I'm finding it very hard to work right now. I've just finished correcting the proofs of my third novel The Amateurs (due out in America via the good folks at HarperCollins sometime in 2010, out here in the UK this April). I'm tidying up some short stories for a collection further down the line, there's a few pieces of journalism in the "in" tray... but really, what I should be doing, of course, is starting the new novel.
I like starting a new book in January. It's happened that way with the last two. A nice, clean, best-foot-forward kind of start to the year. But I really want to start the book in the new office. Something about the idea of writing the first few pages and then downing tools while I spend a couple of days moving books, furniture, computer, and papers really upsets me. (Does this mean I'm an anal, OCD basket case?) I just love the idea of sitting down in my shed, smelling fresh paint and new carpeting, opening that file up and typing "CHAPTER ONE." And then there's the constant authorial anxiety, the little voice saying — are you really putting off starting the novel because you're not ready to write it yet, loser? But then again, that voice is always there.
Either way, I'm not really working and I'm not really on holiday.
I feel like Bellow's dangling
by John Niven, January 19, 2009 9:38 AM
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. (One for fiction, one for journalism, one essays, etc.)
My current study is soon to become another bedroom, to accommodate my infant daughter, and I will be moving 100 yards down the garden. I'm very excited. Truth be told, I can't wait to join the Shed Club. Martin Amis has a glass-roofed one at the bottom of his garden where he writes and smokes — the latter activity being banned in the main house. It also has the added bonus, Amis says, of "being unable to hear the children." Other great shed-writers include Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, and George Bernard Shaw, who said, "People bother me. I come here to hide from them." He loved his shed because his wife could legitimately tell callers he was "out." But he was smart enough to have a telephone installed with a one-way line to the main house so he could ring up for sandwiches at lunchtime. Now, that's thinking.
Dahl's widow had a realistic view of shed-life. "I tended not to go out there very often. It was very much his space." That's the great thing; once you're married and there are kids all over the place, every available inch of your house is disputed territory, subject to all kinds of land grabs. The shed is automatically a far-flung part of the empire. It's like the Falkland Islands: rugged, cold. No one wants to go there.
It was my friend, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan, who first turned me on to the world of the shed. He had one a few years back. We went out there once to watch a rough cut of a short film I'd co-written. It was great, the feeling of a wee clubhouse. We cracked open a bottle of wine and it felt like being one of the kids in Stand By Me, up in their treehouse. Also, as Andy pointed out, like GBS before him, he had to leave the big house and walk the length of the garden to go to work. Indeed, on reflection, that might be the single greatest thing about being a writer with a shed — the fact that you can piss people off by telling them you have a 30-second commute.
Wow — the roof's on now! They promised me they'd have this whole thing finished in one week maximum, but who believes builders, eh?
I'll keep you