On July 26, my second novel, His Bloody Project
, was slumbering in comfortable obscurity somewhere around the 300,000-mark on the Amazon U.K. charts. By close of play the following day, it had reached 32. Seven weeks later — as I write this article — it’s at number 9. That’s a very giddy height for any novel, never mind one set in a tiny crofting community in the Scottish Highlands in the 1860s.
So what brought about this sudden change in fortunes? Quite simply, the good opinion of the world’s most powerful book group: the five judges of the Man Booker Prize
Anyone in the English-speaking world with even the most passing interest in things literary has heard of the Man Booker Prize. Since 1969, it’s been the most prestigious literary prize in Britain and the Commonwealth and, since the inclusion of U.S. writers in 2013, its influence and reach has only grown. Of course, I knew the Man Booker was a big deal, but back in July when my publisher Sara Hunt called to tell me that His Bloody Project
was among the 13 longlisted titles, I had no conception of what was about to hit me. That evening we convened around Sara’s kitchen table for champagne and pizza. The improbability of our success was brought home when we perused those who had not made it onto the list: Don DeLillo
, Annie Proulx
, Jonathan Safran Foer
, and the British and Irish heavyweights Ian McEwan
, Julian Barnes
, and Edna O’Brien
. That’s a pretty humbling list.
The following day it became clear that not only had we made the longlist, we were the lead story. There were two reasons for this. First, my publisher Saraband is a small independent operation based in Glasgow. So we were David going up against the Goliaths of Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, and Bloomsbury. And as Dodgeball
showed us, everyone loves an underdog story.
The second reason for the spotlight’s glare was the fact that the Man Booker Prize is not exactly renowned for recognizing crime fiction. His Bloody Project
tells the story of a triple murder committed by a 17-year-old crofter in a remote Scottish village in 1869. The story is told through a series of “found documents” — the murderer’s prison memoir, police statements, medical and psychiatric reports, and an account of the trial. As the reader knows from the beginning exactly “whodunnit,” the focus on the novel is firmly on the psychology of the protagonist: What led him to act as he did? Was he insane? It’s not exactly a typical crime novel — I prefer to call it “a novel about a crime” — but nevertheless this was an angle that appealed to journalists around the world.
When you’re grubbing around in the lower echelons of the literary world, everything seems like a competition.
The result of all these headlines was not only the aforementioned ascent of the Amazon rankings, but offers of publication from everywhere from Japan and China to Turkey and Brazil. I’ve received invitations to appear at festivals as far afield as Calcutta, Estonia, and Australia. Only a few weeks before, I’d been disheartened when a small bookshop in the Highlands politely declined my offer to travel there at my own expense to promote my book.
Prior to the longlisting, His Bloody Project
had been largely ignored by the U.K. media. Since then it has been reviewed in the Guardian
(“fiendishly readable”), Telegraph
(“astonishing”), Sunday Times
(“spellbinding”), and Times
(“gripping, blackly playful and intelligent”). How times change!
With all this positivity circulating around the book, it hardly seemed to matter whether we made it onto the shortlist. But human nature being the avaricious beast it is, as the announcement approached, none of us in the team could pretend that we didn’t want the ride to continue. And since our inclusion on the shortlist of six novels, there has barely been a moment to draw breath. My publisher and I have been overwhelmed by the warmth and positivity of the reaction to the news.
Prior to all this, I was quite happy with how my writing career was going. Sure, I was nowhere near making a living out of my books, but I’d published two novels in little more than a couple of years, and, while neither had been bestsellers, both had been well received. Even before Mr. Man Booker knocked on the door, Saraband had secured deals to publish His Bloody Project
in the U.S. (with Skyhorse) and Germany (with Europa Verlag). We’d also done a deal with a Scottish independent company, Synchronicity, to develop the book for the screen. Things were looking good, but recent events have propelled the novel to an altogether different realm.
As an author all you really want is for your book to have the opportunity to reach an audience. That is a lot harder without the backing of the big publicity departments and budgets of the major publishers. The Man Booker judges deserve much credit this year for looking beyond the usual suspects, both in terms of publishers and authors: the longlist and shortlist have included several surprises. And the positive effects have not been confined to my own book. Wyl Menmuir, longlisted for his debut novel, The Many
, published by Salt (another U.K. indie), told me: “Being longlisted brought my novel to a much broader audience than I could have hoped for. It's hugely gratifying to have something I've worked on so hard — and in which Salt put their belief — recognized like this.”
There are some who deride literary prizes as superficial beauty contests in which disparate works are artificially set against each other. There might be an element of truth in this, but when you’re grubbing around in the lower echelons of the literary world, everything seems like a competition: the battle to find an agent or a publisher, the scrapping around for reviews or space on the shelves of the bookstores. You find yourself guiltily monitoring the Amazon ranking of your friends’ books to reassure yourself that they are doing no better than yours.
But, regardless of any intellectual reservations one might have about the merit of literary prizes, there is no denying the tremendous power they have to unearth titles which have otherwise fallen under the radar of the reading public. And I’m very happy that this year, the Man Booker spotlight has fallen on His Bloody Project
÷ ÷ ÷
Graeme Macrae Burnet
established a reputation for smart and literary mystery writing with his highly praised first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau
, which was featured in the List’s Top Scottish Books of 2014. He was born and brought up in Kilmarnock and has lived in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto, and London. He now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His Bloody Project
is his second novel.