I have come to loathe (in a cordial way, you understand) the question ‘What started you writing?’ It’s just obvious and dreadfully lazy. That loathing is clearly tempered with gratitude that anyone ever shows an interest in me and my writing. But be assured, as I’m smiling at you and wearily gearing up to answer that plodding opening gambit, my heart is black.
So what started you writing?
The idea of writing a book had been with me for a while. Somewhere in my brother-in-law’s attic there’s a Toshiba T1600 (you’d have to be very old indeed to remember those) with a couple of pages about a character called Réné The Horse in a café at the Centre Georges Pompidou and it was around this cove I came to weave the silly story that was to become Space. I got stuck two pages in and put it aside for years.
A T1600. Mine had the orange plasma screen. Image from here.
Getting serious about the idea of a book first hit me in December 2001. I had given up smoking and there was a 900 pound gorilla on my back keening in my ears the whole time. From 60 a day (I was on the British Olympic smoking team) to zero was quite a deal.
I’d written millions of words in a career in journalism and latterly PR and communications. I’d written speeches and white papers, feature articles and news stories. A book would just be more of the same but a more regular habit, surely? I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.
Space wasn’t planned at all. I was a complete rookie, making it up as I went along. I started with the premise of a doctor discovering an auto-manifesting roasted chicken and took it from there. Making some sense (or, if you prefer, nonsense) of that took me about 100,000 words. I can’t remember how long it took, I seem to recall three months but it was likely more like six.
Now I had to find me an agent. I breathlessly packed my bundle of manuscript into a brown envelope and sent it to London agency PFD. I remember thinking about stunts like DHLing it. Pity 2002 me. One of their agents had been on a forum blowthering about how he likes to help authors who were starting out. Little was I to know this was one of those formulaic things agents say. All I knew at the time was that I was a genius and he’d be begging me for the rights to my hilarious and generally terrific book.
The rejection slip sent me into a black depression for days. The man was clearly a fool, blind to prodigy and lacking in soul. Over the next couple of years, something like 99 other drooling morons masquerading as literary agents joined him in rejecting my book.
Perhaps earth had been invaded by brain-eating zombies who took over literary agents’ bodies and had no sense of what was brilliant and funny? The alternative was unbelievable – that my book just didn’t have ‘it’ – that undefinable quality that makes a book not only readable, but enjoyable to the reader.
I still find Space funny. Given that, in hindsight, the book was clearly written for my own amusement and without any thought of what its reader might want, that’s hardly a surprise. But because it makes me laugh – and isn’t actually as embarrassing as it might be in the circumstances, I put it up on Amazon for £0.99. It also gave me a chance to explore Amazon’s ‘Select’ programme, which I haven’t done for any of my other books because I don’t support a single platform policy.
Two years later, having been stung by an agent telling me that 'humour doesn't sell, dear boy' I wrote my first serious novel, Olives - A Violent Romance. This was to create quite a lot of controversy, critical acclaim and sell quite well - for a market like the Middle East, where 2,000 copies is a bestseller.
Lost in Space
A quick FAQ
Tuesday Belgravia talks to Alexander McNabb about airports and space travel.
What is Space all about?
It’s about turning a nice doctor into a homicidal maniac, really. It’s about being a frequent flyer and running out of books I wanted to read at the Dubai airport bookshop, you know the Appian Progression or the Gerontophile Possession and all those other titles where the hero is a normal guy who takes on a shadowy cabal of bad guys and somehow always ends up on a solo run through Europe and then beats them all and gets the girl. Good, thick, action-packed reads for that long flight: what I ended up calling ‘airport novels’.
I thought I’d get up to something altogether sillier and less po-faced altogether because I’d read so many of the other type that I started to lose the ability to work out if I’d already read them or not. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a genre I enjoy reading. But I have this strange desire to stick crocodile clips on its nipples and wire them to the mains. Which is, when you think about it, a worry in itself.
Why inflict this on us at all?
I’ve been writing for over 20 years now, mostly magazine articles, speeches for Kings and ministers, IT industry reports and that kind of guff. A huge volume of the stuff. I sat down one day and calculated how many million words I’d written and thought, ‘Well I might as well write a book now’ and so five years later I got around to it. It was fun, although I got sidetracked by my full-time job halfway through and had to take a four-month holiday. It’s true that writing a book is hard to do, but not nearly as hard as breaking up.
Who do you see reading this?
It’s got a built-in proposition for a large audience – an easy to read, terribly funny high tech action novel. It’s a first, really: an antidote to terribly serious high tech action novels. One respected literary agent read an early draft and told me “The ideas are great but publishers (and readers) like to know what genre they're getting, and once they feel relaxed and secure with it they hate being confused when the book sends itself up and breaks the rules.” Which just convinces me that I’m right to have done this. All respect to our man, but it’s a very corn-fed response – don’t break the rules because people don’t like innovation. The hell with that, I say. If you see a wall, break it down. If we all took that view, we’d just sit at home and graze on the Internet all the time like fat infocows. Oh. Heck.
But action and comedy don’t often work together…
Sure. Neither do computers. Look at it this way – comedy and fantasy didn’t work together until Terry Pratchett. Space is probably the daftest book I’ve ever read. But that makes a memorable book. If readers like feeling relaxed and secure, then I’d say it’s worth challenging that. The question is does it work? Call me biased, but I think it does.
How did you structure it?
I didn’t. I started with the most unfeasible thing I could think of which, at the time, was a self-manifesting chicken and I took it forward from there. It’s a book about resolving a self-manifesting chicken. The Booker jury are just going to love that, aren’t they?
How does the hero develop through the book?
Well, he meets a lot of interesting people, many of whom he ends up shooting, including a CIA agent in a leather catsuit which was just my testosterone brimming over, and a long-legged sex worker from Weybridge, which was my female side coming through. He’s chased across Europe by British intelligence, and yes I do know that’s an oxymoron, by the Russian mafia and by a number of other unpleasant people he picks up on the way, which he doesn’t like very much. The main change in him, his name’s Ben Jonson by the way, is because of Neon, the CIA girl, who he becomes romantically attached to. There’s some complexity there, because he is also romantically attached to Kylie, who’s the sex worker. But he picks up some nasty habits from Neon, like shooting at people. That’s generally considered to be bad behaviour. Especially for a doctor. Incidentally, he’s black, but we don’t realise that for a while. It’s just not mentioned until it becomes relevant. That was just done for fun.
And you also have a catastrophic computer virus?
Yes. That basically deals with having to keep Ben running in a Europe that’s so hooked up on communications that you’d pick him up in ten seconds flat if you were serious about it. The virus is unleashed by a semi-government PR agency called the Space Agency, which is run by a man called Sandy Cullinane. They first pick Ben up when he starts to have problems with auto-manifesting objects because their job is to invent all the paranormal claptrap on the Internet as a cover for intelligence operations, so they know it’s impossible. Whereas you and I would just take one look at the situation and call the Sunday Sport. They launch one of their ‘cover’ campaigns, but it goes horribly wrong and unleashes a devastating computer virus.
Isn’t that all a bit much?
That’s the whole scheme: keep it daft, keep it moving and keep it funny. I think the idea of a devastating computer virus is wildly amusing. Particularly if the only bloke who has the solution to it is being bombed by the USAF.
Yes, they get involved too. You can do a lot with over 350 pages. It’s amazing.
And you think people will buy this?
Clearly not. But it’s a fun, silly book that takes a plug at a type of literature that so desperately deserves not to be taken so seriously. Let’s face it, if two people buy it that’s double the number of people it took to write it… and I know that, whatever else happens, the agent I work with in the end will be the type of person that’d buy a copy just to make me feel better. See? I knew that would get a laugh, even if the other gags didn’t.
Have you really met someone called Neon?
She was a Russian dancer from in New York whom I met in interesting circumstances in the Levant. Upon reflection, I suppose I have led a more than usually rich life.