Friday, November 14, 2014

James Allan on being a first-time author

The 75th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the September 1996 issue and is by James Macky, the artist formerly known as James Allan. It is about his experience as a first-time author with Growing Up Gay. James was the first out gay journalist in New Zealand, and is one of the bravest people I know. He is also one of the wittiest. Cover portrait by John McDermott.

The intro read:
Sensitive new-author guy James Allan tells how the response to his first book has made him a nicer, more caring person – but a more competitive one.

Having spent the past 13 years churning out a wide variety of feature stories, travel pieces, gossip columns, restaurant, book and movie reviews for Metro, the Listener, Fashion Quarterly and other magazines too numerous to mention – including the fine literary organ you’re holding in your hands – I was taken completely by surprise at the professional and emotional upheaval that accompanied the publication by Godwit Press of my first book, Growing Up Gay, in January.

As anyone in the print media will tell you, it’s rare for a writer to get any feedback from the public. Appear on television for five seconds and you’ll be recognised in coffee bars for the rest of your life. Write a newspaper column every day for a decade and, at the end of it, you’ll be able to drop into your local Cheers and discover that nobody knows your name.

True story: a joumalist sweats blood writing a searing, insightful, outrageous feature story. “When this is published,” he or she boasts, “there’ll be either a tumultuous furore or a frenzied imbroglio. Preferably both!”

Sadly, when the piece appears, it fails to elicit the slightest response. The awful truth is that people who stuff letters into bottles and then cast them onto the high seas are more likely to have their words acknowledged than are print journalists.

But, as I happily discovered, book authors are treated entirely differently. No longer just one of many names on a crowded masthead, a book author stands alone and recognisable. People who read your book are eager to share their censure and praise, however faint and damning, with you, The Author.

But authors don’t just depend upon the kindness of strangers for feedback. I was absolutely astonished, when my book was published, to receive congratulatory cards, letters and phone calls from old friends and relations who’d never been moved to compliment me on anything I’d written previously.

For a writer more used to the completion of his work being rewarded by an editor’s grudging, “I guess it’ll have to do,” all this attention can be overwhelming. I became practically unhinged at the launch party Godwit threw to celebrate my book. It was a marvellous egotistical occasion when I, the writer, held centre stage. At all the magazine parties I’ve been to, it’s always the publisher, the editor, the advertisers and the marketing manager who get all the attention. Writers are way down at the bottom of the pecking order, alongside the layout artists, the receptionist and the cleaners.

Having launched the book, the next big hurdle for every author is reading the reviews. Having complained for years about never getting professional or private feedback, one realises the sharp truth behind Truman Capote’s prickly comment, which he erroneously attributed to St Therese, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” I can imagine no more demoralising a moment than one spent reading or listening to a critic skilfully sketch your lack of talent, skill and intelligence. Is it helpful, I wonder, to have someone go on national radio and point out your many errors of grammar, spelling, fact and taste?

Fortunately for me, I was not slowly turned until crisp on a literary rotisserie. My book received wonderful reviews in the New Zealand Herald, Evening Post, Metro, North & South, Listener, Sunday Star-Times and Daily Telegraph. Only the Waikato Times, in what was still a very decent review, was less than gushing.

The Times’ slightly negative response brought home to me another hitherto unnoticed authorial trait: the great protective love we feel for our work and the unhappiness that strikes every fibre of our very being when our book is less than adored. In general I’ve found journalists to be less proprietorial about their writing.

Becoming aware of the relationship between authors and their books not only made me, a fellow author, a more sensitive and caring person, but it also brought about another “first” in my freelance career – I actually turned down a paying job! A glamorous and pleasurable one to boot.

I was thrilled when Heather Church, Kim Hill’s producer, asked me to review Peter Hawes’ latest book, Leaping With Unicorns. Then I read it. I returned the book, explaining that I didn’t think I should review it because I didn’t enjoy Hawes’ work. Its humour didn’t tickle my funnybone, and I was irritated rather than charmed by his constant word play.

“I don’t want to upset Mr Hawes,” I said. “I know how upset I’d be to hear someone slag off my book to Kim, and can’t inflict similar pain on another.”

“I’m not sure what to do,” said Ms Church. “No one’s ever sent a book back before.”

She encouraged me to review the book anyway, despite my great reluctance to do so. “An honest reviewer must tell the truth,” she said, adding, “Don’t back out on me now. I’ve got June all planned, and if you drop out it’ll throw my schedule out totally.”

In the end, integrity and sympathy intact, I told Kim and her listeners that, although I wasn’t too keen on Leapfrog, I was sure there were certain readers who would simply love it.

Being a sensitive new-age new-author type of guy, however, hasn’t lessened the competitive streak that comes with publication. Suddenly, it’s not enough to be published. You also want to sell more copies than Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jeffrey Archer combined. My biggest thrill was going into the Auckland Public Library, looking my file up on their computer, and discovering that the Auckland libraries bought 16 copies of Growing Up Gay. I now constantly check up on other local authors to see if the library buys as many copies of their latest. If I’ve outsold them (a rare event) I’m ecstatic for the next few days.

The only sad note in this whole happy affair is that Growing Up Gay has yet to appear on any bestseller list. The question everyone asks you, once your book is out, is “How well are you selling?” You have no idea. The publishers send you a statement every six or 12 months telling you the number of copies sold. I’d been told that trying to get any information about sales between statements is pretty difficult.

Peta Mathias, the ravishing Titian-haired author of Fete Accompli, told me she’d go into her publishers and try strangling them to see if she could squeeze out any information, to no avail.

My only consolation on the bestseller front was the recent publication of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Rich, a book which seemed to be largely made up of quotes from other writers. Ollie Newland, the former high-flying property magnate, strongly upbraided Eldred-Grigg in his Herald review for having taken everyone else’s words – and not their best ones, either – and tossing them together for his own purposes.

In The Rich, Eldred-Grigg quotes extensively from several Metro writers, including me. He never asked permission, or even told us in advance, that he was using our work to flesh out his book. “Pretty shabby behaviour, not to ask us first,” said one Metro colleague.

Initially I thought little of the fact that Eldred-Grigg hadn’t contacted me before using my words in his book. However, after receiving a very polite letter from Bronwen Nicholson, publisher at Addison Wesley Longman, asking for permission for use an extract of my work in a new textbook and offering to pay for it, brought home to me how impolite Eldred-Grigg had been.

Still, looking on the bright side, “All’s well that end’s well.” I have the consolation that The Rich leapt straight into the bestseller list, so I feel that I at least made it, if only by proxy. There is a small corner of the bestseller list that is forever mine.

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