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Demented Optimism

July 17th, 2015

sheep-cover-blogThis year my first-born turns twenty-one. Travelling all over the world, getting into all sorts of company, and looking exactly the same as it did all that time ago.

You’ll have guessed from the ‘it’ there that I’m not talking about a human child here but something altogether less wet and messy and demanding: my first novel.

‘Sheep’ came out in July 1994. From the outset it was an ambitious, even pushy little thing: it got itself into a W H Smith promotion, received a whole lot of very good reviews (and some not so good), and was immediately optioned for film. I was a proud but completely inexperienced parent, delighted but baffled, as I’m sure many parents are, by what I had produced. From the outset it seemed to have a life of its own.

I had no agent, nor indeed any advisor of any kind, except for the editor who had found it in the slush pile, and whose interests did not always coincide with mine. I recall fraught and exhausting negotiations in which I struggled to understand joint accounting and termination clauses on a three-book deal: I recall being amazed at how little they were offering as an advance, and how willing they were to take advantage of my naivety.

Publishing is a rough and dirty game, and for a blushing first-timer it was a rude and rather shocking awakening. My precious first-born was for sale, and it was going to be judged by how much business it did. I was there to be flattered and stroked, until next month’s new releases came out and my sales figures came in, at which point the flattery and stroking came to a rather abrupt stop, My baby was now fighting for its life in a brutally competitive marketplace, and it was floundering. All I could do was watch it sink. Initial sales were ‘disappointing’: to understand this, you need first to understand the demented optimism that any publishing house runs on, that volatile, ephemeral fluid which so easily evaporates into nothing very much. Optimism was high; the print run was huge; sales were not. It had ‘failed to find its readership’. Next, please.

And yet, somehow or other it clung to life. It just refused to die, and when it reached ten it managed to turn itself into a film, which immediately gave it the oxygen it needed to fight on for another decade. People still find it, and read it, and tell me they liked it.

The moral here, I think, is that old industry catchphrase: ‘No one knows anything’. You just never know what a book is going to do, and neither does anyone else, and anyone who tells you they do is either fooling you or themselves. Stories have their own vitality, their own life, and whilst it may not be the life you had hoped for, life it will be. My first-born – old enough now to drive and join the army and get arrested – lives on, for the time being anyway, which no one would have predicted when it was a bawling, purple-faced infant. It shouldn’t have, no one believed it would, and it did.

Demented optimism is also the drug of choice of a great many writers, myself amongst them. And so it should be, and you should never give it up. Because, finally, no one knows anything, and nothing else works.


Simon says:  I’m a novelist living and working in Brighton, UK, in a haunted palace by the sea. Over a twenty year career I’ve written horror, psychological thrillers and comedies (as Simon Nolan), which have been translated into several languages. ‘Sheep’, my first novel, was filmed as ‘The Dark’ starring Sean Bean in 2005, and is available now as an ebook. ‘Methods of Confinement’ was nominated for the British Fantasy Society Novel of the Year in 1996. ‘Whitehawk’, a dark and twisted comedy about government and the governed, is available now (Revenge Ink, 2005). I’m currently working on a tetralogy of novels set in Brighton in the late 1930s: ‘The Blind Jew’s Tale’ should, all being well, be published in 2017. I play the piano incessantly, and paint in an uncontrolled and, frankly, disgusting way. All the gory details at www.simonmaginn.com






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