Like Magic –

November 28, 2018

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale


Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ He might have added as a PS: a novelist’s troubles do not end with publication. Getting a first novel published – and publicised – is harder than ever before. Once upon a time, a first novel could afford to be a dress rehearsal, a proving ground. That is no longer true. As Juliet Annan, founding editor of the Penguin imprint Fig Tree, says: ‘The world of booksellers is such that you have to make an impact from the word go.’

First-time novelists divide into those paid small sums by their publishers (rarely above £12,000 for a two-book deal) and a lucky minority who secure flamboyant advances (Orion paid £800,000 for The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; John Murray spent around £500,000 on The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. And celebrities do best of all. Jordan is rumoured to have been offered £1m by Ebury for a clutch of autobiographical novels under her real name ‘Katie Price’). What seems to be missing is a middle ground.

One of London’s leading literary agents, Pat Kavanagh, points out that high advances can create ‘artificial expectations’ for writers. Take Gautam Malkani. Last year, his ambitious first novel, Londonstani, about Asian youth in west London, for which he received a £300,000 advance, was hyped to the hilt before publication, then panned. Not a good preparation for writing a second book. And for a distinguished author like Timothy Mo, nominated three times for the Booker, it seems that no longer being able to command the high advances he did earlier in his career has done more than knock his pride. (He hasn’t had a novel published since 1999.)

Kate Kellaway
That difficult first novel
The Guardian 25th March 2007

Light in their darkness…

October 5, 2015


Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so.

Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale