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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Underwood typewriter


More and more I find myself musing on matters writerly and the behavior of scribblers these days.

Beryl Bainbridge is in the Oxford Dict of Literary Quotations with typical and splendid berylian pronouncement

"I've always thought people write because they are not living properly."

I spent 10 years in London publishing as a publicity hack but I observed at close quarters some of the best editors in the trade - Ken Parker, Edwin Harper, Paul Barnett, Geoffrey Piper, the great John Blackwell, the unsung Stephanie Lawyer - and some of it rubbed off when I was involved in my own literary agency in Hong Kong.

The trouble with many writers is that they finish a manuscript but then insist on talking you thru the damn'd thing. That's why publishers have savvy and steely receptionists who guard the gates against authors "just popping up for a few words" with their editors. Many have a code system for alerting the editor when certain pesky writers are in the house.

Hong Kong was difficult because we worked out of our home and it was a small enough colony for writers to track us down. I well recall Saturday mornings when the bell would ring and it would be some cheery chappie (never the women) with ominous reams of single-spaced typescript that he wanted to "explain".

Thinking back, it's the shy ones that invariably deliver the goods and the talkers who are the duds. It does make sense: writers are solitary creatures, often (like Beryl) allergic to the alien energetic world outside, preferring to wrestle with the words until hardy enough to hand over to a loutish outsider.

One memory I cherish - not just because it made us some loot - is of a furtive creature dropping off a weighty plastic bag at the ad agency I was working with at the time and whose front desk was willing to take in literary offerings. I just happened to be out front when the author arrived and as soon as he inquired if this was where he could leave something "for the literary agent" the girl shot me a look. I feigned ignorance and turned away, but so did the writer - a mark of class. He was as panicked at having to exchange actual words as I was at having to hear them.

I took his work back, read it in one excited sitting and let him know we might have a sale on our hands.

At the other end of the pole, I once had handed to me a 'roman policier' by some boozy local cop who certainly knew the Hong Kong scene but couldn't put it on paper for toffee. He handed it to me at the Foreign Correspondents Club - never a wise venue to meet scribblers where alcohol is on tap - and phoned me daily for updates on my opinion. Damn'd thing was, I kept putting it down and then forgetting I was reading it, so dull was the prose and plot. When I finally told him this, he expleted a few choice oaths, hopped in his Toyota and whizzed round to deliver a knuckle sandwich. Had it not been for our killer hound who heard him arrive even before his drunken finger hammered on the gate, I'd be typing this with my left toes and our second child be a wistful hoped-for.


Ah - what a misunderstood trade.

Most authors fear (rightly) that they'll fall into the hands of oiks like me who don't actually edit but merely rewrite. A true editor midwifes the work along, tapping the author's strengths and provides perspective on what the author is too close to.

I was once present at a classic example: enter resentful suspicious author determined not to let the "editor" harm a single word of his darling. The editor had a list of points ready and started to take him through, starting with some tweaking of the chronology:

"Where Tim meets Miranda. You tell too much. Earlier, where the family moves next door, you drop hints and it works so well; it's one of your strengths, you lay impeccable clues. It's one of the joys of reading you and makes the RE-reading such fun.

I'm thinking we could -

But it went no further. The author was on his feet. "You're right you're right, shit shit shit, you're right. I know how to do it. Genius. GIve me that back, it's rubbish, I know how to do it. Ohh, f***! That whole scene in the restaurant? You're right. God I'm thick. Give it here, I'm wasting your time. I now *see*"

"But I have more"

"Just give me your notes. I know exactly what you mean. Your notes will do. I'll do whatever they say.

Damn. Damn. They said you were good, but ... forget I ever came here. Oh my god, you've shown me the book - it can *work*. I can do it. That's *my* territory.

I've got to go. No time to be lost. God, I'm thick."

And out he scurried, an artist back to his easel.


Nothing so dramatic at my end, except that the great novelists would rightly regard me with suspicion - "Frankly, Chris, I'd prefer the book to stand on its own" - so the first interviews would be carefully set up with interviewers who knew and loved the work (with some priming by me - "Margaret went thru that stuff with the younger man; ask her about the horses thing, she's very good there.").

The writer I'm thinking of arrived at the BBC in distinctly fierce mood ("I'm only doing this for you, because you're such a bully and I know my duty. But I'm not happy."

As we walked out, me praising her, she gave me a 'look' and asked sans a hint of irony, "So where now? That was fun."

On telling her that that was the only interview I dared fix for her, she frowned - "Come on now, I thought it was your job ... anyway, what did you think of it? Didn't I do the horse bit well? And my god, how well he understood what I was getting at. No no - more."

If I'd known to pen LOL in those pre-wired days, I'd've titled my report to my boss that way.

I have these thoughts because of my mounting InBox of just such unwriterly quibbles to which I reply in courteous fashion but wish I had a bit more of the Noo Yawker in me and could slap it flat

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