Hand to hand combat with J.K. Rowling on a transatlantic flight

16 Aug

On a flight from New York to London last night, I took my shoes off, spread my legs out, and surrendered to the humming jet engines which usually knock me out before take off.  Just as I was about to doze off, I noticed a gentleman one row in front pulling out a crisp, brand-new copy of  J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. It’s the rock star author’s first effort after her Harry Potter series, and from I what I remembered, critically acclaimed and a resounding commercial success.

Since becoming an author myself, I have obsessed about how people interact with books in public. I want to know what they are reading, and view their immediate reactions to it.  Of course often fantasizing what it would be like to have my debut novel, Terminal Rage, between their hands.

My co-passenger was in his early sixties, and seemed as accomplished as anyone else in the cabin. He read the front matter of the book diligently, then touched its pages, even caressing the cover as if to savor its high production values and relish the promise of enjoyment and entertainment the novel would offer. Clearly he was a book lover.

He started reading the first page. It took him a few minutes to go through it. But instead of delving into the book, he put it back in his bag and started fiddling with the remote control of his in-flight entertainment system. What?

At some point during the flight after my daughter broke out in a fully-animated version of incy wincy spider, and my son screamed his head off, Bill, my co-passenger and I struck up a conversation about kids. And how he raised seven of them. He was a fascinating man who at various points of his life had worked as a a travelling choir singer based in Rome, a general contractor, a restaurateur, a naval officer, and most recently a stock broker. Now semi-retired,  when he and his wife Vicky are not back home in Missouri with their children and grand children, they are busy exploring the world.

I told Bill I had just published a novel, and we started talking about books. My instinct was right about him. Bill was a voracious reader. Many years ago he had given away his collection of four thousand books, only to rebuild it again a few years later.

I admitted I had spied on him interacting with The Casual Vacancy, and asked why he was barely able to finish the first page. Any good writer knows that regardless of the genre, a story has to hook the reader from the first sentence. As Stephen King recently wrote,

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

King himself is rumored to spend months, even years perfecting the opening line of his novels. Surely J.K. Rowling could achieve that.  Bill confessed he was too tired to get into it, and was planning to read The Casual Vacancy on his seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean. We continued talking about kids, books, life and everything in between.

All along, I couldn’t help but wonder if his reaction to the opening page would have been different if he read my novel. In fact, I  had a spare copy somewhere in my bag and for a brief moment contemplated conducting that experiment there and then: To ask Bill to read my first page and let me know if it would have grabbed him to read more, despite being tired. But that proposition seemed instantly cheap, almost like a Coke vs. store band cola blindfold test. It felt belittling to the three years I spent writing it.

The debut novel of  a novice, unknown author stands no chance of competing with a well established mainstream writer. And in this case, a lady who happens to be the best-selling writer of all time. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing either. But what independent, new or self-published writers are really competing with is the massive, crushing weight of a recognizable brand name.  Back again to that Coke vs. generic brand cola analogy. And there couldn’t be a more suitable illustration of that conundrum than Rowling herself who only a few weeks ago revealed she was the author of the mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pen name of Robert Galbraith. That book had struggled to sell until this revelation when it shot to the top of the best seller lists. It’s not like the book somehow improved, but all of a sudden everybody wanted to buy into the brand name.

When the plane landed, Bill and I parted ways and I accepted I would never find out the result of the test.  I had lost an opportunity to confirm my theory that established writers no longer have to adhere to the basic rules, and can do whatever they want and get away with it, all the while selling more books. Just like a rock band that starts writing the music  that its members always wanted to do, rather than what they became famous for. Now I am certainly not disputing that Ms. Rowling is ridiculously talented. I love what she had done for books and reading. I am just intrigued by the notion that even for something as deeply personal as reading, many book consumers are  predominantly influenced by name recognition, more than any other consideration.

A few hours later on my connecting flight from London to Rome, I felt a hand tapping my shoulder and a voice telling me, “You better behave now young man, I am sitting right behind you.” It was Bill and his wife. They had missed their original flight to Rome and fate would have it that once again we were in the sky together. This time though, I decided to give Bill a copy of my book, but not ask him to read the first page and give me immediate feedback.

I just wanted to plant the virus. To have my book directly compete with J.K. Rowling’s novel for Bill’s attention. After all he was going to be on seven-day cruise, captive with only two books to choose from. And even if I never found out who won, at least Bill would. It would show him exciting things are happening in the writing world, and how a new generation of independent authors are out to challenge mainstream publishing. Who knows, maybe Bill would spur others to read my book and also explore the wonderful world of new writers. But I wasn’t left guessing. Half way through the flight, I heard Bill calling me.

“Your book beat out J.K. Rowling. I can’t stop reading it.  I am already on to chapter five.”

And I had a realization then. I stand no chance to compete with a brand-name author on a mass scale. But I have written a novel worth reading. Even if I have to battle it out with an established author like J.K. Rowling, one reader at a time.

The opening of The Casual Vacancy:

the-casual-vacancy-new-cover-paperback-fullBarry Fairbrother did not want to go out for dinner. He had endured a thumping headache for most of the weekend and was struggling to make a deadline for the local newspaper. However, his wife had been a little stiff and uncommunicative over lunch, and Barry deduced that his anniversary card had not mitigated the crime of shutting himself away in the study all morning. It did not help that he had been writing about Krystal, whom Mary disliked, although she pretended otherwise. ‘Mary, I want to take you out to dinner,’ he had lied, to break the frost. ‘Nineteen years, kids! Nineteen years, and you mother’s never looked lovelier.’

The opening of Terminal Rage:

Terminal RageAlex Blackwell had no doubt the helicopter droning above his catamaran was an ominous premonition. He wasn’t disputing it was a clear sign his old life had finally caught up with him. Because these would have been the wrong questions to ask.  Good men perished and great civilizations were vanquished under the weight of wrong questions. Like wasting time pondering whether your attacker’s gun was loaded, when you should be wondering how to kill him first. Smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, his mind had instead gone into overdrive to answer what he knew was the right set of questions. Who was it who had found him, after four years in hiding on the tiny island of Anguilla, and what the hell did they want with him?

Click here to buy The Casual Vacancy.

Click here to buy Terminal Rage.


One Response to “Hand to hand combat with J.K. Rowling on a transatlantic flight”

  1. Jodie Renner August 16, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    I’m so glad you gave that guy a copy of Terminal Rage, A.M.! Terminal Rage is superbly written and full of tension, suspense, and intrigue, with characters I definitely want to see more of!

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