Thursday, September 20, 2012

While I was sleeping

In the mail the other day I received a package from Random House containing their rights catalogue for the Frankfurt Book Fair. Right at the start (authors are listed alphabetically, with lit-fic first) there’s this page:

This is the first official document spruiking my new novel. Note: The Mannequin Makers is still a working title, but it may stick.

RHNZ did ask me if it was okay if they tried to sell my novel’s rights at Frankfurt (I said yes), but I wasn’t involved in the 32-word blurb. It’s clearly based on the 40,000 word chunk I sent them back in November 2011 and even though the book has grown and morphed since then, I’m not offended by anything.

The interesting thing is to flick through the rest of the catalogue and see the other RHNZ writers with “Forthcoming 2013” titles in the catalogue. I’m already self-conscious about the number of recent New Zealand novels that are set in the past, and it seems this trend is set to continue into 2013. Fiona Kidman has a novel, The Infinite Air, based on the life of Jean Batten. Carl Nixon has The Virgin and the Whale, set in 1919 and about a woman whose husband is missing in action.

Okay, so that's only two other novels set in the past, but what about the books from Penguin, VUP, Huia and whoever else chooses to front up in 2013? 

This trend for looking backwards to make things up may be buoyed by technology (Papers Past et al make immersive research quicker and broader) and publisher's willingness to fork out for old-timey books, but ultimately:
  • writers who don't lean on the same genre book-in book-out are lead by ideas, not the market
  • some ideas need to be set in the past (like me and my sailing ships and department stores)
  • the lag time between beginning a book and it getting published is so long that it's foolish to try and write for what's hot now.

Of course, I was aware of the flood of (*deep, sonours voice please*) serious, literary fiction set in the past when I was a quarter / a half / three-quarters of the way through my novel. Once I was underway, the other books out there helped me to better define my niche. There was a slice of New Zealand life a century ago that was under-represented (the urban, the modern) and a type of story ('tale' might be a better word) that wasn't being employed when dabbling in the past (the adventure). So I felt encouraged to steer towards that type of book.

(Of course, the book had other ideas, steering me back to the mythology of the rural and underpopulated, the rough and savage, in the final section, but these things happen).

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