Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Disestablishment of Paradise *Review*

As a child, I learned that the longest word in English was


I now believe that I have a use for this word. I have in my possession a book about antidisestablishmentarianism - not in the strict sense, you understand, but it is about the act of opposing a disestablishment. 

 (Gollancz, London. Sci-Fi.
 also and Amazon)

Sadly, I learn today that antidisestablishmentarianism is not the longest word in my dictionary of choice, That honour goes to,


It may be some time before I find a use for that.

This is one of my reviews that isn't really a review. The reason is that this novel's author, Phillip Mann, is not only a friend but my writing buddy. We have been exchanging work for about five years - an arrangement which I'm sure benefits me far more than it does Phil. He has written about the long journey to get this book published on his blog and there are fine reviews here and here. These should provide you with the necessary incentive to buy and read The Disestablishment of Paradise. That and the fact that I really love it and you know how fussy I am.

Buy now and read no further unless you want to follow one of my all-too-typical tangents to a gooey end.

I first met Phil and his beautiful life-partner Nonnita in India. I'm one of those solo travellers who tends to get adopted by couples who are, both individually and collectively, fabulously gifted and fascinating. It's a mystery to me too but, believe me, I ain't complaining. We bonded over dinner at the Grand Hotel in Kochi on the first night of a two-week tour of the southern states. I learned that Phil is a Yorkshireman who had moved to New Zealand. He is a theatre director and a writer with many science fiction books to his credit. He learned that I was an indolent drifter who had decided to return to Australia after nearly three decades of aimless meandering abroad and had written two-and-a-half novels that no one wanted. You get the picture about the tilt in my favour?

Phil and Nonnita came to Larrikin's End for a short stay a few weeks ago. I had it in mind to interview him for the blog and charged up the batteries in the Dictaphone but the time was never right for a semi-formal Q&A. We had great conversations about the book and I asked loads of questions over a couple of bottles of wine and got marvellous answers that I wished I'd had on tape. We agreed to do it by email. 

So, I sent off some questions and Phil sent back thoughtful and patient answers but, and with me there is always a 'but'... I woke up this morning thinking, 'you know, I really want to write about The Disestablishment of Paradise TODAY! And I looked at Phil's blog and he's already got several Q&As on it and I'm thinking, that's how it is in Sci-Fi and every experienced reader is better at doing this than I'm ever going to be, and, damn, all the good questions are already covered! So, instead, I'd like to write about how great it is to have a writing buddy. And perhaps more interestingly, how someone who doesn't generally read Sci-Fi came to play a role in keeping a brilliant writer's spirits up. And that's one of the things a writing buddy does.

Flashback - a farm in rural Victoria, Australia, 2008. Phil and I have swapped email addresses and agreed to exchange our novels-in-progress. I have been set up in a house-sit by my dear friend Ms Ann O'Dyne and am writing poetry, attempting to finish one novel and start another and looking for a house to buy on the internet. The Disestablishment of Paradise was, of course, already completed but its initial rejection by Gollancz had turned its final full-stop into a question mark. Over a couple of months in 2008 I read the finished draft. It gripped me. And then I froze - for purely selfish reasons. I'm thinking, 'if a successful writer gets a book this good rejected then what hope...?' After I got over myself I started to see it as more of a cross-over book. It was Sci-Fi but it was literary fiction too. I'd recently read and loved Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and it seemed to me that The D of P (as I'd come to call it) could be favourably compared with both. It was and is a book about humanity and the trouble we humans have in achieving it.

As I was reading this draft I suspected that I had found the perfect writing buddy. I have, I think, understood my job. The only thing required of me on this project was to champion what I believed, no, knew was good. Phil tells me that I managed this very well. I will admit that I tried to influence the ending - I was already running the film in my head. But then Avatar happened. If you're still reading this post then you know you have to read the book now. I think that my not being a Sci-Fi aficionado helped. A writing buddy must read as a writer rather than a consumer. That way you don't risk dismissing the work when it appears to fail some arbitrary product test - and in this case, that arbitrariness turned out to be instrumental. I never stopped believing in this book and Phil tells me that meant a lot to him.

The novel-in-progress exchange has been the basis of our buddydom and Phil has been enormously supportive with the novel I can't seem to finish. When I say 'can't seem to finish', I don't mean 'can't seem to get beyond opening a document in Word', I mean I have been writing the last couple of chapters over and over again for years. I just can't settle on what happens in the end. Over the last five years, Phil has dispensed patience and great ideas in equal measure. His recent visit has given me both courage and direction. He gets down and dirty with the text in the best way. I know now that I will finish this book, finally, by Christmas.

Buddydom hasn't only been about the novels. We've swapped shorter pieces. Last year Phil sent me a novella-in-progress. It was in a rawish state and I was thrilled to be entrusted with it and, reader, I came away with dirty hands. Phil tells me that it's now thoroughly cooked and will be published in an anthology soon. But buddydom has also been tested. Phil is a natural collaborator. I'm capable of collaboration and usually willing to try it but not at all 'a natural'. In short - he offered me an opportunity, I couldn't match the challenge and I spat the dummy. Phil forgave the tantrum. That's when you know buddydom is real.

How do you find your ideal writing buddy? You would possibly not start by jumping on the first plane to Kerala. Besides, there are websites and aps now so you can concentrate on catacombs and cocktails on your holiday instead of tiresomely asking each of your fellow-travellers if they happen to have an unpublished novel packed in their rucksack along with their bottled water and malaria tablets. 

I would say that the best way to begin would be to aim to be a great writing buddy yourself. You must be prepared to both dispense and hear tough criticism. I am not someone who pulls punches and I am prepared to be ruthless if I think something isn't working. You need to be able to both give and take criticism in equal measure. To be honest, I'm a good deal better at the former than the latter but I'm learning. Be brave and trusting with your early drafts, just make sure you're able to justify your decision to have your character, who has killed someone he quite likes, go on the lam instead of sensibly phoning the police and calmly explaining that it was an accident.

I'm not an experienced and successful novelist, as Phil is, but I have written very nearly three novels so I have a fair idea of how it's done. A long-distant BA with majors in Eng. Lit. and Journalism and a big appetite for fiction in all shapes and sizes probably helps too. Novelists need to buddy with other novelists. To read 100,000+ of your raw words, probably on a screen, is a task that you can only really ask someone else to do if you're prepared to do it yourself. Swap like for like. If you've only written three chapters, find someone else who's only written three chapters. If you write short stories, buddy with another short-story writer. It should be a mutual mentorship and not a teacher/pupil relationship.

Phil isn't my only writing buddy. I've not one but two great poetry buddies as well. The key to being a good writing buddy is to read everything you're sent, as quickly as you can and get back to your buddy with an honest and sincere appraisal shortly thereafter. It's neither a competition nor a therapy session so you don't need to find something to criticise if you love it unconditionally or offer a conciliatory redeeming feature if you think it's absolute rubbish. We've all heard stories about movie flops that got made because no one had the bollocks to call it as they saw it. You've got to be objective so it's probably better not to be writing buddies with your boss, your tax accountant or the mechanic who services your car. In fact, for me, being buddies by internet has worked very well. There's no chance of having too much red wine and forgetting the incredible insights your conversation yielded - at least most of the time.

It remains now for me to congratulate Phil on this journey's end. It has been a great experience for me to be involved with the project over the last five years. So, Phil, now it's all about me. Tighten the thumbscrews. I've made a promise to be finished by Christmas. This Christmas...