Reflections on a book launch tour

July 7th, 2013 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Last month, I had a week of being made a fuss of. Flown halfway around the world. Media interviews. Sound and video recordings. Photographs. People regarding me as if I were important, asking questions and listening to what I had to say. The odd bit of flattery.

It was all in aid of selling a book.

Zirk van den Berg best seller

The Afrikaans translation of my crime novel Nobody Dies at no 1 on a bestseller shelf. A rare occasion that had to be captured.

Never before, a publisher told me, has the persona of the writer been so important. These days people apparently want to know about the person behind the book.

Personally, I prefer the book to the author in most cases. This whole phenomenon of the author as public figure makes me uncomfortable, never more so than when I am that author.

Before heading off on this book tour, I was expressing these doubts to my 16-year-old daughter who understands the world a lot better than I do. She cut me short: “Listen! You’re there to sell your book. Not to talk about your vulnerabilities and be boring.”

Not being one to argue with the wisdom of a teenager, I took that as my mantra on my travels. Rather than kvetch about what I was doing, I was determined to enjoy it. And I did.

Writing is such a lonely business, with so few external rewards, that being patted on the back and seeing my book on a best-seller shelf was a thrill.

Good as it was, though, it wasn’t writing. That lonely business, the groping for words while staring at the page or screen, is its own reward. Some of us could not exist without it. Neither could the business of publishing and bookselling.

How to like reading about a hero you don’t like – ‘The Goodbye Kiss’ by Massimo Carlotto

May 2nd, 2013 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Reading Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel The Goodbye Kiss, I was once again reminded how intriguing an unsympathetic main character can be in fiction.

My own novel No-Brainer features a main character some readers find too hard to like. However, I do ascribe to the accepted truism of writing that the reader should care for the main character and preferably like them enough to root for them. I also wrote elsewhere that one of the reasons I don’t like reading books about serial killers is that I don’t want to spend time with sickos.

So why did I enjoy Carlotto’s book so much when the main character is a lying bastard, robber, serial abuser of women and commits a string of murders?

For one thing, he’s not a sicko. He commits these crimes, but unlike the serial killers I detest, he doesn’t derive particular pleasure from doing so. Although he does confess in one place to always having enjoyed murder, that is not the motivation for his actions. He is simply trying to look after number one the best way he knows how. He is callous and cruel, but not sadistic.

The way the book is written, with its incredibly fast pace, is also not indulgent. You never get the feeling that the narrator is enjoying the gore or is hoping that the reader will get kicks from descriptions of violence. The violence happens, matter of factly, and the story moves on.

Massimo Carlotto reminded me of nobody so much as Jim Thompson, whose main characters can also be morally corrupt. Both these authors write lean and mean fiction… and these words are not just chosen because they rhyme. There is a commendable, merciless quality to the writing of both these men.

I read The Goodbye Kiss without as much as a glance at the blurb. I saw the book at a second hand store, liked the look of it and decided to simply open on page one and start reading. It is only afterwards that I read the blurbs and discovered the degree to which Massimo Carlotto’s life story mirrors that of the protagonist in this book. (Presumably the author is not really a murderer, though he did spend five years in prison before his conviction on a murder charge was overturned.)

While Carlotto’s biography can be considered to lend credence to his work, I believe that’s neither here nor there. What you read in the book is the work of someone with a hard-nosed approach that is clearly not put on. (I’m so bored with narrators who pretend to be tough. Isn’t it far more compelling to read stories, especially crime stories, courageous enough to show vulnerability?)

Interestingly, I also recently read two other books where the main character didn’t entirely win my sympathy: John le Carré’s Absolute Friends and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

In Le Carré’s case, the character was a victim of larger forces and should’ve evinced more sympathy. Yet somehow he just never came alive to me, despite all the pages and all the information and everything that was done to him. A spark of life was missing. Brilliant writer though he is, I think Le Carré didn’t quite get this character to come off the page.

The title character of Mildred Pierce was more appealing, at least at first, though her actions made one care about her less as the story progressed. Still, it is a marvellous book and one I can almost not believe has been as successful as it has been. It certainly doesn’t follow the popular pattern. It’s actually an incredibly brave book.

And one cannot consider unsympathetic main characters without a nod to Nabokov, whose works feature a succession of them. In his case, the trick is that you recognise the humanity of these characters. You may not admire them, but you feel you know them and, however begrudgingly, are willing to indulge their weaknesses. And, of course, there’s that Nabokov style to make the reading a pleasure.

Which brings me back to Massimo Carlotto’s book. If the writing is good, then the book is a joy to read. As Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”

Say Books thriller to be published in Afrikaans translation

December 11th, 2012 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Say Books author Zirk van den Berg’s acclaimed crime novel Nobody Dies will be published in Afrikaans translation in South Africa in 2013.

Nobody Dies was originally published by Random House New Zealand in 2004 and then published as an ebook by Say Books in 2011. On its original publication The New Zealand Herald named it one of the top five thrillers of the year.

Nobody Dies is set in South Africa. It tells the story of a policewoman in charge of the witness protection programme who finds it easier to kill her charges rather than set them up with new lives. As they are between lives while in her care, nobody misses them and her crimes go undiscovered. Then an innocent man enters the programme and forces change.

South African publisher Kwela (part of the country’s premier Afrikaans publishing group, Media24) approached Van Den Berg, proposing an Afrikaans translation of the book. Though Nobody Dies was originally written in English after the author had migrated to New Zealand, Van Den Berg’s first language is Afrikaans and he made his debut writing in the language. He is undertaking the translation himself.

“The translation is surprisingly challenging in parts, especially the more poetic passages,” says Van Den Berg. “One of the real difficulties was translating the title. A direct translation or anything close to it simply didn’t work, so we ended up opting for something completely different.”

The Afrikaans title, ’n Ander Mens, can mean both “another human” and “a different person”, as in someone who has changed.

The book is slated for publication in May. Meanwhile, the original English version is available from Amazon and directly from Say Books.

‘Fences’ breaks new ground for the web-based PressBooks™ publishing platform

April 13th, 2012 by Zirk van den Berg § 3 comments § permalink

Fences, the debut novel by popular fanfiction author Laura Bontrager, will be the first novel on the PressBooks™ platform to be serialized for online reading on a subscription basis.

Laura’s readers are used to reading her fanfiction online, with new instalments appearing regularly. We’re going to continue in the same vein, making her novel available to readers in daily instalments over the course of a month or so. » Read the rest of this entry «

Jim Thompson’s ‘The Getaway’ shows pulp fiction can be great literature

March 19th, 2012 by Zirk van den Berg § 3 comments § permalink

For much of the 20th Century, being innovative in art was a precondition for recognition, if not sufficient reason in itself. It was certainly the case in visual art. Novels, too, could not escape being judged on their novelty value.

What has come to interest me more than novelty is the possibility of doing something valuable within the canons of well-established art forms.  Can one, for instance, write a book within the constraints of pulp fiction that is also great literature? » Read the rest of this entry «