I’m not a particularly anxious person. My perfect day involves a morning walk with my dog, four or five hours writing, two or three hours reading, a couple of mid-afternoon episodes of Judge Judy and a pint or two in the local when my husband gets home from work. That’s been the schedule for many years now and if the rest of my life continues like that I will consider myself a very lucky boy indeed. So why is it that for the last few weeks I’ve been waking every night with a feeling of impending doom, such as a junior manager from Anglo-Irish Bank might feel when they check the post-box in the morning?
Let me check my calendar and see what’s coming up: I’m going to Munich’s Oktoberfest in (weirdly) September and I’ve bought a pair of lederhosen for the occasion. But it can’t be that because I totally have the legs to pull it off. I’m doing the six-day Great Ocean Walk along the southern Australian coast over New Year’s. But it’s not that either because I love Australia and any chance to be there, even walking 100km in blistering heat, is fine by me. My fifth novel for young readers is being published in October but how could it possibly be that? It’s yet another masterpiece from one of the world’s most beloved writers for young people! (That’s what I tell myself anyway.)
Oh yes! Now I remember. My first short story collection, Beneath The Earth, is being published today. That’ll do it.
I rarely get nervous when a new novel is coming out. I’ve published 13 of the buggers over 15 years, which I am well aware is a ludicrous number but come on, Woody Allen makes a film every year and at least I didn’t marry my own daughter. If anything, I get excited when publication date looms for I love novels and I still get a bit over-excited that not only am I allowed to write them but that someone publishes them, bookshops stock them and a few people read them. But I’m nervous now. I am, as a character from a Roddy Doyle novel might say, only brickin’ it.
Like most writers, my first publication was a short story. This was way back in 1993 when I had a gorgeous head of platinum blonde hair, the internet hadn’t been invented yet and I was still sleeping with women. Between then and now, I’ve published dozens of stories in anthologies, newspapers and magazines but have always resisted the idea of collecting them into a book, mostly because they were all written at different times and I didn’t feel there was enough connection between each one to form a coherent book.
But a couple of years ago, I turned to my long-time editor Bill Scott-Kerr, and said the 11 words that every editor dreads: “I think I’d like to publish a collection of short stories”. And to my surprise, he thought it was a good idea. “No, a collection of short stories,” I repeated, in case he’d misheard me and thought I’d suggested a new novel built around two families, paupers and princes, and the manner in which they’re intertwined over 150 years of European history with scandals, love affairs and a mysterious murder at its heart.
“Yes, short stories,” he said, nodding. “Great. Can’t wait to read them.”
Of course, everyone involved in the publishing industry knows that short story collections have all the commercial appeal of a Brian McFadden record. Readers might enjoy a novelist’s work but it’s the novels they want, which is why, more often than not, you will rarely see the phrase “And Other Stories” on a front cover anymore because it gives the game away. Instead we hide them behind titles that make them sound like novels. These days, collections are more often than not the preserve of first-time writers and it’s surprising that for a society with such a notoriously short attention span, we’re unwilling to commit to a form that might only require half an hour’s attention.
Which brings me to Beneath The Earth, my contribution to the genre. Twelve stories, six of which have been published elsewhere in the last two years and six of which are new. Curiously, out of all the novels I’ve written, only one has been set in Ireland. And yet almost all my short stories, including most of the ones in this collection, are set here. What’s that about? I haven’t a clue, to be honest. But I might bring up with my therapist next week.
The voices in the collection are disparate, from a troubled rent-boy to a middle-aged hitman studying for an English Literature degree; a soldier on the point of desertion to a young Indian man whose student card presents his name in an unfortunate way; a grieving father to a failed writer who cannot bear to acknowledge the literary success of a former friend whose work he doesn’t rate.
I feel a curious sense of vulnerability as Beneath The Earth is published. I don’t know what the response will be, whether readers will like it or ignore it, whether the stories combine to form a unified whole or whether there is some feeling of discord between them. But for a confirmed novelist, it’s fun to take a risk and to try something different. As I write this I’m sitting on a plane en route to Toronto and am about to begin the fourth draft of a story I’ve been commissioned to write for an Amnesty collection next year. One day it might end up in a second collection. Or it could sit in a password-protected, never to be published, destroy-when-I’m-dead file on my computer that I’ve christened, for obvious reasons, HARPER LEE STUFF.
Time will tell.
Beneath The Earth is published on August 27th by Doubleday.