Publishing is a tough place. And being a novelist is not easy, especially a self-published one. After 300 or so rejections, Alexander McNabb decided it was better to forge his own path. He launched his sixth novel Birdkill this month, as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Based in the UAE, his books explore, “perceptions and conflicts of the Middle East”.
A conversation with the author, who took up writing to kick his 60-cigarettes-a-day habit…
Gulf News: How difficult or easy was it for you to get published as a writer based in the UAE?
In terms of conventional publishing, it’s hard. There are no literary agents in the UAE and the big publishers only maintain sales offices here, they’re not generally scouting for talent. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has had a huge impact in this area alone, with new authors being picked up by British publishers through the Montegrappa ‘First Fictions’ competition. Literary agent Luigi Bonomi has, in particular, been a supportive ‘early adopter’ of the Festival.
My own journey started way before the Lit Fest, before agents accepted email submissions. I used to post wodges of 50 page samples of my books to London from Sharjah post office at Dh60 a time. In all, I have been rejected over 300 times by British agents and publishers.
GN: You’ve written a series of thrillers – why the choice of genre?
My first book was actually a silly spoof of thrillers, a daft slice of glorious idiocy called Space. One agent scribbled in the margins of his rejection slip: “Humour doesn’t sell, dear boy.”
So I set to writing a serious book and Olives – A Violent Romance happened. I was going to sleep one night listening to a piece of percussive piano music by an amazing American pianist called George Winston (‘February Sea’ as you ask) and it reminded me of a girl dancing in the rain.
I woke up the next day with a book in my head and spent the next four weeks dashing it all down. Then I spent seven years learning how to write and editing the book.
Amazingly, at the dead centre of the book, there’s a scene where there’s a girl dancing in the rain, and I hadn’t planned that at all.
GN: Do you feel that you have credibility as a writer of fiction in the global playing field? And why?
Yes, perversely, I think I have credibility. I was signed up by a London agent and chose to terminate our agreement because I had decided not to play the traditional publishing game. That in itself was validation that my work had commercial potential. But the reviews, book club meetings, signings and other events I do, tell me that a number of people enjoy my work. That’s glorious stuff by itself.
Is that credibility global? No. It’s very, very local. I’d love it to be global. I do have global readers, and they’re a growing and enthusiastic audience. But it’s pretty scattered. One of the things I do miss, to be honest, is reach into markets like the UK and US. A publisher should be able to give you that, but more often than not the marketing dollars just aren’t forthcoming, even when they’ve signed you up and they’re publishing your books. And those dollars are, sadly, what it takes.
GN: Are books today becoming a victim of frivolity, as opposed to good writing that sustains?
There’s a huge mixture out there, but generally mainstream publishing is tending towards making choices that are safe as margins are squeezed and the returns from each project are being reduced. I don’t think you can argue that populist writing is a bad thing: Dan Brown might not be to your refined highbrow taste, but he’s given a lot of people a great deal of pleasure. I love penniless authors sniffing about how he’s the McDonald’s of literature, but if people ain’t paying you for your three Michelin star chow baby, you’d better learn to flip burgers….
Now me, I’ve chosen to go my own way and create books that interest and engage me. And I have a small but enthusiastic and growing audience for those books. That’ll do for me. I don’t have to kowtow to publishers and their idea of ‘safe’, and I don’t feel the need to get sniffy about the Dan Browns and Lee Childses. They do what they do very well indeed, thank you.
GN: E-books over print – which form do you prefer? And why?
Oh, e-books all the way. I love my Kindle like ‘Father Jack loves his brick’. It’s mad when you think about it – you can have almost any book you want in your hand right now. No ordering it down at the bookshop or the library. Right now. The resulting explosion of choice for readers has been wonderful, liberating and, ultimately, bewildering.
GN: Who or what made you want to be a writer?
I was always a voracious reader. I gave up smoking. I was a British Olympic Smoker, 60 a day. And I gave up. Just like that. I had to find something publicly acceptable to do with my hands and writing a book seemed like the way to go.
I had written millions of words as a journalist, editor and publisher. And millions more as a PR guy. I could write speeches for ministers of finance that brought tears to audiences, and that was without introducing new taxes. So I reckoned writing a book would be a doddle.
I was wrong, but that’s another story – and part of my own writing story, which has provided me with frustration, anger, laughter, delight, buoyancy and gratitude as well as bitterness and despondency.
On balance, it’s been utterly fantastic, and I regret not one moment of the whole glorious 15-year journey.
GN: A writer that you would recommend everybody should read …
GN: A book that changed your life …
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Editor’s Note: We’ll post a review of Birdkill soon. You can find his books and connect with him on www.alexandermcnabb.com