Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part four)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Who in their right mind sits down to write a novel? I certainly never did. Not the first one in any case. I read blogs all the time of young people struggling with that first book, determined that they're going to drag that book out of themselves by hook or by crook. It takes balls and I take my hat off to them. (Pause to raise hat). I just sat down and wrote a novel. It wasn't an ego thing. I'm not saying I'm a natural or better than anyone else. It was just me working things out on a bit of paper and then a second bit of paper until I ended up with 181 printed and bound pages. I was a poet. What the hell was I doing writing a novel? I have to confess that it is a weird feeling holding a book in your hand – not a manuscript – an actual book with a cover, an ISBN number, a dedication, an acknowledgement and an advert in the back for your next book. It's also a nice feeling. I know I use 'nice' far too often but this is one of those occasions when it is the right word. It is a nice feeling.

I've already explained where the idea for the book came from so let me expand a bit on that.

Jonathan Noel, the protagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella, The Pigeon, works as a bank guard. He is in his fifties, lives on his own in a small room, which he is in the process of buying from the owner; he shops daily, owns seventeen books and has a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He expects to have a good twenty uneventful years ahead of him before he has to worry about dying. He is an exceedingly Bleaneyish character. He's certainly more Bleaney than he is Krapp.

On the other hand, Jonathan Payne, the protagonist in my novel, Living with the Truth, is a bookseller. He's in his fifties and owns a small flat which he inherited from his father; he lives alone, shops daily, has a wall full of books and, strangely enough, also happens to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke. He wishes he was dead and if he doesn't die soon he'll devolve into Krapp.

One of the questions they invariably ask at interviews is: Where do you see yourself being in x number of years. It's a question I really hate answering. When I started working on my novel I thought I'd reached about the lowest point in my life. Unbeknownst to me there were greater depths to be plumbed. It was however from that point that I gazed futureward: where did I see myself being in twenty years? I saw myself living on my own and that really was the plan. I had carted around a couple of hundred books for years so there was no way there wouldn't be books in my life but, as it seemed like I'd never write again (despite, ironically, the fact I was in the process of writing) I did wonder what kind of job would I like to end up doing? Working in a bookshop sounded cool. And undemanding. Owning one would be out of the question but what's wrong with a bit of wish-fulfilment? If my character was going to be a miserable old git then I wanted him to be in the right kind of setting and I've encountered a few miserable old gits in second-hand bookshops. On top of all that I still expected to have a sister who doesn't live in Stoke.

There is no antagonist in Krapp's Last Tape. Krapp wrestles with the truths about himself. There is no antagonist in Patrick Süskind's novella. At least not in the first nine pages. There is a pigeon. What was I going to do?

I have racked my brain and I couldn't tell you at what stage I decided to introduce the personification of truth as Jonathan's foil but I can't. I just kept bringing my Jonathan up to that point where he opens the door to be confronted by … by what? In my youth I'd read The Master and Margarita and a bit of Gogol so the concept of magical realism was not unknown to me even if I wasn't aware of its name. Besides I'd grown up with so many TV programmes from I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and My Favourite Martian on and it was never a problem for me to suspend disbelief.

What does Truth look like? We know what the stereotypical Death looks like or at least we used to until Neil Gaiman came along and re-imagined her as a skinny goth chick. Justice is this blindfolded bird with scales and a sword. Father Time is this old dude in a robe, lugging around a dirty great egg timer. But what about Truth?

I see Truth as a personal thing. My Truth wouldn't necessarily look like your Truth. Jonathan's Truth appears as a young man of about thirty, with curly hair, bright eyes and dressed in a pinstriped suit. He sticks out like a sore thumb in Rigby, the seaside town in which Jonathan lives. Do I really have to explain the choice of name? Apart from the obvious association with the Beatle's song (Rigby is where "all the lonely people" live) I was also thinking about the character of Rigsby in Rising Damp. In Beckett's writing he references Dante and Racine, I reference pop culture.

What would you do if Truth knocked on your door? He's one of those characters that's pretty hard to avoid. Many of us succeed for years. But it's a rare individual who can keep off his radar for ever. And our Jonathan is simply not one of them.

If you'd like to see how our poor Jonathan reacts when he first encounters him you can read the entire second chapter on my website. You'll also find examples of my other writing, essays, short stories and poems and a bit of a bio.

The book is now available for those who simply have to know more. It's available on and Foyles but unless you're ordering it as part of a larger order that qualifies you for free shipping you would be cheaper to order it via the publisher's website and I suspect delivery will be that bit quicker too.


Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Jim, your posts are always very interesting, and the interest doesn't decrease while I read them although they are long. The latest two are really full of moments of sort of powerful in-depth analysis ( also self-analysis), I really enjoyed most of all the one on Beckett.

The latest I have written in my blog is about an issue that has been staying with me since I started writing poetry.
I hope you will give it a look.
Best wishes, Davide

Unknown said...

I won't comment on this post until I finish reading my copy of Living with the Truth though I will say to all those who don't have their own copy to read as yet that when ordered direct from the publisher they show up real fast in the mail... even across the big ditch of the Atlantic.

And it is a BOOK, a hold in the hands real book!

Jim Murdoch said...

Davide, thanks for your comment. I have to say I didn't intend this blog to become quite so involved – especially knowing I was going to promote my book at the end of it – but it was an enjoyable exploration of the subject matter.

I haven't had a look at your blog yet. I'll check it out in the morning when I'm a bit brighter and can give it my full attention.

And Gabe, I'm amazed you got the book so quickly but pleased too. Now it just a matter of waiting to see if you're quite as enthusiastic once you've finished it. It is a nice-looking book though, isn't it? You should've seen my face when I got the proof copy with the negative cover.

Dave King said...

The question of what truth, personalized, would look like is an intriguing one that opens up several cans of worms at different levels. Change the character and you change the concept. What seems at first to be a trivial question, is actually a very deep one. (Incidentally, I always saw death as a rather corpulent dame who sort of smothered you - don't know what that says about me, but I still think it's less unpleasant than being scythed down!

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I did swither about how to present Truth. What I opted for was someone who looked incongruous, a bit out of place, someone you'd feel a little uncomfortable standing beside. Jonathan's Truth is unique to him. The real challenge was to write a character who only spoke the truth – it's harder than you might imagine.

As for Death, he does have a cameo in the book, but I was keen, again, to present him in a unique light although I do reference his cloaked persona and Neil Gaiman's reimagining of Death as a skinny gothic chick. I've always seen Death as a woman too (Death is female in French) but I made mine male.

Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks again for your comment on my blog and participation with entrecard. I keep seeing the title of this post entry (and the others in the series) and thinking about that old song. I used to quote it to a friend, but he never really understood :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Deborah. I like to be creative with my blog titles where I can. I've actually been subscribed to your blog for a wee while. I don't tend to comment unless I have something worthwhile to add – there are only so many hours in the day.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I had to go and listen to the Carly Simon the other day after reading your blog title. It is a fab song! And as it's a 70s song (I haven't checked that, but it must be...) I think I'm allowed 'fab'.

Speaking of referencing pop culture..I do it all the time too. I love's one of those things...anyone can do it but can we all do it well? Quite a challenge.

Good luck with the book.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, it is a good song, Rachel, and a pretty decent album as far as I can remember; I'm sure I've got a copy kicking around somewhere or maybe my wife has.

As for the book, thank you for your good wishes. I've been a bit worried how to present the damn thing. I'm a little concerned that some people might think it'll be too involved which is why I posted the second chapter on my website because I wanted to hit readers full in the face with Truth's sense of humour.

Anyway I'm not one for the hard sell. I'll try and keep it in people's minds and hopefully if I can get a few decent reviews on-line then it's not just me saying it's a great book. I fully expect it to be a slow process. And, hey, being a writer is all about rejection, isn't it?

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, the hard promote too much you're a pain in the promote too little you're an idiot - how do you expect anyone to know about it?

Mine is at the printshop just now so all that stuff is on my mind too. I used to work in advertising (many years ago) and that gave me both some experience of and some loathing for marketing and all that it entails. Soul for sale anyone?

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, Rachel, scientists worked out years ago that the soul is a vestigial appendage. It's like the tonsils, the appendix and the brain – you can get on just fine without them. I had a soulectomy years ago – never hurt a bit. Well, maybe a bit.

Rachel Fox said...

I won't tell you what I sold mine for...

Angela said...

I'm headed over to your website right now!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Angel, I hope you like what you find.

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