Saturday, 31 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

This blog is all about the highs and lows of a writer stumbling blindly towards the publication of his first novel. Looking back, it's difficult to pick out the high point so far. Was it when I finished the Emperor's Elephant and realised I could actually write a book, even if it was a flawed one? Or when I completed the rewrite after binning 80,000 words of the original and sensed I had created something good? Or maybe it was the day when Stan told me Simon had made an offer for it that was meant to chase everyone else away and I had to ask him to repeat the figure twice.
Well Thursday topped them all.
For the past couple of weeks Simon and his team have been trying to round up endorsements for the back cover of Caligula from writers with proven track records and major followings. We've had knockbacks from some of the biggest names in historical fiction. It's hardly surprising. Writers are usually busy writing, why should someone take time from their own novel to read the work of an untried unknown? Where is the incentive in promoting a potential rival's work?
On Wednesday, Simon was about to sign off on the cover. There would be lots if interesting empty space where the endorsement quotes were supposed to go.
On Thursday morning he sent me a message which read: 'Something to cheer up your day' and five minutes later I was doing cartwheels around the office.
Manda Scott's superb Boudica books shed light on the life of Britain's most legendary heroine and on a time which I know from experience is incredibly difficult to capture from the few historical sources available. She is hugely knowledgable, hugely talented and, I now know, a very nice person.
To have someone of Manda's stature say anything about Caligula would have been amazing, but this?

'Douglas Jackson takes us by the hand and heart and leads us into the crazy, power-soaked world of Caligula, maddest of the mad Roman emperors - and in doing so gives us an insight into the man behind the madness, the fragile, bloody balances of power and the depths to which men were forced to sink simply to stay alive. It's light and dark in equal measure, colourful, thoughtful and bracing. A worthy addition to the world of Roman historical fiction.'

It was one of those wonderful moments when you sit back and think: 'Is that me she's talking about?'

I had to read it about three times before it sank in. There was more of the same and Manda found hidden depths in Caligula I didn't realise were there: things I had subconsciously been vaguely aware of, but not consciously trying to achieve. David Robinson, the Scotsman's literary editor, made the same kind of comments, but about different areas of it, and I'm beginning to realise that Caligula is no longer my book. It belongs to, and my writing will be interpreted by, anybody who reads it. They will make their own judgments on things I've written that I barely thought about at the time.

Not everyone will like Caligula, I understand that; Rufus inhabits a cruel, unforgiving world that won't be to everyone's taste. But there is a theme emerging in the feedback from those who've read it. So far, not only have they enjoyed it - they think it's special.

On Thursday I also finally completed the rewrite of Brothers in Arms ... I have a feeling it may be special too in an entirely different way. But more of that another day.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Today I had one of the best, and possibly the most important, reactions to Caligula so far. The proof copies have been out with literary editors for about a week and obviously their reaction is hugely important to what happens from now on in.
It's impossible not to be a little nervous about what's happening. Have they all been shoved in corners? Picked up and thrown down again in disgust?
Well I found out where one of them has been.
David Robinson, the books editor at The Scotsman, marched up the office and shook me by the hand. He'd started reading Caligula at the weekend and hadn't been able to put it down. "It's a real page turner. I thought it was brilliant. How did you do it?" And there was a lot more of the same. This from a guy who reads books for a living? It was an incredible confidence booster. David probably has more insight into what makes a book worth reading than anyone else I know and is hugely respected in the newspaper and publishing worlds. He congratulated me on achieving things in the book I hadn't even realised I'd attempted to do.
We had a long chat. He's keen to do a feature on Caligula and author, which will be great publicity. When he left I was grinning from ear to ear.
But it made me a little nervous, too. Just what is this thing I've created? Where is it going to take me? There's a sense of a great opportunity just over the horizon, but what do I have to do to grasp it?
Seven weeks today and Caligula will be in the shops.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Caligula is now out there. David Robinson, the literary editor at The Scotsman, got his proof copy yesterday, which means that so has every other literary editor in the country. When he first told me, I was elated, but then the reality of all those enormously intelligent, highly educated people poring over my book with critical eyes hit me and I came over all nervous. I've read it a hundred times. I think it's good, but it's what they think that matters.
But what would be much worse than the critics not praising it, would be them ignoring it. I've worked in newspaper offices for long enough to know how many books pass over their desks every day. David has big sacks lying beside his desk, all chock full of books. I know how much effort has gone into each and every one of them, but I sometimes look at them and wonder how some ever got published. It's all too easy for someone's pride and joy to disappear into the void.

Let's hope it doesn't happen to Caligula, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Eight weeks to go and I am now officially chewing the furniture. Another ten days has gone by and not a squeak of movement on the book. Caligula is a reality, things are happening, but all I can do is sit back and watch, hypnotised by my Amazon ratings which for some bizarre reason fluctuate between 7000th and 150,000th.
My mood hasn't been helped by the fact that progress on my crime book, Brothers in Arms, is frustratingly slow. I console myself in the knowledge that proper books are supposed to be difficult beasts, full of intellectual challenges and false turns, but the truth is I'm not used to this. Normally things flow, this squirms and grows to the point where I don't know if I can control it. It's a bit like trying to nail down jelly.
On the plus side, away from the writing and the work, I've had a very enjoyable time on the social side. I spent Saturday basking in the sunshine at Jedforest rugby sevens in the Borders. In another life (when I had hair) I used to play in the back row of the scrum for Jedforest (thirds) and I had a great time meeting old friends. I've been away for a long time, but Jedburgh will always be home.
One question I've been asked is how I became so interested in history and the Romans. The answer is that you couldn't grow up in Jedburgh and not be fascinated by history because it was all around you. In my first year at primary school one of my most distinct memories is having my picture taken with the Callant, the leader of the local summer festival which is based on the activities of the Border reivers; men with bloodthirsty reputations and wonderful names like Nebless Nick Croser, Wanton Wull and Jock O' the Side. I used to pass Jedburgh Abbey (burned five times by English armies) and Mary Queen of Scots house (the only house in the town to survive Edward 1sts 'Rough Wooing') every day on the way to school. My first job when I left school was restoring a Roman fort in the Cheviot Hills that had been torn up by foresters. I remember looking up at the gap in the hills where Dere Street passes through and almost being able to see the legions marching down towards us. History and writing and rugby seem to be all part of my DNA.
Last week I gave myself a late Christmas present and booked a day's fishing on the Tweed at a place called Tweedswood - that's just this side of the Leaderfoot Viaduct in the picture. It was great, even though we didn't even slightly annoy the salmon. When you fish, you absorb the rhythm of nature - the unceasing rush of the stream, the wind in the trees and the call of the birds - and you become closer to everything around you. Some people think it's boring. For me it's the most relaxing thing on earth. I didn't realise it when I booked it, but Tweedswood is just below Melrose, and I found myself fishing a hundred yards below the amphitheatre used by the legionaries who manned the Roman fort at Trimontium which was built on the bluff above the river. History calling again.
Today I've just come back from Glasgow, where I had lunch with Bob Low, the old friend from the Daily Record who now writes Viking books. It's the first time we've met in years, but we had a great time chatting about things that only other writers would be interested in and lamenting the slow progress of publishing. Bob's a real character, a Viking to his soul, with a beard you could hide a badger in. He's just completed the third in his Oathsworn series, and has signed a deal for another two books with HarperCollins. I think he's headed for the big time.
One thing that keeps the blog going is the comments from people all over the country who are interested in what's happening with Caligula. Sometimes you wonder if you're writing for yourself, so it's great to hear from people who've taken a look. So welcome to Joe, who said hello on the last blog, and thanks to everyone else who reads this.
To answer your question, Joe, yes, I'm writing in the hope that someone will give me enough money so I can write a lot more. At the moment I write for an hour on the train, spend ten frustrating hours not writing, then write for an hour when I'm half asleep on the way home (I think I write my best stuff when I'm half asleep so don't feel sorry for me). Sure, I might eventually move somewhere nice, but I would still write. I've found something that I really love doing and that - touch wood - I'm pretty good at. I know in my heart of hearts that I won't stop writing until I'm physically incapable of hitting the right keys on a keyboard.
I even found time to write a feature on the guy who discovered Trimontium, for the Scotsman magazine. They did me proud with a four-page spread. This is the link, although it doesn't have the same impact without the pictures.

Let's hope I've got more to report on the book next time



Sunday, 4 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

I've been a bit remiss with the blog, but my excuse is that I've been waiting for something interesting to happen and it's been pretty quiet on the book front. I suppose this blog is as much about the frustrations that face an author in the rundown to his first book as it is about the triumphs and the great leaps forward. So I have to record that, at least on the book front, my life isn't about highs and lows - more highs and lulls. So much has happened in the past few months that you just keep on expecting something good to happen every day, or at least every week, but that's not the way it works.
The one really positive thing I have to record is that I managed to get Caligula to one of Britain's top authors, a writer who has sold millions of books all over he world, and that he thoroughly enjoyed it and sent me a lovely personal letter saying wonderful things about my writing. Unfortunately - and I fully respect his decision - he doesn't do quotes for book jackets. You could regard that as a setback, but he was so positive about what he'd read that it's actually a huge vote of confidence.
Despite the lack of activity on the surface, I know that people are working away trying to sell the book, market it and are preparing for publication - ten weeks and counting. Maybe something big is just around the corner!