Adrian White is the author of two novels published by Penguin Books and his most recent novel Dancing to the End of Love is published by Black & White Publishing. He is a former book seller and currently works as an Editorial Consultant for The Inkwell Group.
When did you begin to write? When did you start it take it seriously?
As a teenager – sixteen or seventeen – I picked up the habit of writing as a way of figuring out my place in the world. Today, it would be called blogging; back then, if it was called anything it was a ‘diary’ but it
was like no diary I ever saw. From the get-go, I fictionalised the things I saw and the things that happened to me, probably as a coping mechanism. I’m sure what I wrote was transparently all about me
me me but having it down on paper created a distance and I realised that this was material that could be used. I was an obsessive reader and it was only a matter of time before my scribblings turned into a story told in the form of a novel. I was always serious about writing but after I’d finished my college degree and started training to be a teacher, I knew in my heart that a writer was all I really wanted to be. Schoolchildren of the world give thanks, each and every day.
How did you become a book seller?
At the same age, I had a Saturday job working in a bookshop in the city of York – handy for a young man with a reading obsession. After college, I lived in Manchester where I completed first one novel and then a second. I was lucky in the support I received from my partner but we had a young son together and it was pretty obvious that writing fiction was no way to earn a living. I had a succession of casual labouring jobs – removal man, car park attendant, painter and decorator – but I held out for as long as I could before committing to what my mother would call a ‘proper job’. Eventually, I landed a job as a bookseller again and discovered I still loved it. I was like: so you’re going to pay me money to do this, right? I was successful and my career as a bookseller facilitated our move to Ireland – which was always our dream together. I was the Book Manager in Eason’s Galway and went on to become a buyer for the company and, ultimately, the Head of Buying and Marketing for Books. Fast forward a few years, having left Eason’s when my first two novels came out, I returned to bookselling once again – this time with Dubray Books. Ha – I’ve just realised it’s exactly forty years since I first worked in a bookshop so I guess you could say I enjoy it. I’d describe bookselling as a shared love of books and I certainly enjoy doing just that.
Tell us about your deal with Penguin and your first two books?
I thought I would die; literally, I found it so hard to breathe when Penguin told me that I thought I might die. (As my daughter might say: I literally can’t even . . .) I had wanted this for so long and now it was happening; it was just – beyond anything. While at Eason’s, I had started writing seriously again and – what’s more – I knew the work I was producing was worth something. Earlier novels were consigned to the dustbin and I started on what eventually became An Accident Waiting to Happen. I was in the fortuitous position of meeting key people from all the major publishers so, when the M.D. of Penguin Books asked me if I was a writer as well as a bookseller, I grabbed my chance. Of course, rejection was as likely an outcome but thankfully they liked my work. An Accident Waiting to Happen came about as a result of reading about the occurrence of dementia in relatively young people and how trauma can result in a sufferer getting lost in a similarly distressing time from their past. I told it in the first person and the voice became so distinctive in my head that I soon realised the narrator was as much the story as was the subject. When it came to writing Where the Rain Gets In, I deliberately set myself the task of a third person narrative from the viewpoints of three separate but connected women. Neither book is exactly what you’d call a comedy – Where the Rain Gets In is about self-harm – but both are a result of once again trying to make sense of the world as I see it.
Tell us about Dancing to the End of Love? It took some time for it to be eventually published?
Robert Lanaghan, the narrator of Dancing to the End of Love, is not a sympathetic character; indeed, in many ways he is despicable, especially in his attitude to women. I wanted to explore – through his worldview, his loves and his losses, his successes and his failings – how Robert has become the man he is. Most of it was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the continuing mania of the War on Terror. Robert, adrift in the world through the loss of his daughter in a custody battle, is caught up in the madness. I’ve always been drawn to the role of the outsider in literature – specifically Camus’ Meursault – and, as with Gregory in An Accident Waiting to Happen, Robert’s response to the circumstances he finds himself in is not regarded as how a ‘normal’ person would react. And yet a succession of women come to love him, so the reader is alternately rooting for and despairing of Robert as he makes his way through life. Ultimately, it’s a love story – a pretty brutal love story at times, but a love story all the same. It did take a while before it was eventually published and the book evolved a great deal in that time. I kept on thinking I was finished with Robert but he wouldn’t let me be. I lived with him for several years so it’s something of a relief now to see him out there for others to make of him what they will.
You have worked with some agents in your time. How important is it to find the right agent and even if you do, there are no guarantees that you will secure that coveted deal?
Due to the manner in which I was offered the book deal with Penguin, it came about without the help of an agent. Yet as soon as I saw the contract, my first thought was: I need an agent. I did engage an agent specifically to talk me through the contract and I turned to that same agent with the book that ultimately became Dancing to the End of Love. In all, three separate agents tried to sell the book and each one believed in it and gave it their all. Each time, we had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen and I’m pleased to say I have maintained good relations with these three agents. Every author has to cope with rejection and it always hurts – it never gets easier to take – but I knew I’d written a good book. As a reader and as a writer, you just know when something is right, so to hold the published book in my hands is a magical, rewarding feeling that I will always treasure. But no, there are no guarantees – just as there are no guarantees that if your book is published it will sell in any meaningful way. What you have is your book, published, and this acts as a vindication of all your dreams and hard work. Great book deals still do happen but they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Publisher advances are, on the whole, pretty underwhelming – especially for fiction and even more so for first time novelists.
You turned down some deals because they weren’t worth it, as a writer. Is this a problem that perhaps more inexperienced or debut authors may not realise?
I turned down one such underwhelming offer but then accepted one that was worth more or less the same financial value. The difference was in the attitude of the publisher: in the first instance I felt like Iwas being screwed and I didn’t believe the publisher’s heart was in it; I felt the exact opposite with thesecond publisher and I was right to do so. The advantage I had was having two books already published by Penguin. I wasn’t as vulnerable as a writer who wants it so much they can’t turn an offer down. Going back to when Penguin first told me they wanted to publish my books, I would have accepted anything they offered – I would have paid them! As it was, Penguin were incredibly fair and honest but that is not always the case. In the end, you have to trust to your own self-worth – realistically so – and not put yourself in a position you might regret. Easier said than done, of course.
Would you recommend self-publishing?
Yes, yes, yes – and no! While I was at Dubray Books, I was asked by Vanessa O’Loughlin at The Inkwell Group to give a talk from a bookseller’s perspective on self-publishing. I arrived with a litany of horror stories of badly produced, badly designed, badly edited books that should never have seen the light of day. But during the course of the conference, as I listened to other speakers such as Catherine Ryan Howard, I realised that the digital revolution had opened up a whole new world of opportunity. Specifically, it occurred to me that I could ask for the rights to my first two books back from Penguin and I had the text of two novels that were good to go. With the emergence of the Kindle as the default e-reading device and the aggressive expansion of Amazon, I was able to earn some money from re-publishing my first two books. This digital self-publishing revolution led to huge advances in the quality of self-published physical books too as writers realised that, if you weren’t professional in your approach, you would be found out and your book wouldn’t sell. The concurrent rise in social media makes it a tough, judgmental world out there and if your book isn’t formatted correctly there’ll always be somebody willing to tell the world. As a result of each of these factors, I believe the stigma of self-publishing has largely disappeared – in pretty much the same way that punk blew apart a staid, moribund music business in the seventies. So while Dancing to the End of Love was being repeatedly rejected, I could take solace from the fact that thousands of people out there were buying my first two novels – which was great for feelings of self-worth. I also took the opportunity to flag the existence of Dancing to the End of Love to publishers: it was there for sale on Amazon and to garner reviews but at a higher price so as not to sell the hell out of it. I wanted it to be noticed rather than bought – though, of course, if sales had taken off I’d have run with it and flogged it to death. But I still hoped it would be published one day and, now that it has been, I could have done without the messiness and confusion of that earlier version having once been available. So, many ‘yeses’ and one small ‘no’.
What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I do some writing related work just about every day, which is a very different thing to writing. Establishing and maintaining an on-line presence has become an intrinsic part of most writers’ lives. Okay, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy and John Banville probably don’t have to give it much thought but the rest of us don’t have that luxury. Does this, for example, answering these questions, qualify as ‘writing’? No, but it is very much a part of what I do as a writer. When I am writing, I’m a first thing in the morning kinda guy. I find creating something from scratch – as in, getting something down on paper for the first time – incredibly sapping and will write for a few hours only before being done for the day. It’s different if I’m editing or doing a re-write: I can put in twelve or fourteen hour days and not even think twice about it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Happily not but I think that’s because I don’t sweat it when it’s not there. If I have a book to write, a story to tell, I’m in the zone all the way; if I haven’t got a book in me, I can’t just magic one up so why would worry about it?
What projects are you working on at the moment?
If I told you that I’d have to kill you. Seriously, there’s something that’s been in my head for a while now and when the time is right I’ll get on it like a car bonnet. Since the publication of Dancing to the End of Love, I’ve been working with other writers through The Inkwell Group – reading and assessing manuscripts, and giving advice on various aspects of the publishing world. I’m really enjoying this role and have found that my combined writing, self-publishing and bookselling experience provide a pretty unique perspective that is of use to other writers.
What has been your writing highlight in your life so far?
Whoa – good question! There have been so many but having the Penguin logo on the spine of two of my novels is pretty hard to beat. It’s something I’ll always have and nobody can ever take it away from me.
What do you like to read?
I’m a fairly eclectic reader and one of the joys of working as a bookseller is being blessed with access to books from new and developing writers. Probably the best way to illustrate my tastes in reading is to list a selection of some of my favourite books from the past year or so: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk by Ben Fountain; A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas; The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie; Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter; All Involved by Ryan Gatis; The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I could go on.
Where do you write?
When I’m at home I write in one of the bedrooms. I have an old laptop that has never been connected to the internet (I’m not sure if it even can!) and I attach a keyboard and a mouse. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to attend various writers’ residencies – in Spain, California and Ireland – and they’re the best opportunity to write a substantial body of work. And I’ve also created my own little mini-residencies – finding cheap accommodation in far-off and not so far away places. A good chunk of An Accident Waiting to Happen was written in Crete while a fair bit of Where the Rain Gets In was written in St. Ives, Cornwall. My parents’ house in York is a well-used and well-loved writing refuge, and one of my favourite writing experiences was in Valencia when my daughter was staying in the city and I was there in case she needed me – nice work if you can get it!
Dancing to the End of Love is available in bookshops and on Amazon.
LadyNicci comment: I enjoyed the refreshing honesty of Adrian’s interview. He puts across so well the pure joy an author must feel when they learn a major publishing house qualifies their work as good enough to be invested in and put on the shelves. He is right that he has a unique perspective on the publishing world having worked for so many years as a professional book seller and as a writer. He can see both sides and he is now helping other authors on their path to publication. He touches on the realities of being a novelist – having a young family and realising fiction writing will not support, having had success, then waiting years for it to be realised again in the traditional publishing sense, balancing writing with promoting your work through social media and other channels, and keeping up with technology and learning about the world of self-publishing. I agree on his perspective on the value of publishing deals – he chose to go with a publishing who valued his work, not just in the monetary sense, but in the respect of what he was trying to achieve with his writing. I’m looking to reading his novels, having heard so much about them and checking out his varied and eclectic reading list.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.