It’s baking hot, the holiday’s aren’t quite over, we’ve just had supper of fresh sardines under the vine in the garden, and made great inroads into a bottle of vinho verde. Time for a feel good song. Husband’s listening to this downstairs and has bumped it loud.
This lovely story was published in (Je Suis) Charlie Hebdo, and one of the journalists on the national radio thought it worthy of broadcasting this morning, though I don’t know which day the incident occurred. It’s an example of some streak in the French psyche that I find appealing.
It was in one of the Paris suburbs in the early hours of the morning, a teenage couple on a scooter was involved in an accident with a lorry. Both kids were in a desperate state when the emergency services arrived. The article describes the gestures of the team as they assessed the damage and began the stressful job of keeping the couple alive. Suddenly, a window was opened in a nearby apartment and music flowed out into the silence as someone began to play the piano. The medics listened, worked without speaking so as not to miss a note. Their movements calmed, they became more optimistic. As they carried the two teenagers to the ambulance, the music slowed and faded, ending on a majestic chord. The window closed, and the ambulance left.
The two kids are now out of danger, and as the reporter said, free to live and love and crash their scooter again. He went on to thank the anonymous pianist who would otherwise never know how the soothing music of her/his playing helped to save two lives.
I’m not French and never will be, but this is the kind of story that makes me think I’m really quite lucky to be almost French.
Painting by Gustave Doré
If our love rang out,
Fierce and moving as a symphony,
If it throbbed with the crystalline chords
Of the wind that blows between the stars,
If it pulsed and hummed with the power,
The majestic opera of a new-formed sun,
Would we still hear the music,
The rich, honey-dripping sweetness,
Of the blackbird’s song?
Chris Harrison is my last guest (appropriately enough) in this second round of The Author Hot Seat. On the face of it, Chris’s books sound…weird. Funnily enough though, I can immediately think of at least one person who would enjoy them. Are you listening Jane Risden? Read what Chris has to say and see if you end up as intrigued as I am.
J: Tell us what the story/your work is about, the setting, the background, and where it takes the reader.
C: The story is called Toten Herzen Malandanti. Toten Herzen are a rock band murdered in 1977, but thirty five years later a down-at-heel music journalist called Rob Wallet investigates the murders and discovers the band are still alive.
He persuades them to make a comeback and in TH Malandanti they’re in the studio to record their comeback album. The first since 1976.
The conceit of the Toten Herzen novels is that everyone thinks they’re a hoax created by Wallet. The book’s readers, unlike the characters in the novel, get a backstage pass to every element of Toten Herzen and know the truth. The band are vampires, they’ve turned Rob Wallet, but everything they do is perceived to be rock music excess or a bizarre publicity stunt.
The first novel We Are Toten Herzen asked the question: if you could live your life again what would you do? In Malandanti, the theme is loss and searching. All the characters are looking for something they either can’t have or can’t find. It’s about accepting the direction your life has turned and dealing with the future.
I think readers will recognise how circumstances determine the choices we make, and how much control we actually have over our own lives.
Rob Wallet is obsessed with the search for a valley he hopes can take him back to his childhood. A new character, Lena, is also looking for a valley, but she knows you have to die before you can gain access.
And the band, battered and exhausted by the antics and litigation of their fans during the comeback tour are looking for a new identity, a search that threatens to split the band up.
Readers can dive into the story as deep as they want. It works as ‘an entertainment,’ but it also acts as a camera to see how others cope with what life throws at them, and in spite of the novel being a paranormal comedy readers will probably find some very familiar scenarios.
J: What inspired the story in the first place?
C: Last year I did a lot of walking around Pendle in Lancashire. This is Pendle witch country and an area full of stories and myths. It’s a very evocative part of the world, quite a weird place when you’re a child, and prompted me to consider witchcraft as a starting point for the story.
The continuation of Toten Herzen’s comeback was fundamental to the novel, and after the six comeback concerts a new album was a logical next step for the band. The ideas came together once I knew how that link could be made between childhood memories, witchcraft and Toten’s revival. Not the easiest combination to pull together.
I think I might also have watched the film Hansel and Gretel and thought ‘why aren’t there wicked witches anymore? Let’s have some wicked witches again!’
However, I don’t believe life is as black and white as good versus evil. In Malandanti the ‘wicked witches’ have redeeming qualities, and the ‘heroes,’ Toten Herzen, can be sensationally evil when they choose to be. I like exploring the spectrum between the extremes of behaviour. That’s where interesting characters are found, not at the extremes.
J: True enough. When I read about the bad guy who is ‘the ultimate evil’ the ‘Dark Lord’ etc I want to know—why? The really interesting baddies have a grain of humanity in them, even if it’s an unpleasant human characteristic. And interesting good guys should have a dose of human failing to make them credible too. Back to your bunch of rock stars. Did you try to get agents/publishers interested? What reactions did you get? Have they been helpful in promoting/marketing your work?
C: I did the rounds with agents for the first novel, We Are Toten Herzen. The rejections were the standard replies, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting anything else. The current climate must be like a thunderstorm of self-published books coming through the door and into their inboxes. To stand out in that environment you have to have something special, extraordinary even.
I don’t even bother with publishers. The big ones won’t look at unsolicited material and the smaller publishers don’t have the weight to make a decent sales impact.
The second novel Toten Herzen Malandanti is out with an agent at the moment. I haven’t had a reply at the time of this interview.
To be accepted there has to be a coming together of key elements: the writing is the necessary standard, something grabs the interest of the agent, the agent knows an editor interested in the subject matter, the financial directors at the publishing house are convinced there’s a market and a profit to be made. That’s a lot of big obstacles to overcome and you have to be realistic.
Back in the nineties I had a manuscript called in by an agent. It was a comedy called Hades Stadium. The agent rejected it, but asked to read my next novel when it was finished. She gave me three opportunities to submit work and I blew it by rushing the second and third novels. That was a hard, but crucial lesson; don’t compromise in a bid to get representation. Agents can only work with quality writing.
J: Has it been a handicap not being able to stick a handy label onto your books?
C: Let’s have a look at what we’re dealing with here.
Toten Herzen – the band’s name is foreign, no one knows what it means unless they speak German. And they’re not even a German band. (Anglo-Dutch)
Rock music – people who remember the rock music of the seventies might get it, if they’re not dead of alcoholism or drug intake. Modern rock fans want their rock stars to be on a stage, not on the pages of a book.
Vampires – the less said the better. There are still some of us who want to write about vampires, but it’s not a good time to be a vampire.
Vampires who don’t bite a lot of people – these vampires are opportunists trying to live as normal a life as the music industry will allow. They don’t dress like Lord Byron, they’re not caught up in a thousand year war with werewolves, and don’t drive SUVs to school.
1970s – most young people don’t know what a television is, let alone epiodes of Rising Damp. So they won’t get the nostalgic references.
Horror – not horrific enough to sit squarely in the horror genre
Literary fiction – too coarse and vampiric to be part of literary fiction
Mystery – more human drama than mystery. There are mysteries in the stories, but they’re not the central element.
Urban fantasy – such a nebulous genre that only makes sense if it’s subdivided into something more specific.
Comedy – people expecting a laugh a minute will be disappointed.
I suppose my target audience are older people who are young at heart, too deaf to listen to music so have to make do with reading about it, and like their mysteries disguised as ’70s vampire sitcoms.
That probably accounts for about three people.
Publishers and marketing people will probably tell me my work is unfocused or too unfocused to be commercial, but that’s the way it is. I’ll just have to live with it.
J: Seems to me that what agents and publishers leave out of the equation is that many readers have eclectic tastes and aren’t afraid to sample stuff outside the mainstream. Maybe they’re just not prepared to take risks. So, how do you tackle promotion?
C: Having read the answer to four you won’t be surprised to know I have trouble with promotion!
My first line of attack when all this started was to create a ‘real’ band. Toten Herzen have a profile on ReverbNation with 196 fans. Earlier this year they were in the top 50 000 music acts worldwide – out of 3.5 million. They have their own website and Twitter accounts. But fans want to see their favourite bands live and hear new music, so there was a big drawback there. The band’s limited following didn’t translate into book sales.
Free giveaways on Kindle led to triple figure downloads of the first novel, but no knock-on effect on book sales. I decided not to continue that policy.
Twitter and Facebook don’t work. I don’t care what anyone says, carpet bombing social media hasn’t made any self-published author rich. The effort needed to maintain that level of exposure is wasted time.
For the second novel I tried press releases, but there’s been no response to newspaper articles. And leaving flyers on car windscreens will get you an on-the-spot fine in some places if the Environmental Inspectors catch you. (Littering by-laws.)
I do wonder if there’s any merit in investing in ISBN numbers and trying to get the books into those archeological sites known as book shops, but it’s speculative investment. However, something tells me that if money as well as time is spent to make the whole self-publishing thing look and behave more like real publishing, the book buying public might notice.
Professional editing and proofreading, print on demand that is linked to reputable catalogues and distributors, a publishing imprint rather than doing it all in the name of the author. There is still a distrust in self-publishing on the side of the book buying public, almost like an element of risk when it comes to paying money.
In short I haven’t got a clue once the book is finished and there is no real effective advice out there. Just a lot of piss and vinegar from people who have not made a success of it themselves.
J: Shame, I had hoped you’d have a bit of optimistic advice to pass on! Is there a particular author whose readers might also enjoy your writing?
C: I doubt it. Readers of an established author will expect their standards of writing and I don’t compare to Martin Amis’s level of razor sharp wit, or Umberto Eco’s manipulation of esoteric themes, or Dan Brown’s insatiable conveyor belt of twists and turns.
I try to write curious, intrigue, humour, humanity. The above three authors do the same, but incomparibly better. That’s why they’re published authors and I’m not.
J: Don’t do yourself down! Loads of people read unknown writers as well as the established classics. Anything else, advice, experiences, anecdotes you’d like to add, feel free.
C: Advice – for ***k’s sake ignore everything you read on the internet unless it comes from someone who is successful and they’re telling you how they did it.
Rewrite your novel over and over until it’s as good as your natural abilities will allow. If you can afford an editor and a proofreader invest in their services. You can go on holiday next year.
Experiences – ignore ‘free kindle’ promotion sites. Don’t pay websites that claim to provide fantastic exposure for your book. The only people visiting these sites are other authors and other ‘we’ll promote your book’ website owners.
Anecdotes – when I was putting the music of Toten Herzen online someone said it was refreshing in an age of computer-generated music to hear people playing real instruments. One day I might introduce them to the band responsible!
To finish, let me give a big thank you to Jane for giving me this opportunity to invade her blog with this interview. I feel a reciprocal arrangement is needed.
J: It was a pleasure to host you, Chris. You’ve given me at least a lot of food for thought. Below are links to Chris’s sites and links to Smashwords if you are tempted by a vampiric rock band.
We Are Toten Herzen – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/426032
Toten Herzen Malndanti – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/448215
With all the beauties of the morning
I composed a symphony
To strum the swallows balanced in the whispering breeze
With the music of what you meant to me.
I hummed the bee-strung spires of buddleia
Nodding from ruined windows emptied of their glass,
Sung the river water dimpled by the wind
And dappled shadows shifting on the grass.
I wove the warbler’s rippling song
And the sound of shimmering silver light
Pouring from the poplars’ wind-turned leaves
With the shrill glissando of the falcon’s plunging flight.
I brushed it with the scent of roses
And abandoned garden walls all overgrown,
The dark, damp smell of riverbanks,
The lizard-golden pulse of sunny stone.
I gathered a chorus in the dawn’s pale light
From the far off woods where the blackbird sings
And filled the silences between the beats
With the fragile fluttering of butterfly wings.
I make the music swell until it almost drowns
The echoes bouncing hollow back and forth
Cold enough to crack the stones
And break the bones of the frozen arctic north.
But winter words slip wrapped in rags of night’s indifference
Between the chords of sunbeams rippling from a mocking sky,
And rumbling low beneath the beat of purple spires
The single word that you had left to say—Goodbye.
This painting is by Feike de Vries who was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce it here. You can see more of his excellent work on his website, inspired by the immense waterscapes of the North Sea coast.
The picture was sent to me by Peter Bouchier who loves seascapes and broad skies. Being Dutch I suppose it’s in the blood. Visit his blog if you also love the sight of tall ships and the open sea.
I told Peter that if the painting inspired a poem I would post it so here it is. To my mind, the great, awe-inspiring scenery of Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, even the Amazon rainforest, is magnificent but ephemeral. Mountains are eroded by the wind and the sun, cracked by ice; the forests are cut down and despoiled. But there is something completely timeless about the flat land and seascapes of northern Europe, Le Plat Pays, where the sea and sky stretch from horizon to horizon. Here there is nothing but eternity.
Pale curtains of light
Fall through the cloud that
Stretches, a jostling ocean that
Presses down on the heaving sea that
Rolls ceaselessly against the shore that
Hangs to the water’s edge
Raked by watery fingers that
Claw back borrowed stone and sand.
Pressed between relentless sea and sky
Beetling into elemental insignificance.
I thought I’d add a musical bonus: Jacques Brel’s Plat Pays. I usually find Brel a bit hard to take, verging on the histrionic, but here, singing about ce pays qui est le sien, he comes over more passionate than hysterical.