A few weeks ago a book I’d written became a best-seller. As you can imagine I was pretty happy about this and proceeded to get roundly drunk and throw up in a pair of trousers. All I can say in my defence is that the trousers seemed like a good idea at the time, though did produce a moment of shock the following morning.
The reason I went on such an apocalyptic rampage was not that it had gone best-seller, but that it was the final culmination of five years of pain and struggle. A struggle caused by writing a book that did not feature a vampire, lawyer or maverick cop, but a bartender.
Bartenders it seemed were not viewed as a suitable subject for fiction, but something that exists on the fringes. They are the one who dispenses advice to the heartbroken hero, who breaks up the fight, or sleeps with the girl and then never calls her again, the streetwise fixers who the cop goes to for information with a discreetly slipped fifty, but not the star. Never the star. The hospitality lifestyle I also discovered was viewed negatively; too sleazy, too hedonistic, and according to one publisher, who I will hereby refer to as Tom A**clown, too ‘pointless.’
I worked in a bar for 15 years and it was never pointless. On any given night it felt like I was living in a novel, or in some twisted sitcom starring a cast of thousands, all fueled by tequila, hope, or broken dreams; a story in which anything could happen and probably would.
Unfortunately if the first casualty of war is innocence, then the first casualty of a global recession, brought on by smart guys in sharp suits with low morals, is risk. Unless you’re writing about strangely age-inappropriate vampire relationships, or maverick cops who just don’t play by societies rules, then you have your work cut out for you, and the diversity, which makes reading books great and writing them fun, begins to vanish like smoke on a night breeze.
After five years dealing with the Tom A**clown’s of the world, my editor finally took matters into her own hands, mostly to shut me the hell up, and pushed Filthy Still through as an e-book to try and prove once and for all that people might actually enjoy reading about something other than angsty teenagers with fangs, or policemen seeking revenge for the death of a loved one, or perhaps a near relative; about lives lived after hours in Jagermeister soaked shoes, of what it’s actually like to be at the pointy end of a good night out in a far off land. I was given a marketing budget that could just about buy a round of drinks, which coincidently I spent on a round of drinks, and was asked to go away and not come back until I had some proof.
By the end of week one it had sold 20 copies and I began to regret not featuring more of the emotionally underdeveloped un-dead and considered a drastic rewrite. By the end of week two it was a best-seller in the U.K. By week three Australia and even India had followed suit. This happened not through advertising and marketing and focus groups, but because people liked it, embraced it and did the thing that people do so well; talked about it.
The moral of this story is that there’s no such thing as a subject unworthy of fiction. People only know what they like when they see it, and unless we get our risk back we’ll only ever get to read about prepubescent bloodsuckers, and nonconformist cops on the edge.
When you bartend you see wonders. You see violence, stupidity and laughter. You see love, lust and everything in between. You witness people at their most erratic, most hostile, and yet most vulnerable. You see the best and the worst of people, often in the same night.
What could possibly be better source material than that?
And don’t you ever let the Tom A**clowns of the world tell you different.