My short story collection “Love Doesn’t Work” (Dzanc Books, 2011) was my first published book, although of course I had been writing for years and years before that. In the mid-1980s, whilst living in various squatted accommodation in London, I wrote the unpublished novel “Mike’s in the Rain” which probably summed up my situation quite well – the skylight over my bed leaked very badly, I remember. I was twenty-three years old.
In 1985 I went to live in New York – a big change from thumbing my way round India and generally levitating myself out of the humdrum world of university, where I had bored myself to distraction until graduating in 1984. In New York I worked off Wall Street and saw a world of intense urban life that London at that time could not touch. Coming out of the office in the evenings, I’d hear the dealers standing by the subway hawking cocaine in loud voices. Stressed-out businessmen stopped to buy – thankfully I wasn’t one of them, I was neither stressed nor a businessman.
I gave up New York and went to live in Barcelona, where I taught English and lived in a cavernous old apartment with a couple of budgerigars that flew freely through the rooms and roosted on a curtain rail. In Barcelona I wrote a collection of short stories “Tales of the Barrio Gotico” which was almost published but not quite. They were accepted by a publisher who unfortunately went bust before he could get them to the printers.
Oddly enough I went bust more or less at the same time. I seem to remember that for quite a few years I was doing various jobs here, there and everywhere, either teaching English or cooking in restaurants or working in factories, but somehow I ended up back on the road again and found myself living in a small apartment hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, where I managed to knock up another novel in a matter of months. Its title, rather Audenesque in tone, is “Walk in, Foreigner”. Again unpublished, which did not concern me particularly at the time. I don’t even think I submitted it to anyone, I knew it was dire. There was no Twitter or WordPress or Facebook in the late 1980s, only fattened publishers with rarely-seen cheque books in their inside pockets. One had the luxury of thinking they were rather too fat and indolent to understand the world of a young, lean traveller with many burning issues on his mind.
After Venezuela there was a brief lull, while I sneaked back to England and tried to establish myself as a more sensible man, again in the wilds of London which seemed quite placid after being chased by rabid dogs in Bangalore, hectored by bloodstained doctors in Merida or passed out in an abandoned, freezing hostel in the Himalayas, my guts pullulating with tiny worms. Yes, London felt distinctly friendly. As my writing had not gone so well, I decided to go into literary translation as a sideline. That’s when I had my first bit of luck: I contacted Naim Attallah’s publishing house Quartet and proposed a book to them. They were lovely. The chief editor – I am almost sure his name was Quentin Pickles – had a piano in his room. My editor was more than civil whenever I went in to see her. For Quartet I translated “My Golden Road from Samarkand” (Quartet Books, 1993), which sold so poorly that even Quartet had second thoughts about commissioning me after that. I was very excited when I heard that some literary heavyweight had included it in his Spectator Best 100 Books of the Year selection, however when I sought out his brief comment on it, found that he had greatly enjoyed the book in spite of “a rather leaden translation”.
Undeterred, I continued translating this and that for anyone willing to throw me a couple of quid, which I expertly caught like a sea lion waiting on sprats. I don’t want to become tedious here, so I won’t go on about my attempts to get a foothold in the film industry. For several years I worked on commercials and made a couple of short films, as well as some slightly better-paid and bigger jobs. For the most part film people are utter shits and it was with relief that I decided more or less in 2004 that I would not do much more film writing, unless some friendly, interesting and/or very rich person twisted my arm. No one of that description has come along as yet, although I have run into a few more film shits (names withheld).
I mustn’t forget the six London years I spent writing a historical novel on an eerie theme. “Unwitching the Lake”, it was called. I think most of my friends also found it very eerie, as I hounded them ghoulishly with heavy manuscripts, marked with frequent scrawled annotations. No one ever read it, except a publisher in Sweden, whose conclusion was: “This is most odd. A modern Swede has written a nineteenth century Swedish novel in English. Its only competitors are out of print, because no one reads them.”
After the disaster of “Unwitching the Lake” I endured a few last years in London, getting up early and catching the Piccadilly Line train to Hammersmith every morning, where I worked for a pathetic Internet company whose founders believed they would take over the world. Later they went bankrupt like everyone else, but this did not seem to concern them, as they had already plucked out enough investors’ money from their failed venture. I realised that Internet entrepreneurs and writers had a good deal in common. I mean that sort of mad blindness and determination to press on.
In 2004 I sold everything I owned and left the British Isles for ever. I ended up in a very small town on the West Coast of Sardinia, where I managed to buy quite cheaply a large falling-down house with a view of the sea. I’d say this was the beginning of a more productive phase in my writing. Further to the short story collection mentioned above, I wrote a novel, “The Maggot People” which Dzanc Books have promised me they’ll publish this autumn – in November 2014, that is!
This gives you a brief outline of my doings so far.
I’ll keep you in touch with further developments…
All best, Henning