• LINEONE | 20 May 1999 |

    An interview from mid 1999

    Two rules every ambitious first-time novelist should adhere to: pick a simple title, and be able to summarise the plot of your book in two lines or less. With this in mind, I called my first novel Ayuamarca and cooked up a plot which required at least two or three paragraphs to describe. So much for savvy!

    To be fair to myself, I chose neither the name nor subject matter. My original idea was to write a darkly comic story about a young insurance agent and his eccentric mentor. It would be fun. It would be short. It would be snappy. The problems began when I started asking the regular creative questions: Who are these characters? Where do they come from? Why is the elder man so interested in the younger? What are the plot details?

    The answers came quickly but unexpectedly. Firstly I realised that the central characters needed to be gangsters instead of insurance agents (that was an easy enough imaginative jump). But then the fantasy angle hit me and things really started to transform. What I ended up with was a gangster tragedy rooted in a four hundred year old Incan mystery, a sort of cross between The Godfather and The Twilight Zone, which reveals its true self only as the plot unravels.

    I started writing it after I left college. I was living with my parents in the depths of the Irish countryside, so finances weren’t too pressing. The first draft took just a month to complete, but five years were to pass before the saga drew to its eventual end. I worked for a while in a cable company, an office job where I was helping people get connected to the sports channel or whatever, not what I really wanted, but it helped pay the bills. Following an eighteen-month break, during which I worked on other material, I spent six months of weekends putting together a vastly improved second draft. By this time I’d given up work to concentrate on what I really wanted to do. Then I started sending stuff off to various publishers and agents. As an Irish writer, I knew there were no opportunities for a book like Ayuamarca at home, so I targeted British companies and individuals, sending them the first fifty pages of the book and a detailed synopsis. It took a few months of tense waiting before an agent by the name of Chris Little responded and asked to see the rest of the book.

    You hear a lot of horror stories about agents. I guess some might be true, but I think most are hogwash. Chris, and a colleague called Gerry Vaughan-Hughes, were vital in knocking Ayuamarca into shape. They took the time to work on it with me, to make suggestions, to read through my re-writes, to help me along. It’s the sort of input every beginner needs, but which very few publishers are prepared to invest in an unknown. Without Chris Little, Ayuamarca wouldn’t have made it. Without agents in general, new writers would perish by their thousands. Bear that in mind, ye who would reach for the inky black stars of print.With Chris behind me and the book looking good, we hit the publishers. Responses were favourable but offers were few. Editors liked it but couldn’t pigeonhole it and thus remained wary. They wanted a straightforward horror or crime or fantasy or sci-fi novel, not one single book which mixed all four genres indiscriminately. They liked the idea of originality, but not originality itself. Which was understandable - publishers have traditionally been quick to follow, slow to lead - but frustrating.

    Finally, Orion sprang to my rescue and I was introduced to my editor, Simon Spanton, young, eager and willing to experiment (or so ran his ad in the personal columns). He recommended a few more changes, I ran through the book a couple more times, tightening it up a notch or two, and finally it was ready for print.Except… there was the name. Ayuamarca. Simon liked it. It’s an unusual name, and tricky to pronounce, but he knew I hadn’t picked it at random. The plot hinges around a mysterious file with a one-word heading: Ayuamarca, and he was happy to go with it. Those in the marketing department weren’t. They felt it was off-putting and customer-unfriendly. They wanted it changed.

    I stood my ground and held onto the title, though I did allow them to add Procession of the Dead to the front cover. In hindsight, having listened to numerous mispronunciations of Ayuamarca (for the record, it’s Eye-You-Ah-Mark-Ah), I think those in marketing were probably right! Oh well. Better to make your mistakes starting out than later on.People think that when you’ve sold a book, you’re instantly rich and famous. Not so. For a start, you don’t get all your money in one chunk. It comes in dribs and drabs, so much on signature of contract, so much on delivery of the manuscript, so much on publication, and then you have to hope for royalties and public lending rights. There’s a big long wait between cheques, so you have to spend as little as possible. The other thing about money is that they’re not going to spend huge amounts on new authors. They save their dough to concentrate on the big names. New writers have to build. At least the publishers had stressed all along that my book wouldn’t get a huge release so it was a bit annoying, but not a surprise. Still, Sarah Yorke-Palmer in Orion’s publicity department is doing her bit, and I have an Irish agent too. Maybe one writer in ten makes a living at it, but at least I am a full-time writer, so I must be doing something right.

    During the eighteen months it took to bring Ayuamarca out, I sold a second book, aimed at teenagers, to HarperCollins. Going under the cheery title of Cirque du Freak, it’s a very dark kids’ tale, one the Brothers Grimm would be proud of, due out in January, 2000 (assuming the world makes it that far).Title battles aside, I was delighted with the job Orion did on the cover and presentation. As a first-time author, I had practically no say in such matters, so all kudos for that side of the book must go straight to the publishers. Starting out, you have to place yourself in the hands of your associates and trust blindly to their judgment. Sometimes you don’t get lucky. Sometimes you do.

    So, five years down the line, here I am: my book in the stores, my career on the tracks, my future in hand. Hard work, imagination, guidance and luck all played equal parts. Any writer who says they don’t is lying. I’ve sold my next book to Orion: a tie-in to Ayuamarca called Hell’s Horizon; less fantasy, more action and intrigue, a much catchier name (I’m learning!) and negotiations are on-going with the Cirque du Freak sequels, of which there are many. Which just goes to prove that if you’re dedicated and stick with your dreams, the break will come in the end, however long it takes. Even if you’ve lumbered yourself with a title which nobody knows how to pronounce ….

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