Nobody Knows Anything

In his highly amusing anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter In his funny, anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (creator of such classic screenplays as “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” and “All The President’s Men”) famously said “Nobody knows anything”. He was referring to the fact that, despite decades of experience and the accumulated wisdom of thousands of studio executives, no one in the film business could accurately predict which films would be successful after they were released.

And, of course, he’s been proved right time after time – huge, epic movies costing a quarter of a billion dollars fail spectacularly (see “John Carter of Mars”… or perhaps don’t) while small, indie movies that even the film makers thought would find only small audiences, became huge blockbusters (“Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Napoleon Dynamite”).

Clearly, the same goes for fiction. Who foresaw the extraordinary success of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy? Who knew “Mommy-Porn” would be the Next Big Thing?

Back in the Eighties, before I published my first novel “Kissing Through A Pane Of Glass”, I was still trying to find my writing voice… and not having much luck.

Back then I wasn’t interested in writing anything that might be deemed “commercial” or “genre”- what I wanted was to write a Booker Prize winner and follow in the footsteps of my literary heroes Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. I started (and abandoned) numerous supposed “literary” novels. I even wrote two hundred pages of a comic historical farce before it occurred to me that the only thing farcical about the project was that I was trying to write it.

At the same time, I had become fascinated with sub-atomic physics and quantum mechanics, and what it could tell us about the ultimate nature of reality.

Although I had an academic background in sciences, it wasn’t the “science” that interested me so much as the theory that the way the cosmos operated at the sub-atomic level was not only stranger than one might imagine, but stranger than one could imagine!

Many of the discoveries made by theoretical physicists in the 1920s and 30s bore a remarkable similarity to certain ancient teachings in Eastern religious thought: I remember being completely absorbed by a book called “The Tao of Physics”.

Before I knew it, I had an idea for a new novel. It would be called “The Uncertainty Principle” (after Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg’s famous proposition that it is impossible to measure simultaneously both the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle with absolute accuracy or certainty.) The novel would take the form of a comic, surreal odyssey in which – over a few days, as he approaches his 30th birthday – our hapless hero Jonathan Muon tries to navigate a world which no longer operates in a way familiar to him, but as it might behave at the microscopic, sub-atomic level.

Yeah, I know: it sounds absurd, ridiculous… and impossible to pull off. But I was confident – or rather I was young, naive and had nothing to lose by giving it a go. I knew, even before I started, that the chances of a finding a publisher for a book like this was minimal. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: I really, really wanted to write it.

I can’t remember how long it took to write the book – a few weeks, maybe. Not long. It seemed to pour out of me with a rather beguiling “stream-of-consciousness” ease. When it was finished, I put it aside for a couple of weeks, and then when I felt enough time has passed, I read it through in one sitting.

When I got to the end I shook my head, smiled and thought: “What was I thinking?”

Oddly, the book was everything I had hoped it would be: it was surreal, it was funny (at least I thought so), it was thought-provoking… but I was pretty sure that it was also self-indulgent, confusing and just too weird to find a readership. When, years later, I found myself with a high-powered agent (who would later go on to represent no less a figure than J.K.Rowling) I didn’t even show it to him: by then I thought it an embarrassing experiment written by a neophyte writer who didn’t know what he was doing. The manuscript went into the drawer marked “Nice Try”, never to be seen again.

Until.

After many years of trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter, I decide it’s time to write a new novel. When the book (a thriller called “Implicated”) is finished, even though I still have my high-powered agent, I decide to self-publish (another story for another time). I enjoy the process so much that I get the rights to my previously published backlist (now out of print) and re-publish them all as ebooks. I achieve a modicum of success, both commercially and critically, and congratulate myself for taking the “indie” plunge.

And then, one day, I find “The Uncertainty Principle” sitting dusty and forlorn in a bottom drawer, and out of curiosity, I give it a read. And guess what? It’s still the same self-indulgent, confusing, weird book I recalled. Only, twenty-odd years on, I’m amazed to find that it’s still funny and still strangely thought-provoking too…

Well, you can guess what’s coming next. I give it a swift polish and release it into the wild. Only having neither the courage of my convictions nor the fortitude to withstand a slew of terrible reviews, I publish it as “Peter Michael Rosenberg WRITING AS Tyler Montreux”. I figure that, if there’s a shit-storm, I can always somehow blame it on Tyler…

All I hoped for was that maybe one person would read it and not think it sucked too badly.

The novel has been out for some months now. It has not achieved bestseller status – hell, it’s barely sold more than a few hundred copies so far. But here’s the thing: it’s garnered some of the best reviews I’ve ever received:

“The funniest book I’ve read in a long while. More than that, though. Intelligent and thought-provoking. In many ways insane. Most of all, a pleasure,” said one reader.

“Rosenberg makes existential angst fun in this surreal masterpiece! Hysterically funny and clever, there are too many brilliant insights to count!” said another.

“The craziness of Jonathan’s world immediately reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s works. I think this is the highest complement I could pay to an author. Don’t get me wrong, this most certainly isn’t a Vonnegut imitation. This is a very unique story told in a very entertaining way,” said a third.

These particular reviews gave me more pleasure than any that I’ve ever received. They not only justify the book’s existence but, in some small way, my own.

Perhaps I should have given it to my agent all those years ago? Perhaps it would have won me the Booker Prize? After all, as has never been clearer, when it comes to film, fiction, art or the economy: Nobody Knows Anything.

Especially me.

Advertisements

A Fortuitous Mistake…

Who, me?In the pre-internet days (and, for younger readers, we’re not talking about the Middle Ages) finding information on anything was a much harder proposition than it is today. For those of us, say, who wanted to learn about the art and craft of creative writing, about our only choice was to subscribe to one of the monthly magazines that promised to help aspiring authors climb the forbidding mountain that was “Publication”, albeit one rather precipitous step at a time.

These magazines – usually rather worthy and not very well designed –  were comprised mostly of “how-to” articles (of varying usefulness), the occasional author profile (sometimes helpful) and numerous advertisements for what was once known as Vanity Publishing (completely useless). Most of all, though, they peddled Hope: they made the seemingly impossible task of becoming a published author appear – if not easy – then at least possible.

And one way of getting published was to enter the short story competitions that were a staple of these magazines. The nominal cash awards that accompanied a successful win were far less important than the chance of seeing your story in print, knowing that dozens – who knows, perhaps even hundreds (!) – of other subscribers would be reading your (now) prize-winning work.

Each month there would be a theme of some kind – perhaps it was to write a story from the point of view of a dog, or alternatively, you’d be provided with an opening line and all you had to do was write the rest of the story. It was a long while ago, and I no longer remember all the details.

Except for one time. And it’s one I’ll never forget.

It was summer – July, I think – and that month’s issue arrived just as I was about to head off on vacation for a couple of weeks. I had been writing without a break for months on end and had already decided that this would also be a holiday from words: I could read other people’s fiction, but I was not going to write so much as a postcard home. However, as I was setting off, I couldn’t resist flicking through the magazine briefly and noted that this month’s competition was to write a 2000 word story in which the first line of dialogue was: “Why me?”. Hmmm. Not particularly inspiring, but then the remits rarely were.

I thought no more about it. Until…

On the remote Greek island where I was enjoying my so-called “break” from words, the short story competition kept creeping into my consciousness, despite my every attempt to keep it at bay. And then one morning, I awoke from a dream with an image so striking that I knew I had to write it down.

A man, alone in his home, is awakened by a noise downstairs and goes to investigate. As he reaches the bottom stair, a huge hand shoots out of the darkness and pins him to the wall – a gun is pressed to his head and a voice whispers menacingly “It’s your time to die”…

To which, of course, our innocent homeowner has only one retort:

“Why me?”.

This image so preoccupied me that despite my promises to myself, I spent the rest of the vacation roughing out the story. Who was the gunman? What did he want? What had the homeowner done to deserve this? Was he really as innocent as he protested?

It soon become evident that these questions alone required more than a mere 2000 words to answer satisfactorily. So when I returned home, I started work in earnest on what would ultimately become my third novel, “Because It Makes My Heart Beat Faster”, which was later published in hardback by Simon & Schuster in the mid-nineties (and which has recently been re-published as an ebook by Mojito Press).

The novel received some great reviews, including a thumbs-up from the book reviewer of the UK’s premier broadsheet newspaper, The Times (of London) and a year later it was published in paperback

But here’s the thing. A few months after finishing the book I came across the issue of the writing magazine that had started the whole thing, and turning to the competition page, I was astonished to see that I had completely mis-read the guidelines for the short story competition.

The opening line of dialogue was supposed to have been: “Who, me?”

I had to re-read it several times before the weight of this finally sunk in. “Who, me?” said nothing to me, suggested nothing of note… it was completely forgettable. The only thing it could be, I thought,  was a reply to the equally uninteresting locution: “Hey, you…”

But “Why me?” – now there was an expression that had launched an 80,000 word suspense novel…

Looking back, it’s impossible to know if things might have been different had I read the guidelines correctly, but in my heart I suspect that the question “Why me?” buried itself in my subconscious in a way that the rather more anodyne “Who, me?” could never have done. Consequently, had I been in less of a hurry, had the magazine arrived perhaps a few days or even hours earlier, had I chosen to take it with me to read on the journey… well, then there might never have been a “Because It Makes My Heart Beat Faster”.

Needless to say, I am, to this day, extremely grateful for having made such a fortuitous mistake…