I don't do book reviews here often. In fact, I'm not sure I've done any book reviews here. Which is a complete shame because there are so many out there, and I've read a few of them, and I'd like to share those with you. Today, however, we'll focus on one.
"Andrew Blackman's debut novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, February 2009) won the Luke Bitmead Writers' Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. It tells the story of two young Londoners who, inspired by Jack Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road, embark on a similar search for meaning and freedom in modern-day Britain."
Soon after I met Andrew Blackman in the blogosphere, I planned to read his novel. It took me well over a year to finally buy it and read it. I'm lame, yeah. But I'm glad I got to it! This book is a gorgeously written, literary narrative that brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion. Especially the end. At first I thought I would hate one of the main characters, Neil:
Compared to my own sad, shambling existence in the shadows of life, his was a kaleidoscope. I peeped from behind my mother’s curtains at the world outside and wrote about people like Neil. I never believed that he really existed until I met him.
Blackman brought to life a world I've never known: that of two young men, one completely reckless and full of life, the other so stiff you could snap him half, rambling about the English countryside getting into trouble, sleeping with girls, and pretty much breaking any rule they can find. As soon as I thought I'd figured out the novel, thinking it was all about Neil and his crazy existence, Blackman pulled back the fine layers of his story to reveal something much deeper and poignant. All of a sudden his main protagonist, Jack, came to the forefront. Everything about him I could relate to: his feelings of failure, his struggle to feel alive in an increasingly stiffling world, his constant comparing himself to others. This connection I felt to Jack took me back to my high school years, my college years, and then reminded me that I still deal with these feelings now. By the end of the novel Jack helped me view things from a different angle.
Blackman's prose is rich and flawless. His descriptions brought the story to life, each one like a rolling wave, constant and sure. On the Holloway Road combines this lovely prose with strong characters and a gripping plot, creating a novel you shouldn't miss.
MDA: First, I'd like to let you know how much I enjoyed your novel, On The Holloway Road. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and when you started writing in general?
Andrew: I'd always wanted to be a writer, but never really believed I could do it. So although I wrote bits and pieces in my spare time, I didn't really take it seriously. Instead I got a 'sensible', well-paid job as a corporate banker, first in London and then New York, and then for three years I worked as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. I was writing and getting paid for it, yes, but I was still being 'sensible' and only taking a half-step towards doing what I wanted. I found myself getting up at 5:30am to write my own stuff before going to work, where I wrote other people's stories.
So in 2006 I moved back to London and for the first time really focused on writing fiction. I found temp jobs at nights and weekends to pay the bills, and during the days I wrote. I finished a novel, sent it off to agents and publishers, and accumulated a large manila folder full of polite but firm rejection letters. I revised it, sent it out, and got more polite but firm letters to add to my manila folder. In November 2007, for a break, I entered the National Novel Writing Month challenge to finish a novel in a month. I started on a completely new idea, something about a couple of young guys in London who set out to emulate Jack Kerouac's famous road trip in England, but discover that it's not as easy to be free and spontaneous in 2008 Britain as it was in 1950s America.
The result was On the Holloway Road. Of course I edited it later, but not very much - the basic manuscript was done in a month, and it was a lot better than the other novel that I'd spent years working on. For the first time I was writing for myself, not an imagined audience, and it worked really well for me. After a few months I entered On the Holloway Road for the 2008 Luke Bitmead Writers Bursary, a prize for unpublished authors. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, and to my amazement I won. The book came out in February 2009 and has done well - it was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, and picked up a few decent reviews.
MDA: Wow! You've had such great success so far! Can you tell us if you'll be publishing any more books with Legend Press? Do you have an agent?
Andrew: Yes, I do have an agent, James Wills of Watson Little. He has been great in reading the drafts of my next novel and making suggestions for improvements. Right now I'm concentrating on getting it finished, and will let James advise me on the best thing to do next. I've been really happy with Legend Press and how they handled On the Holloway Road. They are not a very big publisher, but managed to get my book stocked in all the main bookshops in the UK, and have arranged lots of events for me to help get the word out. So I'd be happy to work with them on future books, but nothing's fixed right now.
MDA: That's fantastic you have such a great agent and press! I'm truly jealous because I love the idea of going small and still being recognized as you have. Amazon recently reported that ebooks are selling more than paper books. How do you feel about that? I already know you're a fan of the small press, but how do you feel about self-publishing and the ebook rise?
Andrew: To be honest I'm a little old-fashioned - I love paper books, and it's always been my dream to have a house large enough to have a room of my own with bookshelves from floor to ceiling around all four walls (right now they're in big piles all around the flat!). When I had On the Holloway Road published, Legend Press emailed me lots of pdfs to proof during the editing process, but the excitement when I received the first physical copy was completely different. As I held it in my hands, ran my fingers over it, saw my name on the cover and flicked through the pages, I felt for the first time that I had realised my dream. Personally I'd hate for paper books to disappear.
I also worry that the way we read will change, as the nature of electronic media is very different from paper. As more features are added to ebooks, they could become more like the internet - full of links to other books or websites, less linear and more associative. Of course there's a lot to be said for that, but I do like the way that right now you can read a book from beginning to end without distractions, and I worry that even the way we think could change quite radically in a very short time. Perhaps the changes are for the better, but I don't think we've really thought through all the implications.
I'm a lot more positive about self-publishing. To me it's great that so many people can now publish so easily and cheaply - it's very democratic, and is one of the things that technology is so good for. I never considered self-publishing for myself, because I am very bad at marketing and publicity, and have no interest in doing it - I prefer to write. With the traditional publishing model, the publisher takes a large percentage of the profits, but the advantage is that they get your book into the shops, they promote it, they use their media contacts to get reviews and profile articles published, etc. With self-publishing you're entirely on your own and have to do a lot of work to generate every sale. It's not for me, but it works for a lot of people and I think it's a very positive development.
MDA: For our last question I'd like to ask you what the one thing is that you want from being a writer. Is it fame? Sharing your work? Creating something beyond yourself and growing? I could go on and on.
Andrew: I've always been quite a shy person, and I often feel that in conversation I don't express myself very well. When I first discovered writing, back in my childhood, I loved the fact that I could take my time and get it right. There was no need to just blurt out whatever came into my head and then regret it later; I could think about what I really wanted to say and put that down on the page. I think today it's still more or less the same impulse. It's having ideas buzzing around in my head but finding that when I open my mouth they come out all garbled. Writing gives me the space and time to work through those ideas and express them in the clearest possible way.
MDA: It's scary how much I relate to your last answer! Thank you for taking the time for this interview! Where can we get your book, and do you know when your next will be out?
Andrew: No problem, thanks for reading the book and coming up with some good questions! The best way to buy On the Holloway Road if you're outside the UK is to go to the Book Depository, where they now offer free worldwide shipping. Alternatively you could go to Amazon UK, or Amazon US to get the Kindle edition or buy from a 3rd-party seller. The eBook is sold through UK bookshop Waterstones, and finally if you want a signed copy just email me and send me enough to cover the cost of the book and shipping to wherever you are. Or if you're in the UK, you could always go to a real, physical bookshop and pick it up from the shelf!
The next one will probably not be out until next spring or summer at the earliest, and that's assuming that I finish soon and that my agent loves it and says it doesn't need any more rewriting. Both quite optimistic assumptions, but I think writers have to be optimists :-)