Here we go. Action. The novel is upshifting. Great chapters coming up. Lots of name dropping and entertaining comic writing. In a car with Ben Hampton. Rollicking stuff!
Somewhere in Central Mass
“You Are Now Entering Athol.”
However you pronounce it, it can’t be good. Here I am on Highway 2, driving on the wrong side of the road, mind you, heading west and soon north on what appears will be a more significant motorway, Interstate 91. The things I do for my readers, for authenticity, for powerful matchless prose. From the looks of my trusty map, however, that four-lane affair will only last, for my purposes, about twenty minutes. Then I will stop in Brattleboro, Vermont, I think, to get my bearings and perhaps some sort of espresso drink, before my final assault on the Papineau holdings in or around South Derry in what they tell me is ski country. This is beautiful terrain, not quite the Berkshires proper but getting close. More like “Johnny Appleseed” country in hibernation, according to my Fodor’s. How do you like them apples? Dear, perhaps I need a pint.
Novak warned me ahead of time that yanks say “berk” instead of “bark” over here. Something about “the way it’s spelled,” whatever that means. But he added it would be entertaining for everyone – and proper -- if I would just go ahead and pronounce everything I see in an English way. They love that over there; eat it up with a spoon. They don’t want Brits coming to the states and trying to make like they’ve been watching Seinfeld every night for ten years.
“So don’t go into shops and try to fit in,” he says.
“Do you mean I shouldn’t say, ‘How’s it hangin’, girlfriend,’ to some logger?”
“On the other hand, don’t go all posh and condescending either. Remember what happened to Kipling.”
I don’t bother reminding him that I’ve been on, oh, umpteen book tours in America, and I already kind of get it. I just let him blather on because doing so seems to make him happy. And that’s what I’m all about, after all -- making people happy. Kipling, Hampton … Dickens.
Yes, sorry. I see you. Christ. Fucking lorries. How’s it hangin’ girlfriend? Must have drifted off there.
I landed in Boston yesterday and spent the night in a nice little inn in Cambridge on the square. I always feel I have to sleep in Cambridge when I come to Boston. I’ve many friends and acquaintances there now anyway, ever since my friend, the writer Lana Jones (not to drop names) was at Harvard for a bit. I was going to drive up last night, but Novak said, given the route once I’d crossed into Vermont, I’d be wanting to do it by the light of day. Was he trying to frighten me? Cleary he’s unaware that chaps from Maidenhead don’t scare easy.
I reckon it’s near obvious as to why I am driving to what this chap on AM radio refers to as The People’s Republic of Vermont to spend a few days as a guest of people whom I don’t know, but whom I’ve been repeatedly assured I will love and by whom I will be fascinated. Sounds like rather a tall order, tailor-made for disappointment. But that’s Novak, the personification of ‘high hopes.’
Bop-a-diddy-da-doo. Oh, fantastic. Now I’m singing Sinatra to meself.
“Once there was a silly old ram; Thought he’d punch a hole in a dam; No one could make that ram scram; He kept buttin’ that dam.” If my mum were in the car we could have a right singsong just now. But I’m alone. Perhaps I’ll belt out some Marvin Gaye or Billy Mackenzie.
One of the first times we worked together, Novak kept saying how he was uncomfortable talking about himself. Well, you’ll be happy to know, he’s over that. I don’t know if he was lying or not adequately self aware or whether he had truly been holding it in all his life in preparation for spewing all over an unsuspecting biographer. Is that what I am now, a biographer? And is it un-self aware or self unaware? Or soiled underwear? God! Get me out of this car.
In spite of my shaky grasp of the English language (or perhaps thanks to it), I’m on a book tour now actually for “Fit but You Know It,” my gutsy foray into teen lit.
“E gives back to the kids, that Ben ‘Ampton, don’t he. It’s no all about pounds, dollars and euros with ‘im, eh?”
After Vermont, Novak and I will drive down to New York together, debriefing all the way I imagine. I’m appearing “in concert” with Josh Rouse at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. The releases read, “His new novel, ‘Fit but You Know It,’ is about teenagers and written with a slightly younger readership in mind. But, have no doubt, says the BBC lead-in, it's vintage Hampton: funny, humane, touching and unfathomably spot-on.”
“Ben, how would you describe yourself?”
“Unfathomably spot-on and impossibly moist, Harriett.”
“Really. Are you a novelist or a fudge brownie?”
I like these ‘pairing authors with musical artists’ series. If you had to pick, would you rather see me and Josh or Tom Wolfe and Fernando Otero?
Novak, I’m happy to say, will be in attendance. Dinner at Balthazar in Soho and a restful night in the dreamy beds of the W. I will continue the tour, and he will catch a flight to Madrid where he is teaching some group of impossibly moist scholars at Universidad Complutense. I’m off to the usual suspects, with a few new recruits thrown in: Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., Austin (for some music), D.C. and home.
Last night I appeared at a reading, with Q&A, at a Brookline theatre. Then we all popped across the street to the Booksmith for the signing. Very nice. I started with a bald joke, questionably and riskily tying a health product for bald men to the “war on terror.” Don’t know what I was thinking about. Then I was head down and harrow for goal. It’s quite hilarious how many Arsenal questions I have to answer from football fans who come to the bookstores. It’s become part of the act, I suppose. For example, last night one American bloke asked, “Who do you think will start in goal on Saturday against Bolton?” Stuff like that.
Book signing events with readings and interviews are the tedious but necessary part of a published writer’s job. I answer practically the exact same questions over and over again. “Was it hard to write in a female voice? How much of the Niall character is really you? How do you write … books?” But it’s great, really, all these people coming to bookstores. Brilliant for books and literacy. That’s what it’s all about. Not to mention a small shot in the arm for the economy. Beats people losing their house in a casino, that’s for sure.
Obviously, by the looks of the detour in my book-promotion itinerary, I’m one step closer in my heart to devoting my (no getting around it) valuable time to writing a Hampton-esque book about an American couple who have lived in Europe for more their entire adult lives, were together for just over five years and have now been apart for almost twenty years. Sounds either a life-affirming tour de force or a dodgy cul-de-sac.
Adding to my agitation and worry is the impending phone call with either Rosalie McMahon or the publishers about the direction the manuscript is taking. Away from strictly football and my pithy cultural philosophizing and toward … whatever.
I wonder if Ian McEwen has these moments of sweating doubt.
I suppose every time an author – even an Ian McEwen or a Graham Swift or an Anne Tyler -- writes a new book he or she is putting reputation on the line. Humble though I’ve remained, I cannot deny that I have one – a reputation, that is – and, it seems, a pretty good one. And, I can tell you, a good reputation is a pleasant thing to have.
On the flipside, one evening, not long ago, my wife and three other female friends at a boisterous couples’ dinner party (in my home!), where in my opinion far too much drinking was taking place, concluded amidst great laughter that I was the sexiest, physically-unattractive man in Britain. The men present assured me that this was actually quite a coup.
My good friend Theo, believing he would bring the house down, said, “I completely agree … except for the sexy part.”
He brought the house down. Like I say, they were drunk. It was all quite disgusting.
I blushed and fidgeted and said, “You’re all bastards. Even you girls.”
My wife snuggled up to me, “Oh, honey,” and kiss-kiss-kissed me on the lips while squeezing my cheeks together. “I think just the sexy part is true, you tiger.”
I said, “Thank you, darling. You’re patronizing, condescending and rude. Go back to your seat please, over by … them. The rest of you, I’ve laced your drinks with anti-freeze. Later, you’ll wake from your alcohol-induced comas to become violently ill. That is, if you wake. Look at the time. This was fun. We should do it again.”
Unfortunately, no one heard a word I said because they were all laughing too uproariously and slapping tables and beginning a new round of borderline comedy at someone else’s expense.
So, my reputation. Something I’m resigned to accept, the laudatory bits from strangers the world over as well as the insulting bits, courtesy of my wife and my very best friends.
I admit I risked my name with the novel for young readers. So far, so good. I don’t seem to have repeated myself or embarrassed myself … yet. And I do not wish to repeat myself with this here book-in-progress by providing JJI Sports Reform Press with what amounts to an “Out in the Cold II – The Julius Novak Story.” I’m not. I don’t believe that’s what my audience want, first of all. Even though I more or less agreed to do it or something quite like it. And I took money. But I didn’t deposit it into my general operating account. I invested it wisely, so the principal is still there, if there’re any misunderstandings down the road.
Because, in addition to helping ‘up’ the book sales, appearing at so many signings and events around the world has aided my understanding about what readers and book buyers really like about some of the things I’ve done. I’ve been able to gauge in my head how people feel about my books. That’s just as important as anything we can learn from a spreadsheet. Yes, sales have increased with each successive novel, but that fact has a lot to do with increased name recognition, increased print quantity and increased marketing budgets. I’ve been catapulted into a different economic and strategic realm of the business. The people responsible for selling books for a living have pushed my last few books right out of the gate in a way that my first few efforts weren’t.
I’ve learned something about where the deepest levels of emotional attachment to my work lie. To unearth that genuine fondness, you have to go back to ‘Revolutions per Minute,’ the first novel, and ‘Out in the Cold,’ the memoir. I’m told that people who never read a book before, or who never really enjoyed reading, became relatively more literate after reading ‘Out in the Cold.’ And people who never liked novels started reading fiction after RPM. It’s like Americans who never voted before in their lives, voted for Ross Perot in 1992 (same year ‘Out in the Cold’ was published) and then became more knowledgeable about the political process and how it affected their lives and carried on voting. Whatever it takes, eh?
Style-wise and content-wise, I’ve slowly moved away from that impetuous and obsessive, exhilarating and gently astute mood and toward probably more philosophical, conceptual and moralistic questions. The transition has been equal parts natural and conscious, I think.
So, even though I plunge back and forth between the confidence of a proven performer and the fear of a novice, I would feel much better about doing what I know I can do rather than blundering forward with a straight sports bio. Yes, yes, I know, ‘with a Hampton twist.’ Like I’m something you squeeze into your fizzy water.
I suppose I’m practicing what I’m going to say to Rosalie. I really do owe it to her to contact her first and let her sell it -- or re-sell it -- to Jonathan James et al.
The more I think about the Novak-Marianne story, though, the more I think I can do something with it. What, I don’t know. What I don’t want to do is merely pay lip service to the fact he played for Arsenal once upon a time. I won’t just fall back on the football angle. Doing so, leeching onto football’s current state of ungodly and staggering popularity, would appear – rightly so – to be a crass marketing maneuver, even from someone with the football chops, if you will, of a Ben Hampton.
The hyenas of the critic world, many of whom I consider good friends, and the loyal book-buying public could conceivably string me up by my Home Counties thumbs for abusing my talents and my painstakingly-won cultural position to essentially sell out middlebrow, mid-list literature for the sake of a few hundred thousand extra quid in sales. These publishers and their obsession with sales.
Ah, U.S. 91 to Brattleboro, VT. Sadly, my Boston station with, up to now, a very clear National Public Radio seems to be fading away. Not a very strong transmitter. Perhaps these bloody hill-mountains are to blame.
But I keep asking myself, ‘What is the story?’
How does a soccer bio become a novel of turn-of-the-new-century manners worthy of a Whitbread Prize? You know, where does the emotional journey come in?
And how might I get at the guts of the female protagonist? Do I poke and prod, or do I just allow Marianne to talk and hope something comes to me? That method fell flat when I tried it with Novak. Am I not a journalist at the core? First of all, I should like to discover what motivated these two people to fuck up their personal lives by splitting. Then, of course, we’ll pray the details are mildly interesting and workable. Potentially, considering the impossible but legitimate backdrop of top-flight professional sports allied to the international art scene, I could be staring at a gold mine of a modern love story. Something that could end me up pushing away the paparazzi at Cannes.
It’s too much for me. Plus I look terrible in white. I should hand this project off to a proper writer like Phillip Roth or … Jackie Collins. But neither character has ever lived in New Jersey or LA. I suppose Roth could adapt Cologne and Tavistock Square to Patterson and Montclair. Thaxted as Malibu?
Right, I’ve gone off the rails. How nice for all of us. Panic on the streets of London. Panic on the streets of … Moreton-in-Marsh. My god, it’s all just hit me. With such almighty possibilities for a magnificent novel, perhaps my magnum opus, I’m setting myself up for gargantuan failure and humiliation. Christ. I’ll no longer be lovable. I’ll be a joke. I’ll be invited onto chat shows for all the wrong reasons. They’ll only want to mock and poke fun and have their giggle while I squirm in the dock. He had his moment in the sun, Ben Hampton, but now, alas, he’s on his way down. See how the other half lives, you wanker. Is this a nervous breakdown? Should I be operating a moving vehicle at 110 kilometers an hour on an unfamiliar motorway?
Get hold of yourself, man. She’s a sculptor. He’s an ex-footballer. What can I do with this? So far, he’s made her sound like an unbalanced shrew and himself a model of decorum. That should change sharpish, if I know my male characters. Shine a little light on something and rarely does the perfection not fade. Often the essence of a seemingly beautiful object becomes transformed to a thing quite less than its reputation. I sound like a mad scientist. I don’t want to manipulate or oversee a bloodletting, but it’ll do to humanize him. And her, if she doesn’t mind. I suppose what I could do is attempt to expose what went wrong – in an entertaining way – so that my loyal audience and scores of new readers can follow along as though they were there (like peeking in at Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts) and perhaps avoid making mistakes in real life similar to the ones made by my main characters. Then tie it all in to how the hell Arsenal ever lost to Wrexham.