Thailand might not seem like the most obvious place to start a historical novel set in early 1800s Argentina, but it made a lot of sense at the time.
It was a cheap place to hole up for a few months and get some serious work done. The glorious weather, perfect beaches, and competitively priced drinks were just a bonus.
One side effect was that I got used to writing in bars and restaurants. And on the move. Two essential skills for the modern-day wandering minstrel.
That was five-and-a-half years ago. I finished A Storm Hits Valparaíso last night. As in, completely finished. Editorial suggestions incorporated, back-matter written, the whole enchilada. It just needs proofing, a cover, a blurb, formatting, some testing, then uploading – which should take only a few days.
Five-and-a-half years is a long time. I was in my twenties when I started this book. I’m now well into my thirties. Older, but certainly not wiser.
Since I started in Summer 2006, this book has taken me on an interesting journey. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to be in Thailand at all. I had finished up an overtime-heavy contract and headed off to India with the idea of traveling around for a month or so, before settling down in a (relatively) quiet spot and getting some work done.
The idea for this book came some months previously, at the tail end of a nine month trip around South America (thankfully rescuing me from an awful “comic” novel about a failed hand model). On my return to Dublin, I spent a few months researching, but work commitments prevented me from really sinking my teeth into it.
By the time I finished a four week trek around Southern India, I was champing at the bit. I had planned to work for an NGO in Tamil Nadu. They seemed flexible with the hours, and it looked like I would have a lot of time for writing. Somewhat fortuitously, en route to the office, I overheard some of the workers bitching about their jobs and the management. I listened in for a good hour, before it became clear that I was going to have to come up with another plan.
A plane, train, and an automobile later I was on the west coast of mainland Thailand, in a town called Khao Lak – which had recently been devastated by the tsunami, and people were just getting back on their feet. The first time I went for a swim on the beach, I found the watery depths held clues to the town’s tragic past: the twisted and torn remains of the beachfront hotels, dragged underwater by receding waves.
I wrote a lot on that beach; it was a quiet, melancholy spot – perfect for writing.
More often, though, I wrote in one of the bars and restaurants that lined the town’s only real thoroughfare – the road to Burma. During the day, I usually had these places to myself. Tourism had not yet returned, and the only foreigners around were those working for a local NGO working with tsunami victims.
The only notebooks I could pick up were these copybooks for Thai schoolkids, who are clearly into cryptic idioms and psychedelia. I have piles of these back in Ireland. I used to dream of becoming a famous writer, and, after I shuffled off this mortal coil, some intrepid scholar digging through my “papers” and discovering these. That still makes me chuckle.
2006 was also the summer of the World Cup, and I remember breaking my foot during the final (which, in Thailand, was on in the middle of the night). Because of my state of, em, refreshment, I thought I had just bruised it, and stayed for the second-half (and extra time and penalties), then walked the two miles home to where I was staying.
Naturally, the next day it was swollen to a disturbing size, and since my “anesthetics” had worn off, I was in extreme pain. And let me tell you, hobbling around on crutches in 36C (95F) and 90% humidity is no fun. Neither is a border-crossing to renew your visa which involves clambering in and out of several fishermen’s boats. My cast stunk of fish guts for days after.
Anyway, by the time I left Thailand in September 2006, I had made a good start on the book – several chapters written, most of the book outlined, major plot points figured out, and I had a handle on most of my (many) characters.
I thought I would be done in 12 months or so. Oh, the naïveté!
The next two years saw me dipping in and out of temporary contracts while moving from Thailand to Dublin, to Bradford, to Portugal, to Kosovo (long story), before returning back to Dublin again to work and plan and save for a research trip to South America.
Somewhere in the middle there I gave up on this book, and didn’t write a word for almost a year. I thought I was done. It was just too hard, and I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. In fact, that was part of the logic in going to South America. I thought if walking down those streets again couldn’t rekindle the fire I first felt, nothing would. It was a gamble, but when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
I started in Mexico, and the urge to start back on the book came pretty quickly. I snatched moments here and there between hikes and trips and tours and bacchanalian soirées, but was anxious to get to South America itself and get really working.
After an unforgettable 5-day boat trip from Panama to Colombia, and a quick detour to Santa Marta – where Simón Bolívar had spent his final days while the ungrateful government attempt to push him into exile – I flew down to Buenos Aires and got stuck into the book.
Three months of hard work later, I moved up to Brazil. The southern hemispheric summer had made Buenos Aires an unbearable, windless 40C (105F), and the beach was looking pretty attractive. Three months of that, and I was motoring.
I moved home just long enough to meet my friends and family before decamping to a small fishing village in Portugal. It was spring 2009, and the end of the book was in sight. By the time summer hit, I was turfed out of the place I was living to make room for tourists, and I moved to Prague, and then the Czech countryside.
I finished the book that summer, writing most of it in this quiet bar with cheap beer and big tables, and the same collection of guys staring over at me every day, wondering what the hell I was doing with the mountain of books, reams of paper, and the increasingly frantic look on my face.
I got introduced to them towards the end of the summer, and with the help of a kind translator, I asked them what they thought I had been up to. The answer cracked me up. Taxes. They thought I had been trying to figure out my taxes all summer!
I finished the first draft a few days before I had to return home to Ireland. There was this awful anti-climax. I don’t know if I had expected the heavens to part, or Mexican trumpets, or what, but I remember feeling empty, deflated (and generally unbearable to be around).
That was good preparation for the agent search, but before that commenced, I let the MS sit for 5 weeks or so, then revised the whole thing. It was ready (or so I thought), and in October 2009, I sent out my very first query – the agent at the top of my list who represented one of my favorite writers, Louis de Bernières. I was aiming high, and full of all the delusions of a new writer, and yet to become cynical, jaded, and doubting.
I wrote her what I thought was a charming letter (and which, I was to discover, bore no relation to a standard query), and she responded straight away, demanding a partial. I sent it off with high hopes and retired to the pub to toast my good fortune and imminent Booker Prize.
Needless to say, I got a quick rejection. The book wasn’t even close to being ready, but I didn’t know that yet. Undeterred, I mailed off the first few chapters to 10 or 15 UK agents, with SAEs and all that. I think I got two replies – both form letters. The rest didn’t even bother using my pre-paid, pre-written envelope and binned my pages.
I took that as a sign, and rewrote the book again, hoping to do justice to the wonderful story I had in my head, and to the amazing things I had seen while researching the book. I also started learning more about the business – a stage every new writer must go through, as the scales cruelly fall from their eyes.
By Christmas 2010, after moving to Sweden, I had attended workshops, writing groups, and conferences, devoured books on writing and editing, cycled through several more drafts (each time convincing myself it was the last), and amassed an impressive pile of rejections.
At this point, I had pretty much given up on the novel. I couldn’t see how to make it better, or how to interest an agent, either in Ireland, the UK, or the US. I hadn’t given up on writing, I had achieved limited success with short stories, just enough to convince myself I could write to some extent, but thought this MS was a dead duck. Then an agent emailed, hoping I hadn’t signed with anyone yet. We spoke on the phone, and he was very, very keen on my book and said all sorts of lovely things about my writing.
He must have changed his mind, because that was the last time we had any contact. But that didn’t stop me hoping for another few months that he was just backlogged, and I kept the fires burning by getting more full requests, and talking with another agent on the phone who was interested. None of it worked out, and by March 2011, I had trunked the novel and started something new.
This new book was based on a good idea – a great one even – but I was so down on myself and my writing that it just wasn’t working for me. I contemplated walking away from writing altogether, more than once.
Diving into self-publishing in April changed all of that, and in a few days I will finally publish this novel. I had planned to publish in the summer, but a dalliance with the wrong editor set me back some. I then sent the MS to my current (superb) editor, almost as a cry for help. She quickly stopped me running in the wrong direction, and gave clear, detailed advice about what was strong, and what needed work.
I got distracted by other projects in the meantime, and worked on it now and then, but really started knuckling down in October, and was working on it exclusively, full-time. A couple more drafts, and one more edit later, and now I am finally done.
But this time I don’t feel empty or deflated. I feel pumped. Because nobody is standing between me and my readers.
Trade publishers defend their model by pointing out that publishing is a collaboration. I don’t deny that, and I have assembled a formidable team.
My editor and cover designer have years and years of experience in publishing. My map illustrator is supremely talented. And I do the formatting myself because I’m a masochist.
The finished product will be exactly how I want it to be. But most importantly, it won’t be lost in a slush-pile, queuing for the inevitable quick rejection by an unpaid intern. It will be published. It will be read. And that makes me so happy, I could do a little man-cry.
A Storm Hits Valparaíso will be uploaded in a few days, and should go live pretty quickly after that. If you want a copy, you will be able to pick it up for $4.99. It’s 400 pages (100,000 words), so you will be getting a lot of story for the price-tag.
I don’t usually “launch” the book (i.e. tell the world) for a day or two after it’s available – to give me time to correct any errors or typos. Those on my New Release Mailing List always hear first, so if you want to sign-up, just click here. I only send out a message when I release a book or have major news (averaging an email every 1.5 months or so), and will never share your details with anyone.
As for the rest of you, I’ll post here when the book is live, assuming I don’t get distracted by beer and turkey legs. I won’t be revealing the cover until release day, but to whet the appetite, you can see the beautiful map I commissioned on the right. It was drawn by the supremely talented Jared Blando, who does all sorts of illustrative work, and I highly recommend him.
In many ways, this book has been a weight on me for a few years now. I often fantasize about what it will be like to finally get it out there – to start working on new projects without this novel nagging in the background. I picture myself churning out stories at the speed of light.
I probably won’t be that fast, but I promise the next won’t take five-and-a-half years!