Summer Reading for Locked-Down Travellers

Namisa and its sister island of Pundar are the setting for my new novel, A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, which is available now on an Amazon site near you. Namisa can be difficult to find on a map and exceedingly problematic to Google, but when readers get there, they will have the time of their lives. 

If I were to try to describe A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, I’d say it is a contemporary, modestly amusing, coming-of-age-for-late-developers kind of novel, set in a world of work for the inadequately qualified.

Had I written about a real country, I would, alas, have been by now declared persona non grata by its government. A very unhelpful literary agent, who shall remain nameless, told me to set my story in a known location so that readers could more easily understand it and identify with it. If I had done this, I would have cancelled out all of the novel’s unique selling points – its whacky invented locations, its Namisan language, and its idiosyncratic customs.

You need to know that I have looked for an agent for my writing since the 1990s. Many publications and many prizes later, I have come up blank. In my lifetime I only ever received one response from an agent and that was in 1995. On that occasion, the person concerned was a very well-known and respected American agent. He had the good grace to write back to this new fiction writer with words of encouragement and guidance. It is due to him that I am still writing today.

Because I believed in this particular novel, I took it forward and published it myself. Literary agents are very valuable if you find a good one. Otherwise, there is absolutely no need for you to go cap-in-hand to someone who doesn’t know the difference between an adverb and an adjective. This, sadly, has been my experience. So very often, the people who are supposed to arbitrate public taste, lack the knowledge or the skills to do so. If you believe in your novel, if you have polished it as well as you can, and then no one replies to your agent queries, publish your novel yourself and move on rapidly to the writing of your next book. There is no overnight success. Don’t spend a lifetime hoping. You could die in the meantime.

My protagonist Philip Blair is an ‘innocent abroad,’ but he learns quickly. Among the issues he has to contend with in his role as Officer of Culture and Education for an NGO in Namisa are the autumn-autumn uprising, Pundexit, cultural appropriation, British imperialism, immigration, racism, the role of women, office politics, and happy-happy hour cocktails.

Writers, if you believe in the book you are writing, then stick with it and make it as good as it can be. Trust your own judgement when agents or publishers tell you that your book won’t sell unless you do X, Y, and Z. They may well be right up to a point, but ultimately you – the author – have to write the book that you need to write.

If you enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and if you enjoyed The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, then the likelihood is that you will also enjoy A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa. If not, then you will need to wait for my next novel. Sorry about that!

Namisa – The Next Big Thing

Earlier this month I was tagged by my friend Sarah Barr – writer, poet, teacher and fellow coach (http://sarah-barr.com)  – to take part in the expanding blog, ‘The Next Big Thing.’ In this project, writers tag each other to write about their latest projects.

Sarah, who wrote about about her novel Talk to Me, was tagged by our mutual friend historical novelist Maria McCann (http://www.mariarosemccann.com), who wrote about her new novel Ace, King, Knave, which will be published by Faber next November. Maria for her part was tagged by the novelist and poet Rebecca Gethin (http://rebeccagethin.wordpress.com/author/rebeccagethin/).

I think you get the idea.

So as Sarah’s tagee, I’m taking the opportunity to write about my book A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, which I finished last March and which I have continued finishing ever since. No, seriously, I’ve finished it. Oh well maybe just a few more tweaks.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

At an interview in Manchester for a consultancy post based in Poland, the interview panel set me a task. ‘Imagine this,’ they said, ‘you are at a reception in an unnamed country. You are approached by an academic who, after an initial preamble, makes it quite clear to you that he requires substantial funding from your department in order to undertake a lengthy course of study in the UK. In an earlier briefing you were advised that this particular gentleman had already received more than generous funding from departmental coffers. How would you deal with his request?’

While for the interviewers this was a test of their candidate’s cultural sensitivity and diplomacy, for the candidate, this was a rather inspiring writing cue. The unnamed country became Namisa, an island that was ‘flying distance from Singapore’ and the setting for my novel A Traveller’s Guide To Namisa. The pushy academic became my manipulative antagonist Ito Bogadan, the thorn in the side of the Downing Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to support the academic and cultural development of former British protectorates such as this one. The hapless employee charged with managing the Foundation’s scholarship funds is Philip Eric Blair, a young man desperate to flee the tedium of his UK office job and find la dolce vita, by progressing from a role as Officer of Education and Culture, with responsibility for Namisa and its neighbouring island of Pundar, to Paris or possibly Rome.

Journeying back to London from Manchester after my interview, I found myself with the NamisanIndustrial Park commuters on the Trinamisa Express, gazing out at the yellowing Wunamisan grasslands: the brave new world of A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa.

What genre does your book fall under?

I suppose it would have to be listed as comic fiction, though ‘comic’ doesn’t quite do it for me. Lightweight satire perhaps.

Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

One evening I was having trouble getting back into the story after a break from the writing. I solved the problem by casting the whole novel as if it had been a movie. I hope these actors will like the parts I’ve given them:

Ewan McGregorPhilip Eric Blair, he of the ‘puppy dog stare,’ Officer of Education and Culture for the Downing Foundation, Namisa.

Philip Blair 2

Kate WinsletFelicity Manning, on-the-rebound romance novelist who masquerades as Philip’s wife, ‘a giant among men.’

Felicity Manning 1

Freida PintoTanita, Philip’s insightful Namisan love interest.

Tanita

Stephen FryNeil Bryant, Director of The Downing Foundation in Namisa, ‘long-limbed, like a giraffe.’

Bill Nighy Michael Robinson-Smith, travel writer extraordinaire.

Michael Robinson-Smith

Rowan AtkinsonHugo Danvers, Philip’s sneaky rival, ‘a pokey kind of fellow.’

Jonathan PryceProfessor Shimee Timmaya, Pundari academic.

Celia Imrie Lady Downing, Patron of The Downing Foundation.

Gemma Jones – Philip’s Auntie Peggy.

Simon Pegg Frank Gibson, belligerent teacher of English – aren’t they all?, who always seems to land on his feet.

Frank Gibson 2

My antagonist Ito Bogadan is proving the most difficult to cast. He could be a younger version of David Suchet or a fatter version of Ben Kingsley.



Ito Bogadan 1 (DS3)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A fledgling diplomat with an illicit secret is posted to the quirky, conservative island of Namisa where he meets a wily academic who lusts after the funding he controls, and possibly a great deal more.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel in one month for NaNoWriMo in 2008, then I unwrote it, then I re-jigged it and added another 50,000 words.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Through my work as an EFL textbook writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different countries and get a glimpse of other cultures and beliefs. If I had chosen to set my novel in one of these countries, someone would have been bound to be offended. So, Namisa is set nowhere in particular … and everywhere.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Namisa, of course, has its own language, so the book has an abbreviated Namisan- English glossary for those whose Namisan is a little rusty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

In EFL publishing we don’t use agents. I’ve been a member of the Society of Authors since 1991 and they have always been kind enough to review my contracts for me. However, I think now is the time to find an agent, since selling a novel is a job and a half. If the agent route proves impossible, I will follow the example of some of my UAE writerly colleagues and self-publish.

And now for my tagees. Here they are:

Sultan Saeed Al Darmakihttp://www.sultandarmaki.com

Sultan is based here in the UAE and is both a photographer and a writer. His latest book is Leave the Birds Alone.

Ruth Cherringtonhttp://www.clubhistorians.co.uk

Ruth is a long-term friend, writer, and researcher. She is the author of Not Just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs, Authorhouse, 2012.

Eva Dietrichhttp://www.aladdin-books.com/about/index.html

Eva is a children’s author, based in Spain, who is also the founder and director of Aladdin Books. Eva and I were on the same MA in Creative Writing with ManchesterMetropolitanUniversity.

John Dolanhttp://johndolanwriter.blogspot.com/

John divides his time between UAE, UK and Thailand. His novel Everyone Burns is currently No.2 in Goodreads’ Best Books, Asia. Amazing, John!

Last but not least, a nod to my Scottish kilted author friend Seumas Gallacher http://seumasgallacher.com who has already done The Next Big Thing and no doubt would have done it again, but for the fact that he’s done it several times over and has probably had enough of it by now. Seumas, if you don’t already know him, is a prolific blogger and the author of The Violin Man’s Legacy and Vengeance Wears Black. Do check out his site.