Monday, April 16, 2012

The Bus Tour, Day 5: On "The Reflecting Eye"

So, it’s Day, um, Five (?) on the big bus of fun. We still have a full complement of folk, and physical violence has so far been avoided, although our sweet French videographer is leaving today so we will have nobody to patronize.

Anyway, when this tour was announced I decided to arrange a special limited edition of “The Reflecting Eye,” the Charlie Parker novella that had previously appeared in the NOCTURNES collection but had never been published in hardback. I commissioned artwork, rewrote portions, and arranged for it to be bound by a lovely bookbindery in Maine. The bookstores we visit are just paying me the cost of making it, and they’re keeping all of the profits. It’s a vote of confidence not just in bookstores, but in the beauty and value of the physical object of the book, something that we’ve been coming back to again and again on this tour.

For the final time, I’m no Luddite, and I recognize that the ways in which we read are changing, but the two forms – printed and electronic – have to find a way to co-exist. The question that those of us who care about books in any form have to ask is: will the world be a poorer place without bookstores and, indeed, without easy access to printed books? If the answer is yes – and if it isn’t, well, you’re wrong – then we all have to try to support them as best we can. So… here’s the introduction to the new edition of “The Reflecting Eye,” which can be found in the limited edition.


Introduction

It’s strange for a writer to have to look back on his younger self and try to remember what he was like at the time. Every book that is written comes to feel like the shedding of a skin, another step in a slow process of what one hopes is growth and improvement, and so the writer that I now am finds it hard to recall the writer I once was, even though less than a decade separates me from the man who wrote “The Reflecting Eye.”

Nevertheless, let’s start with the facts. By 2003 I had written five novels: four featuring the private detective Charlie Parker and one, Bad Men, in which he had only a brief, walk-on part. I think that I was still in something of a state of shock to find myself published at all: while I might have hoped that my first novel, Every Dead Thing, would find a publisher, I did not expect it to do so. It had been rejected so often while I was still in the process of writing it that I had finished it more out of a dogged, pigheaded refusal to abandon it — and, along with it, any hope that I might have had of being a novelist — than an actual belief that someone, somewhere might want to present it to the reading public, and demand money in return.

By the time I published my fifth book, Bad Men, I had begun to think that there might be some small chance of my doing this for the rest of my life, although I still expected the rug to be pulled out from under my feet at any moment, to have my publishers scream “Fraud!” and begin some form of legal action to recover their misplaced advances. (I still feel like this a lot of the time, but I now have a lawyer who assures me that we’ll fight them all the way.)

But even with five books under my belt, I still wasn’t sure what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was reluctant to sign long-term contracts, and similarly reluctant to commit to writing a Parker book every year, even though annually publishing a book featuring a recurring character is probably the best way to ensure bestseller status in the crowded mystery market. (It’s also, incidentally, the best way to stagnate as a writer.) Instead I was drawn to short stories, and to supernatural fiction in particular. The supernatural already played a significant, and increasingly important, role in the Parker novels, and Bad Men was an explicitly supernatural thriller, but I wanted to explore the genre still further. An invitation from the BBC led me to write five supernatural stories to be read on radio, and I enjoyed the experience so much that I continued to write only short fiction for the rest of the year, and those tales became the early foundations of the Nocturnes collection.

In a way, writing those stories allowed me to assess my literary armory. I was able to try on new styles, to experiment with new voices and different forms of narration. Looking back, I see Nocturnes as the point at which I began to discover myself as a writer: the basis for all that has followed, including The Book of Lost Things, the Samuel Johnson books, and the direction that the Parker novels have taken, lies in that collection.

The stories in Nocturnes were bookended by two novellas: “The Cancer Cowboy Rides,” and “The Reflecting Eye,” the latter marking the return of Charlie Parker. I remember one reviewer commenting that the inclusion of the Parker story seemed to indicate a loss of faith on someone’s part, presumably my own. The argument, if I understand it correctly, was that I didn’t believe Nocturnes would bring in readers unless Parker was somehow a part of the collection, which struck me as missing the point entirely. The fact is that I would have been better off had I published “The Reflecting Eye” as a separate volume entirely, as I could then have been confident that fans of the character would have reached into their pockets to buy a new mystery, however brief, in which he featured. Including “The Reflecting Eye” in Nocturnes certainly cost me additional sales, as short stories are generally regarded, not without some justification, as a niche area of publishing.

But by placing “The Reflecting Eye” in Nocturnes I wanted to send out the message that the Parker stories and the supernatural tales were all part of the same universe, that I drew no distinction between the two. This was a particular point of importance for me as I believed that the mystery genre was essentially conservative by nature, and amenable to experimentation in only the narrowest of terms. It disliked the mixing of genres and seemed to reserve a particular hatred for the supernatural, an aversion that had its roots in rationalism, subsequently fertilized by a fundamental misunderstanding not only of that term and its opposite, anti-rationalism, but of the very meaning of the word “mystery,” which has, at its heart, supernatural connotations.

For the same reason, at least one plot point in “The Reflecting Eye” has found its way into my non-mystery novels: the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces as windows into other realms, a device that recurs in The Book of Lost Things and The Infernals. This is the universe of my stories, and it must be consistent in its rules. The idea of an alternative reality existing behind mirrors arose out of one of my childhood memories. In the front room of our home in Dublin there was a mirror without a frame that hung on the wall above the fireplace. Looked at from a certain angle, and especially without the reflection of a person visible, it seemed to me more like a window than a mirror, as though, if I stared at it for long enough, I might glimpse another family living their lives, and other figures passing through a room that resembled our own. From such childhood imaginings are adult nightmares made.

“The Reflecting Eye” also marks the first appearance of a character that would come to be of considerable importance in the Parker novels that followed: the killer known as the Collector. I’m often asked where my villains come from, as they seem to strike even the most hardened of mystery readers as particularly appalling. To this, the honest answer is that I don’t know. Quite often I have no clear picture of the villains when I commence writing my novels. I may sometimes be aware of the shadows that they cast, but their form is uncertain. They are, for want of a better term, creatures of the id, and it is only as I start writing the stories that they find their point of entry into this world. To varying degrees, Pudd in The Killing Kind, Brightwell in The Black Angel, and Herod (and the accompanying figure of the Captain) in The Whisperers all came as something of a surprise to me when they made their first appearances on the page.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’m somehow channeling these entities, or receiving signals from the ether in the manner of those unfortunates who believe that aliens are targeting them with radio waves, and consequently take to wearing hats made from aluminum foil for protection. Stories, and the characters that inhabit them, form themselves in the spaces between writing as much as when writers are at their desks. Raymond Chandler used to say that when he was not writing, he was thinking about writing. It’s also true to say that, even when writers are not thinking about writing, somewhere in their heads the process of writing continues nonetheless.

So it was that the Collector popped into “The Reflecting Eye” somewhat unexpectedly, but it was probably simply the case that he had been standing in the wings since the story’s inception, waiting for his cue to appear. There was something fascinating about him, this man (if man he truly is) who believed himself to be doing the Lord’s work, hunting down those who, by their actions, had forfeited their right to life in this world, and to peace in the next. He has since made two further appearances in my novels, and plays a crucial role in The Wrath of Angels, the book that will appear later this year, but I had no idea that he would become so significant when he first wandered into the overgrown yard of the Grady house, digging for bones in its dirt.

But “The Reflecting Eye,” rewritten slightly for this new edition, is still Charlie Parker’s book, and a significant moment in his own ongoing story. How many chapters that story has left to run, I cannot say, but I want it to continue for as long as possible because I love writing about him, and I don’t want to think of a time when I can no longer view the world through his eyes. He has become too much a part of my life to let him leave it so easily, or so soon.

12 comments:

Mauro said...

Very interesting post! About The Reflecting Eye, at the beginning I was glad to know it was being published as a stand-alone novella in Spanish(Más allá del espejo), but then I realized that at the end we are paying just for that story what we would pay for the whole Nocturnes...a shame, what you didn't want to do. And probably we will miss the rest of the stories in Spanish :-( (I'll end up buying the book in english...) Anyway, keep on the good work!!
(and I hope the new version of The reflecting Eye is not very different from the original one, I won't have any way to get it...)

Mich said...

You should do this bus tour more often, since it makes you post more on your blog! ;)

I love this edition of The Reflecting Eye--such a pretty book, as well as being a good book.

xo

janebbooks said...

Senior citizen sitting down here in "hot" Florida waiting for Susie to mail my copy of THE REFLECTING EYE she purchased for me in Chicago.
It came yesterday and is a beautiful book.....just one minor flaw...it's flat-signed. Guess I'll have to go to Bouchercon this year to get it signed in ink on the title page.....
Jane

Gamer1st said...

I used to read like an obsessed person but have had to curtail that due to an odd illness that I'd never heard of called Reading Epilepsy.
This strange condition causes me serious problems when I try to read anything more than a page or two in length.
I have gone from reading several books a week to one or two a year. JCs releases are the one or two I go with.
I figure if you can only read a few read the best.
I hope I can get a copy of this book before they all sell out. (Fingers crossed.)

r said...

I'll buy a copy of this book from Once Upon a Crime..in Minneapolis..please don't stop writing about Charlie Parker..I would hate to stop buying your books :)

C.G.Leslie said...

John

Thanks for making this book available to those of us stranded on the other side of the Atlantic. Can't wait to see the real thing.

Colin

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