Jason Johnson on ‘Sinker’ and Staying Afloat
Jeffrey Archer was on TV the other night talking about writing a book and said ‘you need a good run at it.’ He said you need an unbroken slab of time and somewhere to escape the daily demands of life to get the work done.
I thought, ‘Yep, you’re right, Lord Archer.’ Then I thought, ‘It’s well for some.’
It must be wonderful to be able to jet off to the old Spanish holiday home for a lengthy writing session.
It’s out of the question for most of us. It’s certainly out of the question for me. My financial situation would teeter on a brink or two and, anyway, I have a young family I can barely be without for a day without needing them.
I did try once to get some decent dosh in order to allow myself to clear off and write for a while, before the kids came along. I’d just finished my second novel Alina and was feeling pretty ambitious. I saw an article somewhere about someone selling off a role in a movie, and hatched a plan to auction off a character in my third novel (Sinker, Liberties Press). People would be able to bid to name the character, to give him/her certain personality traits, and I would shape the story to include the winning bidder’s needs.
I had a rough plot in mind, but knew I could slot in or rework a character if the price was right. Part of me reckoned it would never work, that at best it would turn out to be a bit of a publicity stunt. Part of me thought, ‘well sure what’s the harm in a publicity stunt?’ And part of me worried how I would justify this seemingly soulless idea to purists who thought my artistic integrity was for sale.
Anyway, I announced the idea on my then website.
Then, on the back of the publication of Alina, I had a sit-down interview with a journalist from The Guardian. I told him about the auction idea and he thought it was pretty quirky. In fact, he led the story with it.
Here’s the link: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/oct/01/books.booksnews1
And then everything changed.
In terms of publicity, in respect of an individual who had basically none, things suddenly went bananas. Reuters press agency picked up on it, fired the story of the auction around the world. Half a dozen reporters rang me.
Someone from an Indian newspaper emailed me.
Most of the press just took a few words and didn’t grill me on the ‘selling out’ angle, which was a relief.
But then one night, being interviewed on a BBC Radio Fivetalk show, a furious man phoned in and called me ‘a prostitute’. He said I didn’t deserve to call myself a writer if I was going to use someone else’s idea, for money, in a novel.
Cue my rehearsed response – I said a novel is all about taking ideas from other people, places, situations, about moulding them into a coherent story. It’s the connecting of, and smoothing out of, lots of bits that makes every beginning, middle and end. I mean, who but the author can ever really know what influences a writer has seized onand put into their work? Besides, I said, there won’t be any novel at all if I can’t secure the space to write one.
No, this caller said, I was ‘a prostitute.’ He said I had sacrificed my artistic credibility, let mere money interfere with my artistic flow.
I’ve been called worse.
Anyway, all that prostitution aside, I’ll get to the point.
Did the idea actually work?
Well, a few people got the wrong end of the stick. A man in America emailed saying he would give me $200 to write his life story, something about the furniture business. He said he had some Irish relatives.
A man in Sweden wanted to know how much it would cost him for me to write a story about a distance runner, loosely based on part of his own life.
And there was a woman in England who didn’t mind what the character did or was called, but could I credit her in the book?
There were about five or six emails from people who, I could tell, weren’t entirely together in the head, and I chose not to work with them.
And, as far as I can remember, that’s about it.
It would have been great though, wouldn’t it? Handed some decent money to go off and write a book? Even the idea of having to use an extra bit of creativity to inject some unexpected character into the plot excited me. People, I fantasised, would have been excitedly buying the novel, reading and guessing who the ‘paid for’ character was.
But, nah. No one really gave a toot.
Some people liked the concept of the auction, but that was it. Yet, all in all, in publicity terms, this made more column inches than my actual novels have. So, to confirm, there is no ‘paid for’ character in my third novel, Sinker.
I wrote it between working and changing nappies, often while absolutely knackered. It took a long time, on and off, because, unlike the seriously industrious Jeffrey Archer, I couldn’t put my real life on hold. Looking back on it now, that’s all fine.
I love real life.
I love how there is a bit in Sinker, for example, that will always remind me of the moment my one-year-old son walked into the room, looked me in the eye and was sick on the floor.
You can’t buy that.
Looking ahead, yes, I’d love to get that ‘good run at it’ for novel number four, but I can’t see it happening anytime soon. So, like most writers, I’ll just get on with it anyway. And that’s my story of the auction that never was. Funny enough, a much better story – which is my third novel Sinker – is nothing like the truly weird novel I had planned back then. Sinker is a less-weird dysfunctional love story set in and around the world’s most hated and controversial sport, professional drinking.
And, for any purists out there, I’d like to stress no money at all interfered with my artistic flow.
Two brilliant children and a job did, but a writer chooses their road.
PS: A sort-of plug: Sinker is that rare, rare thing in a person’s life which works out just how they hoped it would.
(c) Jason Johnson
Sinker is in all good bookshops or pick up your copy online here.
Jason Johnson is a Northern Ireland-based journalist and author. His debut novel, Woundlicker (2005), is a raw yet witty Belfast tale born out of frustration with the then stumbling peace process. His challenging second novel, Alina (2006), set in Romania, uses Irish characters to explore the very worst of what Europe’s richer west is offering the emerging east. Sinker is his third novel is published by Liberties Press. Jason is married with two children and lives in Belfast.
Sinker catapults readers into the life of law dropout Baker Forley as he signs up for the world’s most controversial and deadly sport, professional drinking. If he plays it right, wins some games and gets out early enough, he might just escape with money, self-respect and at least some of his health.
Sponsored by a struggling singles bar back in Derry, Baker and his licentious American coach Ratface head to sun-baked Mallorca for the infamous Bullfight boozing battle. As protests rage over the rights and wrongs of the reviled sport, he takes his seat alongside some of its most colourful combatants.
But the heat plays havoc with the ginger Irishman’s game and a drunken glance at a mysterious Arabian beauty earns a decisive punch from her bodyguard. Her husband, a beer-swilling Saudi oil baron, invites Baker and Ratface to his extraordinary, Gaudi-designed home to make amends – and makes a cash offer they can’t refuse.
As illicit lust flares in the boiling heat, Baker soon learns the real reason he’s there – he’s about to be framed for murder. After days of industrial-level drinking – and dealing with Ratface’s random groping – can he break free?
Inspired by the power and complexity of addiction Sinker is a thrilling, yet irreverent yet often joyful take on a hopeless but changing male drinking culture.