If you’ve visited our blog much over the last year, you know that we are huge fans of Steven Hall’s novel The Raw Shark Texts. Our first contact with the author began many months ago when I (wrongly) accused him of belittling the blogging community. He responded the very next day on the Powell’s blog and extended a generous olive branch, which he made good on. In May, BGB West Coast correspondent Weezie reported on Hall’s reading in San Francisco. We’ve pointed to many of the book’s reviews, reported on the near theft of a special delivery of the book by Cracky, and have otherwise brought up the book at every available pretext. Despite our stalker-ish antics, Hall agreed to let me interview him over the last few weeks via the safety of e-mail and an ocean between us. Here’s Part 1 of the interview:
BGB: Your MySpace page says that after your US book tour you were off to the Hay-on-Wye Book Book Festival and then to to Australia. The Hay-on-Wye Fest sounds like a magical literary Shangri-La from the accounts in The Guardian and various blogs. Can you tell us a bit about your travels? Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think that things would work out this way – write a novel and see the world?
SH: I had to head off to Australia, so I was at Hay at the very beginning of the festival, on the first Friday. Most people arrive at the weekend but it was still really great and far from empty. It’s a wonderful place deep in the British countryside where mobile phones don’t really work, every other building is a bookshop and great cultural icons of our times queue with everyone else at the ice cream van. So yeah, a literary Shangri-La for sure.
Australia was really great. The Sydney Writers Festival was wonderful and the people there are so friendly, and so funny. I loved it. They have fruit bats in the botanical gardens in Sydney. I came home with about four pictures of the opera house and maybe a hundred blurred shots of fruit bats. I was impressed beyond all reason by the fruit bats. Did I ever think it would work out this way? No, not at all. It isn’t something you can plan for! I wrote Raw Shark with the hope that I might be able to get the book out through a smallish cult publisher and maybe 50 people or so would read it. That’s a realistic ambition when you’re writing a book, I think. The last year or so has been so far beyond anything I could have imagined.
BGB: Some of the early articles about your book were not about the book at all but focused rather on some of the marketing behind the book. It seemed as though it was considered somehow unseemly for an author to be working on the marketing campaign of his own book. The New York Times ran a positive toned article about the marketing of your book, but then had what I’ve called “the laziest possible review” of the actual book. What did you make of this interest in the marketing aspects of your novel and what impacts do you think it had (if any) reviews? Do you think that you’ll take a similar approach with your next novel?
SH: I’m really interested in the way programmes like Lost and Skins (where viewers created some of the characters online) are promoted now. Actually, it’s not really fair to call it ‘promotion’ in the traditional sense, it’s more about involving the viewer in the creative process, letting them role their sleeves up and dig into the mythology for themselves rather than just staring at a screen for one hour a week. It’s about making the viewer active. That interactivity is exciting to me and I think it’s something that books already have as part of their DNA, reading being a more active process than watching. I wanted to push that aspect of books with Raw Shark, try to make something where the reader would take a very active role in deciphering the story. It seemed logical to extend that beyond the covers of the book.
It’s never been about selling lots of books for me – it was always about finding new ways to tell a story and look at the how a story can exist and evolve in the world we live in today. Some of the things I wanted to do got picked up by the marketing people and found a budget, others I’ve been happily doing myself – like printing off bonus, hidden pages on the backs of envelopes, that sort of thing. Nobody may ever find or notice some of the things I’m doing, but then that’s part of Raw Shark too. The idea of lost and missing things.
You’re right, there has been a lot of coverage of the marketing. Sometimes, when there’s a lot of noise around what you’re doing, it feels like you’re starting from -10 in the eyes of some people rather than zero. There seems to be a lot of cynicism around the marketing of books at the moment. Until recently book marketing has been very old-fashioned compared to TV, films and games. That’s changing now, so maybe there’s a friction there. Perhaps it’s also because there are concerns that the big corporate publishing houses are increasingly controlled by the money managers rather than editors. Who knows? I’m lucky to have a small independent with a great list controlling my world rights. Hopefully, now the noise has died down a little, people can just engage with the story.
The beyond-the-cover elements I have planned for the second novel are on a much larger scale, although I’ve got a feeling that far fewer of them will fall under the marketing banner this time.
BGB: Paul Auster is frequently cited as one of your literary influences, and there is a specific reference to Paul Auster in the novel – your character Eric Sanderson finishes an Auster novel while vacationing in Greece. When did you realize that your novel and Auster’s latest, Travels in the Scriptorium, would begin with essentially the same setup – man wakes up in room with no recollection of who he is or how he got there? Was it alarming knowing that your first novel would inevitably be compared to Auster’s?
SH: I saw the opening to Travels in the Scriptorium the morning after The Raw Shark Texts launch in London. I read the first page in a bookshop when my girlfriend and I were out exploring and trying to shake our hangovers. That was a pretty odd moment (and the hangover really didn’t help). I remember feeling a little like an Auster character, coming up against one of his strange, disturbing coincidences.
If anyone compares me to Auster then that’s hugely flattering. It’s not alarming, The New York Trilogy is a work of genius. Being mentioned in the same sentence in any context is a great result!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview tomorrow.