Stephen Clarke Interview
Posted on 25 October 2004. © Copyright 2004-2023 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to Stephen Clarke, author of A Year In The Merde; originally a self published book, now taken on by Bantam Press as a runaway bestseller by word of mouth.|
What Bantam say about A Year In The Merde:
The perfect book for Francophiles and Francophobes alike?
The funniest, most irreverent and politically incorrect book you'll read for ages
There are lots of French people who are not at all hypocritical, inefficient,
aggressive, adulterous or incredibly sexy... They just didn't make it into my book!
Published privately by the author in English in Paris, A YEAR IN THE MERDE became an immediate local bestseller. Instant word-of-mouth spread like wildfire to England where booksellers began clamouring for it. Now Stephen Clarke's delightful first novel will be rush-published officially in the UK to meet the ever-growing demand of fans.
In A YEAR IN THE MERDE Stephen Clarke describes the French as they really are. They're not cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but they do eat a lot of cheese, some of which smells like pigs' droppings. In general, they do not wash their armpits with garlic soap. They are still in shock at being stupid enough to sell Louisiana and thereby losing the chance to make French the global language. Going on strike really is the second national participation sport after pétanque. And they really do use suppositories.
Paul West, a young Englishman, arrives to set up some "English" tea-rooms in Paris and gives a laugh-out-loud account of the pleasures and perils of being a Brit in France. Less quaint than A Year in Provence, less chocolatey than Chocolat, this book will tell you how to get the best of the grumpiest Parisian waiter, how to survive French meetings, how to make perfect vinaigrette every time, and how not to buy a house in the French countryside. According to Stephen, "all names have been changed to avoid embarrassment, possible legal action and having my legs broken by someone in an Yves Saint Laurent suit (or, quite possibly, a Christian Dior skirt)."
Tell us something about your background.
I’ve always written. Like everyone else, I’ve got a cupboard full of publishers’ and agents’ rejection letters along the lines of “yes, you’re wonderful, you’re just not our kind of wonderful.” And another cupboard full of stuff I’ve written and that got ignored. A sitcom pilot set on Death Row called Juice for Breakfast. A film script called The First Red Phone Box in Space about a woman who murders her husband by setting light to his farts. Intellectual stuff.
I had two novels accepted by a London agent – Who Killed Beano and Beam Me Up – but she couldn’t sell them, mainly, it seemed because I wasn’t young, beautiful or already famous. That’s why I self-published them and A Year in the Merde, simultaneously, on April 1, 2004. You can read excerpts from the other two books on my website http://www.redgaragebooks.com
How did you start writing?
When I was five, with a pencil, because Mrs Milner said we had to.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
You mean who have I ripped off? I began by ripping off Dickens when I was a kid – A Christmas Carol is such a brilliant story, and I love the sheer patience and stamina he showed writing his novels. I don’t think he had a computer, either – he had to do it all long hand. Zola is the same – he takes a situation and his characters to their logical conclusion, and takes you with him. When I was about 25 I wanted to write Money by Martin Amis. I love Slaughterhouse Five for showing how to get comedy out of tragedy. I regularly re-read chunks of the Good Soldier Svejk, which does the same. So does the WW1 series of Blackadder. Douglas Adams was a genius, for his first couple of books at least (he partly inspired my book Beam Me Up). Books that help you survive in an absurd universe. I used to re-read Hitchhiker and David Nobbs’ The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin whenever I came perilously close to ditching the dayjob and not being able to afford decent holidays any more. Mike Leigh’s Naked is another piece of writing that helps you to get some distance on the world. When I want to remind myself how you should write in a particular genre, I re-read PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. I forget the stories again instantly, but I love the efficiency of the writing.
They’re all men, aren’t they? Apparently I need to identify.
How did you get your first commission/agent/publisher?
My first agent, by sending sample chapters to dozens of agents. My first publisher, by publishing myself. My first commission, by becoming a journalist. Now I’m a magazine editor, I can even commission myself to do stuff – oy, Stephen, I need me to go to LA for a week and do a travel piece. OK, Stephen, whatever I say. Brilliant.
Great training, journalism. Bashing out the words, being forced to have a beginning, a middle and an end, thinking about your reader and not just your style.
What's the worst thing about writing?
It takes so bloody long to write a novel, and it’s so hard to find the time. I have scenes and dialogues floating about in my head and I scribble them down in note form but sometimes I don’t actually write them out till months later. And when I get close to the end I’m so impatient to finish the story that I write way into the night and only stop when my back aches so much I can’t carry on any more. Bit like sex, really.
I used the word “so” way too much in that paragraph. If it was in a novel I’d go back and rewrite it.
And the best?
The all-time best was when I first saw someone laughing out loud while reading A Year in the Merde. It was my sister. My younger sister, the one whose adolescence I tried my best to turn into hell. She wouldn’t say she liked something if she didn’t. In fact it was the first thing of mine she’d ever read. And she was sitting there on my mum’s settee, crying with laughter, and I thought, hey, this book might be good after all. And then when I did my first public reading, people were laughing, and I got the giggles and had to ask one woman to stop laughing. That feeling is absolutely unbeatable.
My main aim in writing is to entertain, so that when people finish my book they think, yes, the world ain’t such a bad place after all.
Tell us about your experience of self publishing
This would take hours, and lots of people have said I should write it all down.
The most important thing: a friend of mine said, much later, after I’d got my mainstream UK publishing deal, that he thought I’d gone mad while I was self-publishing. What was all the fuss about? Why did it matter if the website designer had gone AWOL on the day you were supposed to go on line? Did you really have to reject 100 of your first 200 books because of a defect on the cover and get into an argument with the printer? And you spent every Sunday out in the sticks with the designer working on the covers and fussing over line endings. It was only a self-published book, after all.
But now he understands.
You’ve got to get it right, you’ve got to look pro to elevate yourself on to the same playing field as the “real” publishers. Get samples from printers, show them books you want yours to look like, choose a format that looks like a “normal” book, get an ISBN, behave exactly like a real publisher.
Also, remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the book. One self-publisher sent me his website and the home page was basically a photo of him, a pleasant-looking, middle-aged bloke. OK, nice beard, but why am I interested?
My home page was the covers of my books.
I even invented two pseudonyms to hide the fact that I was self-publishing. I even toyed with the idea of putting up a model’s photo with the fake author bio for Paul West. It’s true that if I looked like Colin Firth maybe I’d have opted for the me-first approach.
And because it’s about the book, you must put a sample up on the web. Let people read you. If they like you, they’ll buy and tell friends.
Oh, I forgot, rule one, decide how much money you can afford to lose and spend it all. If you earn it back, great, if not you’ve given it your best shot and have no regrets.
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