‘The problem is the most interesting character is dead.’ As the words left my mouth – ping! – the light came on in my head. I couldn’t wait to start writing. Turn back the clock a little, though, and I’d felt no such thing.
My fourth novel, The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker, is just out with Sandstone Press. Readers are enthusing that it’s ‘a real treat’, ‘truly original’, ‘wonderful characters’. My local Waterstones manager is recommending it to his customers. Yet it very nearly didn’t get written.
Back in 2014, a similar buzz of enthusiasm happened with my third novel, OZ, but frustratingly word didn’t spread. Like my first two, OZ remained off the radar of the many reading groups and strangers out there who would enjoy it. This third time, rather than be downcast, I decided to draw a firm line under my time as an author. I’d written three books, had them accepted by publishers and given pleasure to readers. I would call that success and stop. For a long while, I focused happily on other things.
The trouble is, though, that writing is an addiction. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried to put it behind me, only to be nagged by memories of the huge pleasure of tapping away at the keyboard, solving some narrative problem, creating a scene that felt shiny, characters coming to life in my head, on the page. Gradually I found myself itching to indulge that private pleasure again.
Hang on, though, I said to myself. The next one has to try harder to be noticed. OZ was a tale of family secrets, of parents and children at odds with each other. Fair enough, but to stand a better chance of reaching the reading groups and strangers out there, this time I was in search of an attention-grabbing hook.
The story I was toying with explored the effect of an arrogant father’s mean-spirited will on his family. I was determined that wasn’t enough, though. It needed something distinctive to make it stand out. That was when I sighed to a friend – ‘The problem is the most interesting character is dead’ – and the light pinged on in my head. The dead father would still be around! Not only would he watch how his will was received, he would also have problems in the afterlife that would bring him down a peg and teach him some lessons. I was keen to begin.
Harry Whittaker is a world-famous, superstar actor – think Laurence Olivier crossed with Jack Nicholson. He’s adored by his public, but he’s not a nice person at all. When he dies on page 1, he finds himself very much still in this world, stuck in a bizarre afterlife. His son Richard – the chap cycling along on the cover – is trying to escape a failing café, a dotty mother and the wrong girlfriend. And the cat on the cover is called Henry V.
I had enormous fun writing it and readers are loving it. It’s published by the marvellous Sandstone Press, who have twice reached the Booker long list and are currently on the International Booker short list with Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharti.
So, will Harry be my break-out book? My fingers are crossed so tightly the knuckles are cracking! Discoverability is so random. Harry needs a lucky break: a tweet by an influencer, a listing for an award, something that sparks word-of-mouth.
Please take a moment to look at the Amazon reviews. I hope you’ll be tempted to give it a go. If you do and you enjoy it, please spread the word. Writers need readers who tell other readers.
Bobbie Darbyshire won the 2008 fiction prize at the National Academy of Writing and the New Delta Review Creative Nonfiction Prize 2010. She has worked as barmaid, mushroom picker, film extra, maths coach, cabinet minister’s private secretary, care assistant, adult literacy teacher, and in social research and policy. Bobbie hosts a writers’ group and lives in London.
Lorna Fergusson here! Want to banish the dither and doubt and find the confidence to stay true to your writing dreams? Subscribe to the waiting list for my new book The Unputdownable Writer’s Mindset and you’ll get advance news, sneak peeks and bonuses! Click here to join! You can also help me make this book as useful as possible by taking my brief writers’ survey here: it will only take a couple of minutes of your time.