Without even being aware of it, I’ve taken a risk with every book I’ve written, published or otherwise. By my third attempt—after my first unpublished novel, set in the Dublin of 1940, my second unpublished novel, set in Dublin in 2025 (I was heavily into Joyce in those mid-‘70s days, and teaching Ulysses to a savvy group of high school juniors and seniors), and my third novel, which I seem to remember involved a New Yorker who had religious visions. Oh, and he was Irish. And, obviously, a little crazy.
And then I was told by someone that I was “writing against the market,” which meant, what, that I wasn’t writing like everyone else? I’d been an English major for four undergraduate years, and likewise for two in graduate school, so I’d been immersed in everything from African literature to Old English to the psychology of Victorian literature, though I was aware of what was being published, as I read the New York Times Book Review every week, and I was always in and out of bookshops, of which there were many in Amherst, Massachusetts and its surrounding college towns.
I went ahead and wrote more unpublished novels, one per year, sending them to the two professionals who were willing to read me without submission by an agent, a senior editor at Viking, the other at a more junior level at Little, Brown when it was still in Boston. They passed, of course, but were always encouraging me to submit more to them. And then I wrote a novel about an aging Englishman, living quietly in London, who vanishes. It’s a kind of metaphysical detective story. And it landed me an agent. And for that I’d had to move to England. Which is where my career began.
That novel, Byzantium, was not placed, and I went ahead and continued to produce novels (and teleplays, but that’s another story), and my London agent, who, incidentally, wore a monocle, was growing increasingly frustrated with my output: again, a matter of marketability. Until I sat down and, for five quick weeks, wrote The Man from Marseille. That, too, was set in another universe, actually in several of them: Russia in the 1920s, the South of France in the ‘30s, Occupied Paris in the ‘40s, and London in the ‘70s. The book was only 55,000 words long, but it covered a lot of history.
He sold it within two weeks to John Murray Ltd. And the week it was published it was optioned by a British production company. I was finally published. But I still take risks. My next book (following The Drowning), If She Were Dead, like my fifth novel, Breathless, has a woman as its main character in this psychological thriller about the voodoo of adultery. And as I start to play more and more with genre, which I find fascinating, I’m now working on a detective novel set in L.A. And Mexico. And Russia.
Taking risks in your writing lifts out of your comfort zone. You begin to write not to revisit what you’ve lived through, but to explore and learn what you don’t know. It was once suggested to me—not by a writer or anyone in publishing—that I had an easy life being a writer. I said, “I wake up every day and reinvent the world. How would you like to do that?”