One of the pleasures of the writing life comes from interactions with readers. I find the feedback of those who are kind enough to read my books, and this blog, quite fascinating. Occasionally, as with reviews, the feedback is either eccentric or less than positive, but life is far too short to become unduly disheartened by negativity. I treasure, for instance, the Amazon review of one of my novels which read "not a lot of interest in this as no trains", evidently from a railway lover who was not deterred from purchasing the book despite the complete absence of a promise of train-related material. Naturally, though, positive and constructive reactions warm the heart rather more.
I always pay close attention to comments, both positive and critical, from those who are supportive of my writing. As with suggestions from trusted agents or editors, they are well worth taking on board, whether or not one is always fully in agreement. One can always do better. And in another context, I found a comment the other day from Fiona, who has long been a valued supporter of my writing, very thought-provoking.
Fiona was commenting on the paperback publication of The Golden Age of Murder, and she asked an interesting question: "do you have any twinges of regret that you are becoming best known as an Authority rather than an Author...any pangs about your characters waiting for you to breathe new life into them?" Well, it's nice to be regarded as an authority, but to ask about twinges of regret is very perceptive. I've often talked about the ups and downs of the writer's life - and Chrissie Poulson's recent blog on the subject was very well received - and the issue underlying Fiona's very good question is to some extent about priorities and focus..
Fiona actually raises an issue which a number of people have raised with me in one way or another. Indeed, some years ago, when I was working on The Golden Age of Murder, someone advising me queried whether it was the right book to write, as the heavy workload involved might prove a distraction. But I carried on with what was really a labour of love. Similar points have been put to me in the past couple of years, and it is all to do with the fact that, at least apparently, I've focused much more on non-fiction during that time - The Golden Age of Murder, my work with the British Library, and The Story of Classic Crime,in 100 Books and so on. I've published various short stories, but no novel since The Dungeon House in 2015 (though I do have a storyline for another Lake District Mystery roughly worked out).
My answer, though, is unequivocal. I'll always see myself as a novelist, whether or not my novels are published and read, and whether or not they reach a wide audience. I was publishing non-fiction, though, before my first fiction was accepted, and I've always enjoyed non-fiction, researching subjects which intrigue me, and sharing my thoughts on them. The success I've been lucky enough to enjoy of late -The Times printed a rave review by Marcel Berlins of The Golden Age of Murder at the week-end - has been hugely gratifying. And my feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that all this has been very good for me as a novelist. I say this partly because sales of my books, including the early Harry Devlins, have steadily improved. But also because it's helped to motivate me as a fiction writer. I'm not absolutely sure why that is, if I'm honest, but it is a fact.
And right now, I'm feeling rather happy about my fiction for another reason. Over this past weekend, I've just finished the first draft of a brand new novel, quite different from everything I've done before. What is more, I've written it in a completely different way from my approach to all my earlier novels. But is it any good? you ask. I don't know, but I do know that at least the idea which is the driving force behind it is a strong one, compelling enough to have preoccupied me ever since I finished The Dungeon House. At this stage, I've no idea what will happen to the book. My previous stand-alones failed to become bestsellers, to put it mildly. So you could call it a bold or even foolhardy experiment. I can't be sure anyone else will love it as much as I do, but even if they don't, I won't regret having had a crack at the story. I'm not a believer in spending much time on regrets. My enthusiasm for writing fiction remains as strong as ever, and my aim is simple. For as long as I can, my priority will be to combine writing stories with writing about the genre I love.