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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Entering the realm of fiction

By Norman Lebrecht / September 4, 2002

The story begins three summers ago. I had delivered a book, my tenth, into the maw of a corporate publishing company which had just sacked the editor who commissioned it.

My United States publisher had gone bust, owing me $19,000. The market for cultural studies was in decline. My subject, classical music, was pretty much written out. I needed to get an agent.

Jonny Geller's your man, said those in the know. He's the hot young thing at dusty old Curtis Brown, custodians of fine writing from time immemorial. Geller, softly spoken, protested that he never took on established authors. This is different, I pleaded. I'm established at music, but I'm planning three novels. "Let me see the synopses," he said.

I went home and started writing. No point, I decided, in selling the books on synopsis, the way most deals are done. I would get down a whole novel to see if I could bring it off. It took me 11 months, writing in stolen days between quotidian duties.

It was tougher than I had imagined. Writing non-fiction, you follow certain rules: do the research, analyse it and then tell the story in some kind of thematic or chronological order. If there's a gap, you dig out more research.

In a novel, there is no safety net and a nearinfinity of possibilities. You have several characters, let's say four. Anything A says or does can provoke one of four reactions from B, C and D. That's 256 permutations. B's response will multiply the options by a further 256. Before you have got two lines of dialogue you are juggling with 65,536 aleatory sub-plots. The only control you can exert is what you know about the characters - and that knowledge changes and deepens in the process of writing. The author's sense of helplessness can be overwhelming and, in an intoxicated sort of way, exhilarating.

I finished the book and sent it to Geller, prepared for a long delay and polite rejection. He called back after the weekend. He liked it and was sending it out to six editors. "Don't worry if you hear nothing for six weeks," he warned. "It's the end of July, people are away."

We went on holiday to the Mediterranean the following Monday. A fax awaited me at our hotel: the first offer, a three-book deal. I was more confused than ecstatic. It couldn't, surely, be that easy.

It wasn't. The publisher was Headline, the editor Rosie de Courcy. I asked an American book mogul about her. "She's beautiful, brilliant and the best fiction editor in the world," he raved. Rosie is a publishing legend. With her ex-husband, Anthony Cheetham, she set up a small imprint called Century in the early 1980s. Century grew and grew on massive sales of fiction. Rosie discovered Maeve Binchy, Penny Vincenzi, half a shopful of airport novelists. "It's just a knack," she told me, "other people have it with horses."

Century took over Hutchinson, then merged with Random House. The Cheethams sold out and started again, founding Orion which took over Weidenfeld and Gollancz. Then they divorced. Rosie joined a different publisher. Mine was the first book she bought. Over lunch she asked, "are you open to suggestion?"

She produced a photostat of my typescript, festooned with yellow sticky notes. "You can ignore any or all of them," she said. I took the book home and examined the slips. None contained more than five or six words. Each was a diagnostic laser-beam, zoning in on a lump in my narrative and blazing a path to clarity. As I set to work again, shadowy characters grew flesh, fresh ones came into focus, thickening the book by about a third. The revision took four months. It was one of the most thrilling periods of my writing life, a voyage of continental discovery.

Never in my non-fiction had an editor done much more than grumble about the length of my text and the horrendous cost of illustrations. The whole process was formulaic: you wrote a book, delivered it, had it speed-read by a staff editor who sent it on to a freelance copyeditor who queried tautologies and inconsistencies. You got it back with a tight deadline, returned it on time, read it again in proof and the next you knew it was in the shops. Exactly what publishers did with non-fiction between paying an advance and affixing their colophon to the spine was a mystery to me.

Their involvement in fiction, on the other hand, is an act of faith. It is manifested when an editor first refers to one of your characters as a living person. When that happens over lunch, the shock can cause asphyxia. The expert editor, I'm told, waits till the writer has neither fork nor glass in hand.

There was a creative purpose in my case to the blurring of lines between fact and fantasy - an attempt to overcome the impossibility of illuminating the mysteries of musical genius by conventional means of informed observation (and, believe me, I have tried). The Song of Names is about two boys, a brilliant virtuoso and a self-confessed swot, who grow up in wartime London and take more from each other than any person has a right to demand. By subjecting a fictional genius to situational stress one catches glimpses of the "hard core of brute egotism‰ that underpins every exceptional gift. It's just a story, but it sheds some light on the despoilation of genius and the ruses it uses to elude us.

Contrary to common belief, no one asked me to inject more sex and violence to help sell this abstract idea. Marketing was never mentioned until the book had been sent to print. There was, to my surprise, a serenity to the fictional process that is absent from non-fiction publishing, where the author is exposed to commercial realities almost from the signing of contracts. It may perhaps explain why novels are printed in clearer type and with fewer misprints than most non-fiction. They have received loving attention from a community of colleagues who have come to believe the story.

For these reasons and more, I thank my lucky stars that I have switched from digging facts to telling tales. The creative rewards are richer and the fictions I invent can, I think, reveal deeper human truths. The cusp between reality and imagination is a neutral zone where ideas can flower without reference to footnotes. Non-fiction has its merits, but the novel is a place where the mind is free to expand.

• Norman Lebrecht's first novel, The Song of Names, is published by Headline Review, £12.95. available from

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001