Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On the shelf with Michael Cox

"After killing the red haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." These words start off an intriguing new novel by first time novelist
Michael Cox and introduces us to Edward Glyver,whose confession of random murder is only the starting point of a Victorian tale of revenge,obession and thwarted ambition.

The story behind the novel is just as compelling. Michael Cox has been a well known
editor for Oxford University press of several anthologies such as The Oxford Book of English Short Stories and The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories and authored a biography of M. R. James. He had been working on The Meaning of Night for over thirty years but in April of 2004,Cox began to have vision probelms due to cancer. That spurred him on to finish the book,which was well recieved in his home country of England that has now made a sparkling debut in the US.

Michael Cox also had a thriving musical career in the early to mid 1970s,both as a singer and songwriter using the names Matthew Ellis and Obie Clayton. His interest in Victorian literature and the time period itself started a a young age and he still prefers to read books that were printed before the 1930s. He currently resides in Northhamptonshire with his wife,Dizzy. I was honored to get a chance to speak with him on his US tour:

1) One of your favorite books is David Copperfield,with the original illustrations. Did you ever consider having The Meaning of Night illustrated or adding some of the historical photos that appear at the MON website?

I wanted illustrations very badly and couldn't persuade my publisher to go for it. I think some black and white pen drawings would've been fantastic but they wouldn't buy it. Maybe we can do an illustrated edition if the book does well. I think it would've added alot.

I 've been very interested in Victorian photography for a long time. I find it fascinating to see real people staring out of history at you thru photographs. One of the characters,Lord Tansor,is based on an actual photograph of an english earl, Earl Bathhurst. I had this photograph in a book for a long time and based his phyiscal description on this real life Victorian earl. Also,Glyver himself is based on a 1853 painting by W.P. Frith.

2) You've said that you don't read many books published after 1930(with the exception of certain writers such as Sarah Waters ). What is it about literature of that earlier time period that holds more appeal to you than modern day writing?

There's so much to read and several lifetimes of reading to get thru. I just kind of get stuck in the period.Also,as a writer,I can take much more,without plagiarism,absorb much more of what I want to absorb from earlier works. The storytelling element in Victorian fiction, I respond to as well. Sarah Waters is an excellant storyteller,no doubt about that. I just go back to the originals-why read a modern take on the originals when you can read the originals?

Because I put so much emphasis on language,the way the books are written to reflect the 19th century way of writing,it's just much better for me to go back and read the originals. All my favorite writers are in that period,I can return to Conan Doyle and Stevenson,Agatha Christie,all these people I love reading. I do read a little bit of modern stuff,like Sarah Waters or Tracy Chevailer. I've read Sebastian Faulks,just reading Julian Barnes' book,Arthur and George. I do go selectively to modern writers,on the whole,they tend to be historical modernists than contemporary writers. Because I've lost the sight in my left eye, I don't do as much reading as I'd like to do.

3) MON has a very memorable opening line-"After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper."-how long did it take you to write that one line?

It didn't take me as long as it took to write! It just dropped out of the sky. I didn't have to think about it.I'd written it before,that line was at the top of one of many discarded first chapters and I just took the line again,because the rest of the chapter I didn't think was very good.. When it did land on the page,as it were,I wasn't quite sure then why he killed the red haired man. I had to think about it abit,but the line sounded pretty good.

When I picked that chapter up again, I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. It was one of those divine accidents and I'm glad it came.

4) You've also been a biographer and an editor of several anthologies. Was switching over to fiction hard or easy for you?

Well,I always wanted to write a novel and I'd been writing bits and pieces of it for thirty years. It's a very,very different game altogether. You can always do something with nonfiction,you can always do some research,you can always kill time with nonfiction. With fiction,you spend alot of time just staring and thinking and sometimes clacking that nothing's going to come. Once I did start it,it played pretty well.

There were a few bad moments when I couldn't quite see where it was going. The plot is quite complicated and complex,dovetailing everything together was difficult. I had to get a spreadsheet going,keeping dates right,who was doing what when and that was complicated. Occasionally I had the usual block,as all writers do.

Generally,it kept going and it's a very different feeling to writing nonfiction. Compling an anthology,all you have to do is sit and look for what you want. With fiction,it is hard work and having not done it before,I didn't have any ground rules at all for doing it You just jump in there. But now I've done it and I've started my second novel,which is going to be a sequel,and it's coming much more easily and I'm much more disciplined about it,I write every day. I think The Meaning of Night prepped me quite well for this.

5) You're planning two sequels to The Meaning of Night-do you have any other books in mind after that trilogy?

I had in mind to do atleast a trilogy,I didn't want to do Meaning of Night Two,Three. I didn't want them to be closely linked but I want them to be linked. It's really following a family story. I thought I might do a third one at some point,which would take the story thru the end of the century and into the beginning of the 20th century. The reason for that is the great country estates started to collapse during the first World War under the weight of taxes/death duties and many of the sons who were to take over the running of these estates were killed on the western front,so you kind of had a combination of things that brought alot of these big houses down. I thought that would be a good moment,to witness the decline of Evenwood and the family line.

I do have a couple of ideas,still set in the 19th century,a little bit more in the crime and detection genre. Once I finish the second one,I don't want to go straight on to a third. I want to leave a gap,try something else. I may try one of these. I have a vague idea of doing a short,sequential novella-there are very few successful ones but I thought I might have a go at it.

6)Your website for MON has a reader's survey section,with a number of qoutes from everyday folks.Do you feel that word of mouth is the best way to promote a book,especially a new book?

That was done by the UK publisher,they sent 650 bound copies of the manuscript to members of reading groups all over the country. They weren't particularly historical fiction readers,just picked pretty much at random and asked to read the book and fill in the questionaire. Really good response and overwhelming;I thought it was a high risk strategy because I thought"what if no one likes it?"but the UK publishers seemed pretty confident.

It was fabulous and heartwarming, much better than getting a critical review in a way,because they were real readers. They were overwhelmingly women as well and I was afraid they might not take to my narrator,Glyver,but most of them did.

In the US,there's been alot of emphasis put on going around to independant book shops. I did a Barnes and Noble event in New York but the rest of the tour has been going to key independants all over the country and they're crucial for this kind of word of mouth thing. They put on events,advertise,have newletters and websites,that's all word of mouth. The UK publisher is doing alot of stuff on the Web and getting some good responses;that's all electronic word of mouth.

7) There's been some talk of movie rights to MON;would you prefer it to be adapted for the movies or a TV mini-series?

Both would be nice, I think it would probaly adapt to both. We have had some interest on the movie side but nothing definate. These things move very,very slowly, It kind of depends on how well the book does and if it does reasonably well over here,things might move a little faster.

In the UK,maybe we can get a good production company who works for the BBC-it'd make a great three parter.

My thanks to Michael Cox for giving me his time and if you wish to check out the UK website for The Meaning of Night,please click the title above. To find out where he'll be appearing in the United States,just go to the W. W. Norton website at www.wwnorton.com.

I will be reviewing MON for the blog very soon,so watch this space! I'm only a few chapters in but I can already see that this is the perfect read for those chilly autumn nights that are fast approaching us.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, LT! Michael Cox sounds like a fascinating guy. Looking forward to your review.

lady t said...

Thanks,Robin-this was the first author interview that I've done by phone(all my other ones were conducted via e-mail).

Jake McCafferty said...

I always enjoy your real reporting/interviews. And that is a very good opening line. It does make you wonder, "So what did the red-haired man do?"

I'm sure the bastard had it comin'.