Disturbance

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Some notes from the author ...

Disturbance was my first published novel, and it has always held a special significance for me. However, it was not the first novel I wrote. That was Kilbrack.

The story goes something like this. I was writing plays, always plays, interminable actionless anti-dramas. Then in 1985 something changed in me – I switched to prose. It was a good decision, if such a whim could be dignified by the notion of decision-making. And I’ve been very lucky with prose ever since. Any that I have finished has eventually, one way or another, been published ... sometimes twice. But finishing, that’s the difficulty for me, and there lies the true success ...

Anyway, in 1985, in the pleasant surroundings of an old rambling Yorkshire cottage, I wrote ten pages of prose, which my partner, unbeknownst to me, sent off to a literary agent. That agent, Rod Hall, wrote back asking for fifty more pages. So I expanded those ten pages till they were five chapters, the first five of a novel, then called O’Leary Montagu. And I sent them off. The reply was an agency contract and I, of course, was over the moon.

It was nearly two years before O’Leary Montagu was finished: a sprawling manuscript, frothy, jokey, characters all over the place. As such, it did the round of the London publishing houses, all of whom politely refused. All save Weidenfeld and Nicolson who kept the manuscript for a year or longer, unable to decide.

In the meantime, the triumph of completion had dissipated, through too much hope and unfounded expectation, to the mundanity of waiting. I found myself at my desk one morning, in the summer of ’87, with the first line of a new story. “When I was fourteen, my father started on at me about nudity ...” Within a day I had the beginning of the novel sketched. I knew the ending I wanted, even if I doubted I would dare. I had only the middle to figure out.

Disturbance was a dream to write. It was all done in three months. My agent dispatched it to Weidenfeld and Nicolson, who were still undecided about O’Leary Montagu, and the balance was tipped in my favour: they would publish both.

O’Leary Montagu, of course, eventually transformed to Kilbrack. But Weidenfeld and Nicolson decided Disturbance should be published first.

In the meantime I was naturally triumphant. Success at last: I was to be a published author – people would pay to read my books – my books would appear on strangers’ shelves. It’s a delightful moment in any writer’s life, and though it’s easy looking back to ridicule, it’s unfair really.

The best classical tradition would have disaster succeed upon triumph. And indeed disaster did come, but first there were niggly problems. The editor at Weidenfeld, who had championed my writing, left the publishing house. This meant my books, in effect, were ‘orphaned’. They were nobody’s ‘find’, no one’s ‘babies’. When eventually they were published, there was no one within the house to push them, support them, care about their promotion. I have always been very wary of this situation since. Be careful never to be orphaned, I say: love and cherish your editor.

And so to disaster. I have written about that elsewhere. Suffice it here to say my partner died, and I found myself walking the London streets, more or less homeless, and in desperate grief. ‘Found myself’ is perhaps not the right term: ‘lost myself’ is closer. Disturbance, in due course, was published. I received a copy, and I carried that copy with me wherever I went. It was a link, the only link I retained, to an impossibly happy previous life. It is dedicated to my partner who died, to F.R.H. – or to Russell Harty, as he was better known.