John A. A. Logan, the author of The Survival of Thomas Ford, agreed to chat with NPL and answer a few questions…
1) You are a master storyteller, both in novel and short-story form. Did you make a conscious choice to write in a ‘popular’ style?
Thank-you very much for the kind words!
No, there was no conscious choice. I write very much from the subconscious, you could say, allowing stories, and the language used to express them, to well up from within.
My most popular novel so far is The Survival of Thomas Ford. It was the fifth novel I wrote, and I was in my 19th year of writing when I completed it. I think a certain degree of “relaxation” of style had happened naturally by the time I did that novel, which perhaps made it accessible to the widest possible range of readers.
My literary agent in London was sending that novel out, in 2011, as “literary fiction” one week, though, and as a “commercial thriller” the next. So the book seemed to cross genres, between “literary” and “popular”, or perhaps it lies right on the borderline? That is for readers to decide.
I know Amazon reviewers have described the book as a thriller, as crime fiction, as a psychological thriller, a literary thriller, and also some have read it as literary fiction – so it seems to be able to fit into several categories.
2) There is some debate in the US now about whether writing can be both ‘popular’ and ‘literary’. Does this debate exist in the Scottish literary scene? Do you feel these two qualities are mutually exclusive?
This reminds me of an interview I saw with the American novelist, Philip Roth. He was saying that there had always been a big difference between what was meant by “literary fiction” in the USA versus the UK. He made the point that, generally, US literary fiction was not expected to have much in the way of plot/action. This, according to Roth, was why the English novelist, Ian McEwan, had never been taken seriously as a literary novelist in the US, because his novels were strong on plot/action, as well as literary “voice”.
I think somewhere along the way, though, in both the US and UK, “popular” and “literary” became artificially polarized.
My favorite authors are Mikhail Bulgakov, Knut Hamsun, John Kennedy Toole, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Alexander Trocchi…authors who are “categorized” in the “literary” camp, but who have also enjoyed a strong degree of popularity in their day (Lampedusa’s literary novel, The Leopard, for example, having gone on to become the top-selling novel in Italian history, despite Lampedusa only seeing rejection letters for it from publishers, before his death).
Obviously, too, “literary” authors such as Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, enjoyed great popularity, with their novels being serialized and their readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.
I find authors who might be described as “literary-by-stealth” quite interesting – authors who seem to write popular genre titles, but whose style is so well-written, with a “voice” that might be called literary. Peter Straub’s Ghost Story seems to fall into this category. Or Harvest Home, by Thomas Tryon. Or Jim Thompson, known as the “dime-store Dostoyevsky”. Or James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity etc.
With these authors the style and theme are popular and accessible, but there is a depth there that gathers in upon the reader, as the story continues.
So, I suppose I do not feel that these qualities are mutually exclusive. In fact, I am probably most interested in the writing that manages to blend “popular” and “literary”.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was literary, but also a best-seller, in 1974. Could that happen with a book like that now, 40 years later? Perhaps not with a book exactly like that, but maybe some other fusion of popular and literary, of story and ideas, will come along.
After all, that’s what the classics were: Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, Fahrenheit 451, 1984 – all fantastic mixes of the popular and the literary, of story and quality.
This reminds me of the work of a film-maker like Stanley Kubrick, too – each film in a new genre – war, science fiction, historical fiction, dystopian, crime, horror – popular, but also imbued with the auteur’s “quality” voice – that seems essential, for the novelist or the film-maker, to blend quality with story, which seems to be another way of expressing the blend between “literary” and “popular”.
As for whether this debate exists in the Scottish literary scene, I’m sure it’s one that will always be going on everywhere.
3) Can you tell us about any new projects in the works?
I’m working just now on my 6th novel, content of which I’ve managed to keep Top Secret, even though I’ve been working on it for 4 years now…
In 2015, I’ll be releasing 3 new novels as ebooks: Starnegin’s Camp, an historical colonial fantasy… Rocks in the Head, a literary coming-of-age story…and The Major, another fantasy/literary blend.
4) Recently, you showed your support for Amazon’s pricing and marketing strategies in the book market. Do you foresee Hachette, and the other big publishers, eventually adopting business strategies more like Amazon’s?
Yes, Amazon has allowed me to get my novels and short stories out to 170,000 readers who have downloaded so far, and I appreciate that.
London publishers, including Picador and Vintage, had published my short stories before, in paperbacks which had worldwide distribution, but this did not match the reach of Amazon, and the ability to distribute novels worldwide.
I believe the author, Dean Wesley Smith, has pointed out that, originally, several decades ago, publishers did have subscription lists, and did sell direct to readers by mail order etc, which is something like the Amazon model, isn’t it, although updated to an electronic format?
It would be interesting, yes, if the publishers ever returned to that way of distributing books to readers, and, in turn, gave Amazon a “run for their money”.
5) Is a US book tour on the horizon?
Not that I know of, but, it’s a nice idea – Never Say Never – I haven’t been in the US for 21 years, but it would be a great reason to visit again someday!
Thank you, John!
John A. A. Logan is the author of The Survival of Thomas Ford, Agency Woman, and Storm Damage. John’s writing has been published internationally and he has been invited to read his work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He lives and writes in the Highlands of Scotland.