Monday, July 27, 2009

Patrick Allington on book covers

Can you tell a book by its cover? I’d say you can ... sometimes, sort of, up to a point. And that’s as far as it should go. A huge part of the pleasure and the mystery of reading comes from readers’ capacity — independent of the influence of the writer or the book designer — to dream up their own versions of people and places within a story.

A cover is the only overtly illustrated part of a novel, which is why it should never give too much away or be too precise. New editions of books published to tie in with films are the worst offenders. If I read, say, Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, I don’t want the versions of the main characters that form in my head to look like Ralph Fiennes (very hard not to think of airplanes) and Cate Blanchett (Australia’s first female PM in waiting, with apologies to Julia Gillard). But I can’t help it: now they do.

If the feedback I’ve been getting is any indication, Figurehead’s cover gets it about right. It’s visually striking: the faceless man — there’s a faint hint of his features beneath a blue-green wash of skin — suggests somebody secretive, shadowy, possibly sinister, somebody expert in the wearing of masks, somebody with a public persona that sharply diverges from the private, inner man. It’s a visual hint about the ‘tone’ and the subject matter of the book. But no more.

My fascination with book covers stems partly, I think, from my use of visual art and photographs to help fire my creativity. There’s something about looking at art that sends my imagination off on unexpected tangents. My computer screensaver — a John Olsen etching of a bewildered, faintly depressed-looking fish, possibly a Murray cod (if you were a Murray cod you’d probably be depressed too) — has saved me from a failed day’s writing more than a few times.

But my interest in book covers also stems from the fact that I worked for many years in various Adelaide bookshops — most recently at an antiquarian booksellers (that’s a seller of old books, not an old bookseller). For dealers and collectors, book covers take on a whole different type of importance. To maximise their monetary value, the dust jackets of modern first editions (anyone remember the hardback?) must be present. But more than that, the jacket should be intact, bright, and free of rips or tears or chips or stains or those mould stains known as foxing — so named because it’s as if a muddy-pawed fox has pattered across the book.

I remember once coming across a first edition of Peter Carey’s Bliss in a box on the floor of the Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam) charity bookshop on East Terrace in Adelaide. For some reason or other, UQP decided to issue the book with a snazzy but utterly impractical silver foil jacket. My copy still had its jacket but, as tends to happen to foil over the years, it was creased and scratched and looked a little like it had been stored in somebody’s outhouse.

Book collecting is an odd pursuit (it’s something I’m exploring in my novel-in-progress, Potatoes in All Their Glory). I put my first edition copy of Bliss inside a protective cover, made from a special type of plastic designed to not react chemically with the book, and sat it on my shelf. A few years later I sold it, along with a pile of other books. I didn’t get much for it — maybe four or five times the loose change I paid for it at the Community Aid Abroad shop. In the time I owned it I never opened it to read. I never would have dreamed of doing so, because it was a first edition with a fragile jacket. It was hardly a book at all, by then.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Guest blogger Patrick Allington on first novels

First novels, I’ve had a few.

Tim Winton published his first novel, An Open Swimmer, when he was twenty-two years old, an achievement that has always faintly irritated me. I intend no personal malice towards ‘our Tim’, and I don’t doubt that he worked hard at his craft even though he was young. It’s just that when I was in my early twenties I could barely tie my shoelaces.

I take solace in the fact that Peter Carey wrote three unpublished novels before he published Bliss. Without trying to link Carey to my own floundering formative attempts at writing, I reckon Winton is probably the exception to the rule. So it feels strange — and in some ways misleading — to call myself a first-time novelist. Figurehead is certainly the first novel I’ve written that I could honestly call ‘finished’; it’s also the first novel I’ve written that a publisher has chosen to publish. But I recently turned 40 (as one of my workmates gently explained on my birthday card, ‘It’s all downhill from here’) and I’ve been writing novels most of my life. From well before I was 22 years old, I’ve filled notebooks and hard drives with half-finished manuscripts, first chapters and outlines. Any number of voices and all sorts of ‘grand’ ideas — some vague, some intricately formed — have rattled around in my head for weeks or months or years before seeping away.

Despite the frustration that comes from so much unfinished business, and despite the amused bewilderment that comes from asking myself ‘What on earth was I thinking?’, I find that remembering those lost novels is fun. And, no doubt, an excellent distraction. I’m especially fond of one early attempt at a Great Australian Novel — written when I was, give or take a birthday, twenty-two years old. I saw it as a road story of sorts, but also a Voss-like saga of exploration. The main character was a talking three-humped camel called Barney or Fred or Bruce or something like that. It trekked north from Adelaide’s pancake-flat suburbs, through the vineyards of the Clare Valley, through abandoned copper mines and the wheat-sheep belt, through the red desert and straight over Uluru, through crocodile-infested swamplands, all the way to the tropics where it bounded triumphantly into the water at a place called Escape Cliffs. I don’t remember why.

I do think of Figurehead as my first novel. But I also see it as sitting on a foundation consisting of many other stories and fragments — some abandoned, many forgotten, a few I would like to forget, and some, I hope, still gestating.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Upcoming events with Patrick Allington

We're really excited about Patrick Allington's new-release novel Figurehead (Patrick is going to continue guest blogging on The Inc. Blot throughout July.)

If you live in Adelaide or Melbourne, don't miss the chance to hear Patrick talk about his book in person. He'll be in Melbourne this Thursday at Readings Carlton and Figurehead will be officially launched by J.M. Coetzee on Wednesday 29 July at the South Australian Writers' Centre in Adelaide. Details on both events can be found on our website.

And here's a review of Figurehead from the Australian.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Guest blogger – Patrick Allington, author of Figurehead

I love books. Not just reading them. I love holding and caressing them, blowing dust off them, sniffing their musty pages, and especially standing before long lines of them contemplating all those titles ... all those stories.

A book is a feat of technology and craftsmanship. I’m talking about the paper, the ink, the glue, the spine, the covers. Sure, these days the crafting is mostly performed by machines. But, still, a book is an inanimate object — a leaved brick — capable of springing to life without resort to a password or a lithium battery. Books age — some gracefully, others like they’ve been left out in a storm — but it takes a lot to kill a book.

I’m no Luddite (at least not when it comes to reading). I’ll embrace the e-book, with all its revolutionary implications for how we will read and probably even what we will read. But I’ll do it when — and only when — the technology and the design combine to create a product as magical and as dependable as the paperback. And when some inventor comes up with a way that I can wander aimlessly around my house, browsing through my collection of electronic tomes in desperate search for the exact right tale to suit my mood.

Mind you, my book collection is an undignified mess. It urgently needs order — only I can’t decide what system to impose. And there’s an added complication: recently I took delivery of my first novel, Figurehead. Now that I’ve got over the excitement of picking it up and holding it (or some of the excitement, anyway) I have to decide where it should go on my shelves.
Adjacent to my favourite book, perhaps? But which favourite book? The Yes, Prime Minister scripts, which help me fall asleep most nights? Or in amongst Saul Bellow, who never fails to wake me up?

Or should I sit Figurehead with those books that I so loved as a child that I grew up wanting to be a writer? As a boy I was tiny, and I still have a picture book my parents gave me called Patrick Will Grow: “I’m glad Patrick is small,” Mother said. “I don’t know where we could put another bed.” “Patrick will grow,” Grandma said wisely.

If not Patrick Will Grow, then perhaps Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series. These are the first books that I can remember trying to imitate: the child-heroes in my handwritten stories had great adventures and faced terrible dangers by going down a magic cave instead of up an enchanted tree.

My wife, in an uncharacteristically fastidious moment, recently suggested that I order our books in straight alphabetical order. At first I found that proposition horrendous, but I’m starting to come around to the idea. What I find most appealing is that despite the illusion of extreme tidiness, it will actually lead to wonderfully weird and random couplings: Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satire on Fleet Street, Scoop, will share space with Steve Waugh’s autobiography; Frank Moorhouse’s Loose Living will stand beside Marlo Morgan’s whacky new-age Mutant Message Down Under and not that far from The Latham Diaries.

And Figurehead will be in most agreeable company. On one side, there’ll be a row of Margaret Atwoods. I’ll put Figurehead spine to spine with The Handmaid’s Tale in the hope that some of Atwood’s magic will rub off on me. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale I knew — again — that I wanted to write a novel.

On the other side of Figurehead will sit Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one time (I was still at school) I re-read that book so many times that I could just about have recited the whole thing — definitive proof, surely, of the indestructibility of the paperback.