I met Stephen Clarke several years ago when I was an intern at Bayard, a French publishing house. Our novels were both nominated for the Melissa Nathan Award, and we have three publishers in common – Bloomsbury in the US, Record in Brazil, and Sperling & Kupfer in Italy. Lots of coincidences there! All the Parisians I know enjoyed his novel “A Year in the Merde,” and I am looking forward to reading his latest book “1000 Years of Annoying the French.” Here Stephen talks about the challenges of getting published.
What brought you to Paris ?
A plane, I seem to remember. Eurostar hadn’t started up in 1993. But what put me on that plane was British working practices, namely stress people into slogging at evenings at weekends, give them promotions and bonuses but no time to spend them, and keep them on their toes with the constant threat of redundancy. My job working on bilingual dictionaries wasn’t that bad, but I started to feel the rush of wind as the axe swished about over my department’s necks, so I began to look around for a cushier place to work, and the answer was France.
What keeps you in Paris?
My job title now is Englishman in Paris. It’s what I get paid to be. I can’t go back to the UK – there’s a glut of Englishmen there so I’d lose my unique selling point. I also like the chevre chaud (goat’s cheese salad).
What books are on your nightstand?
A Graham Greene “May We Borrow Your Husband” (I love Greene, Orwell, Waugh – writers who tell a great story without bashing you over the head with teir style) and a biography of the Rolling Stones that I found in a charity shop in Edinburgh. I’m more of a Beatles man, but I love Keith Richards – the riffmeister supreme. I used to play in pub bands, and when you kick into Jumping Jack Flash the riff is so dark it sounds as if the devil just walked in the door.
Was “A Year in the Merde” the first novel you wrote? At what point did you decide to self-publish it?
No it wasn’t, I’d written three before that, one of which was total rubbish. The other two were nearly published, in that an agent tried to flog them to publishers and got nothing but rejections. Then when I sent her a sample of A Year in the Merde and she said (I quote) “I don’t think anyone wants to read any more books about France”, I decided to go it alone. That was in 2004. And fortunately for me she was wrong, because I printed 200, it became a word of mouth hit, I had to reprint about 3000 that I sold over the internet and to Paris bookshops before I found a different agent who sold the rights to a publisher who promised me I wouldn’t have to do my own deliveries, and six years later I have just published my sixth book on France, 1000 Years of Annoying the French, and it went to number three in the Sunday Times chart, so it seems people do want to read about France after all. I must assure potential readers of my books that none of them contain sentences as long as that last one.
You worked full-time as an editor while writing the book. How did you find the time and energy to write a novel?
The concept of working “full time” in France is not quite as stressful as it sounds. Neither is the job of editing a monthly magazine. And luckily for me, I am a total obsessive and have always written stories and songs non-stop, on the metro, at dawn and midnight, in the shower (bit dangerous with a laptop). I can’t stop myself churning it all out. There’s a word for it but it’s not polite.
What did you learn about doing the publicity yourself when you self-published?
That if you really really believe in something, and put all of your energy into it, this enthusiasm will carry over and people will believe you. I hate indifference.
What advice would you give to struggling writers?
Keep struggling. My story proves that anyone can make it. And always see things through to the end. Someone was once flattering enough at a reading to ask me what the difference is between a bestselling writer and everyone else. I said, fundamentally none, of course, we’re all the same. The only difference is that the bestselling writer finished writing his or her book.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
“Don’t eat that sausage – I know what it’s made of.”
How does living in a foreign country affect your writing? What does it add to your writing?
Well, I write mainly about characters who live in a foreign country, so it adds pretty well everything. And I concentrate mostly on fish out of water stories, because that’s what I am. Though for my latest book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French, I could have been living anywhere, because it’s a history and I did most of the research on line. Thank heavens for the internet, and for libraries that are putting their out-of-copyright books on line. I found some historical gems in libraries all over the world.
A cup of tea and a packet of parsnip crisps. I just spent three weeks in the UK, and brought back lods of parsnip crisps. The French don’t eat parsnips – they hardly even know they exist – and it’s a shame because they’re really tasty, almost sweet. When I go back to the UK I get my fill of decent beer and stock up on chutney, Crunchies, and parsnip crisps.