At a recent Foyles event for my new novel 'Plastic', I talked onstage with Joanne Harris about why I’d had such a struggle selling the book. I’d wanted to write a novel about a woman who goes through a transformative arc, from having no self-esteem to being fearless and independent. I wanted to write it as a crime novel, and leave room for plenty of humour. I knew where it needed to be set – in the soulless apartment building Jeffrey Archer lives in on the South side of the Thames. But things didn’t turn out quite as simple as that.
‘Plastic’ concerns June Cryer, a downtrodden, shopaholic suburban housewife trapped in a lousy marriage. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, she loses her home, her husband and crucially, her credit rating.
Then her only friend offers her a way out; she needs someone reliable to babysit some paintings in a London riverside high-rise apartment while the security system is being repaired. It’s just for the weekend, but there’s good money in it…June moves in only to find that there’s no electricity and the phones don’t work. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a murder. She must survive on the streets without friends or money.
The book was intended to be the inverse of a Gothic novel, with its lone heroine facing terror and redemption in an alien setting, in this case a heavily populated urban one. That in itself might have proven saleable, but I hobbled my chances by using my own name on a first-person-female narrative and mixing lots of black comedy in with extremely dark set-pieces.
Publishers could not even choose two genres for ‘Plastic’ to fall between. I suddenly felt as if I had dropped into the conversation between Hamlet and the Player King, presenting pastoral-allegorical-satirical-romantic-horrific for the delectation of no-one. If the publishers couldn’t see what it was, other than the anti-WH Smith novel, they certainly couldn’t imagine who would buy it.
I reworked it according to the whims of various acquisitions boards. Many professional readers submitted their reports. Some raised concerns about the viability of combining disparate elements in one novel. Some female readers were offended that a man should write in the form of a female first person, as if I was somehow taking work from a woman who could equally handle the task. Finally, I threw out the demographic rulebook that had come to bind me so tightly and reverted to a new version of my original intention.
The book took six long years to find its audience. In the meantime, it had been out with so many publishers that parts of it started turning up online. One over-enthusiastic Canadian publisher actually printed up a dozen finished copies of the book before signing a deal with me (we never did sign). The pirated parts started getting mentions in the press. It was photocopied in publishers’ offices, even as it became known as the novel that couldn’t be published. Thanks to fans who had read sections, ‘Plastic’ is one of the few books that got glowing reviews even before it was printed.
‘Plastic’ was so off-the-wall that I really thought it would never see the light of day. The rough draft was championed by Joanne Harris and Jake Arnott, who demanded final versions. But publishers remained cautious. It’s easier to imitate than to innovate, and since the novel was considered ‘subversive’ and ‘mould-breaking’, it stayed unsold. There’s an unwritten rule that says you can’t cross genres without confusing readers.
There it remained until Jonathan Oliver at Solaris asked to take a look. What he and I discovered was that in the light of the financial crash, ‘Plastic’ suddenly had new-found relevance. As a result, the book had finally found its time, and appeared in its intended form – as a cynical and very dark joke at the expense of consumer culture.