Plenty of actors famously declare that they don’t watch their own movies. Johnny Depp told David Letterman on The Late Show: ‘In a way, once my job is done on a film, it’s really none of my business. I stay as far away as I possibly can… I don’t like watching myself.’Tom Hanks, meanwhile, told Shortlist: ‘I don’t watch my own performances – who does that? That would be madness. I’ve seen all the movies once, but I don’t need to see them again, because they don’t change.’
Does the same mentality apply to authors? Should author re-read their own books after publication?
According to prolific bestselling author Wilbur Smith, the answer is a definite ‘yes’. He told the Independent: ‘I read a tremendous amount. Right now I’m reading my favourite author – Wilbur Smith. Many of the books I have written were 30 or 40 years ago and I have forgotten the plot.’
Smith’s reason for re-reading, then, is to come at the book afresh, as a reader. But Margaret Atwood, conversely, says: ‘You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.’
I think it depends how much time has elapsed before the re-reading, but certainly I have found a kind of magic in re-reading my own books. The other day I took down my debut novel, Burning Embers, from the shelf to read a few lines, and before I knew it an hour had gone past and I had read more than a chapter, and fallen in love all over again with Coral and Rafe and the wild and savage beauty of 1970s’ Kenya.
I re-read my books for the following reasons
To revisit story worlds I once loved
To reconnect with old friends: the characters
To examine the writing style
To compare my older works with my newer ones
When I read, often I do feel like that brand-new reader who does not know how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. I can read a passage and think, ‘Goodness. How on earth did I write that?’ After I put the book down, I feel reconnected to my purpose as a writer, and keen to sit down and let the muse speak, and write and write and write.
Re-reading your own book is not, I think, an act of vanity. Wilbur Smith’s declaration ‘Right now I’m reading my favourite author – Wilbur Smith’ may appear egotistical, but it is in fact just honest. I am reminded of my favourite quotation by the great writer Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ That, in essence, is the author’s raison d’être. We write the books we most want to read; so it is of no surprise that we may still want to read those books sometime later.
Some authors see earlier books as stepping stones to the next great book, and will point out perceived flaws and weaknesses in earlier style. Other authors go so far as to renounce early books (Ian Fleming, for example, attempted to keep The Spy Who Loved Me out of print; Stephen King worried that his 1977 novel Rage inspired a violent shooting and asked his publisher to pull it from the shelves.) But most writers, like myself, treasure all past works.
That is not to say that I immerse myself in my own fiction regularly. I firmly believe that great writers are great readers, first and foremost, and so I read a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. But occasionally, when I am seeking escapism or a reminder of who I am as a writer, I take down a book from the Hannah Fielding shelf and I re-read. As Tom Hanks says, the artistic work does not change, but that does not mean I don’t want to experience it again. To do so is grounding and nostalgic – and it can also be inspiring; because the book does not change but the reader does, and with each reading we can learn something new.
What do you think? Should authors re-read their work? Do you revisit past creative works, and how do you feel when you do? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Do you remember the children’s game ‘spot the difference’, where you compare two pictures and circle the differences? Well, if you played that game with two romance novels, you would entirely deface the pages with red circles (please don’t!).
To me, it is evident that all romance novels are unique. Any yet, those who don’t read and enjoy romance continue to stick upon the genre this label: ‘all romance novels are the same’.
Last month, similarities in romance novels hit the headlines when it emerged that a prolific self-published romance author had plagiarised the work of bestselling author Becky McGraw. In the commentary on the news story, some journalist displayed a lack of understand of the romance genre that angered another author, Jenny Trout, and prompted her to write a piece for the Huffington Post entitled ‘No, All Romance Novels Are Not the Same’.
In the article, Jenny challenges lines from The Washington Post: But a romance novel isn’t exactly ‘ Infinite Jest.’ though some bodice-rippers are dirtier than others, there is a formula – at some point, the wealthy heiress or the lady-in-waiting hooks up with the horse wrangler or the errant knight, and jeans come off or, well, bodices get ripped.
Romance novels are not the same, she argues; they merely follow genre conventions – as does all genre fiction.
Yes, in a romance novel there will always be a character who meets another character and falls in love, but that’s hardly a ‘fill-in the blank’ template. One of the characters can be anyone; a reporter. A cowboy. A vampire. The other could easily be a fairy, or a detective, or a billionaire. And the obstacles to true love are not going to be the same for a sheik and a hotelier as they would be for a werewolf and a DEA agent.
In an article for Bustle, Sadie Trombetta is on the same page. In ‘11 Things All Romance Readers Are Tired of Hearing’ she writes:
Is every science-fiction book the same, or every fantasy book? Like every other genre, romance novels are all different. Some have aspects of historical fiction, others involve the supernatural. Some have happy endings while others end in tears. No two romance books are the same — read a few and you’ll see.
I wholeheartedly agree. Over my life, I have read many, many romance novels, and each has been original in sentiment and story and setting. When I look at my own published works, I see similarities only in the sense that they meet conventions of the romance genre; most prominently, I see differences:
Each book is set in a very different place, from Kenya to Italy to Spain.
Some of my books have other women; some have other men.
I situate the story in different eras: so far, the 1950s, 1970s and 2000s.
My heroines have differing personalities and qualities: some are reserved, some emotional; some are naïve, some more worldly; some are quick to trust, some wary.
Line up my heroes – Leandro, Andrés, Salvador, Paolo and Rafe – and you see very different men. Strong, yes, and attractive; but each has his own backstory that drives him, and a different manner. Rafe, for example, is the ultimate tortured Byronic hero; Salvador knows his own mind and is resolutely proud; Leandro, conversely, is all about freedom and tribalism.
Each book has a unique mood. The Echoes of Love, for example, has a dark, mysterious undercurrent; Indiscretion is warmer, more impassioned.
I explore different cultures in the books. For example, Burning Embers touches on local tribal witchcraft; The Echoes of Love contains some Eastern philosophy; Masquerade brings in the ways of the Romani people of Andalucía.
Themes and contexts differ widely. Masquerade relates to Surrealist art; The Echoes of Love draws upon a Venetian heritage and legends of Italy.
Of course all my novels are different. It is the difference that makes reading any book so much fun. You have a very broad idea of what to expect: man and woman meet and encounter obstacles to love. But beyond the basis, every single detail is brandnew. That is what makes me read a book and write one: the journey of discovery.
The idea that we romance readers would repeatedly read the same, ‘fill the blank’ book is laughable. We’re intelligent, we’re discerning, we love to be challenged and surprised and intrigued. Isn’t it time that the strongest, bestselling genre in the market was given the respect and credibility it deserves?
I’m delighted to share that my novel Indiscretion has been named the winner in the ‘Fiction: Romance’ category of the 2015 USA Best Book Awards!
You can check out the award and my win over at http://www.usabooknews.com/
Two stories recently in the news caught my eye.
The first concerns JK Rowling and her enduringly popular Harry Potter series. Having announced in 2013 her involvement in a Harry Potter-related play, Rowling has now shared details. The play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, will open in London’s West End in the summer of 2016. It will be an entirely new story, written by Rowling, writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, and will fast-forward eighteen years after the end of the series:
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
In tweets, Rowling has written:
To answer one inevitable (and reasonable!) question – why isn’t #CursedChild a new novel? – I am confident that when audiences see the play they will agree that it was the only proper medium for the story.
The play is so long it has been split into two parts, and audiences will have to effectively watch two plays either on the same or subsequent days to get the full story: a matinee and then an evening performance, or subsequent evening performances.
The second sequel story to capture imaginations recently is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight: Tenth Anniversary Edition.
The new edition of the popular novel contains a brand-new reimagining of Twilight entitled Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined. In this version, genders are swapped: Edward has become Edythe, Bella has become Beau, and Jacob has become Julie. As the synopsis outlines:
In Life and Death, readers will be thrilled to experience this iconic tale told through the eyes of a human teenage boy in love with a female vampire. Packaged as an oversize, jacketed hardcover ‘flip book,’ this edition features nearly 400 pages of new content as well as exquisite new cover art. Fans of Bella and Edward will not want to miss the opportunity to see these iconic characters portrayed in intriguing new roles.
According to media reports, Meyer was moved to rewrite Twilight with Bella as the vampire as a reaction to those who were frustrated by Bella’s casting as ‘damsel in distress’ in the original books. I suppose with the success of series like The Hunger Games and Divergent, these days there is a drive for more gutsy young-adult heroines.
Taken together, these high-profile stories say a lot about the culture of the sequel. From the publisher’s point of view of course, sequels make good marketing sense; and from the consumers’ point of view, sequels allow another journey into a beloved fictional world. For the author, they are the perfect opportunity to extend the book’s legacy.
I know all about the impetus to revisit a story. For my first two novels, Burning Embers and The Echoes of Love, I was sad to leave the characters at the end, but I knew their story as it flowed onto the page was over. For my novel Indiscretion, however, I felt differently. I knew this world of gypsies and gentlemen and roots and family ties in Andalucía had so much more to explore yet. That is why I wrote a second book, Masquerade, following the next generation of characters – the sons and daughters of the last. Then I wrote another, Legacy, concerning the last generation (coming 2016), to make a trilogy.
My own sequels were planned while I wrote the first novel, Indiscretion. But these new works by Meyer and Rowling – and others – have been devised long after the initial work, as a means of revisiting. Certainly, it is astute marketing. But more than that, it is brave of the authors to go back to a much-loved story and elaborate upon it. To do so is a risk; remember the time-worn adage: ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.’
In Stephenie Meyer’s case, she risks fans not appreciating the rewriting of Twilight from a new angle; she risks fans being disappointed, and their appreciation of the original dimming in the light of the new information. (Of course, this was a risk also faced recently by EL James in Grey, but in that case there was no reimagining, just a new point of view which, I think, many fans were very keen to step into.)
In JK Rowling’s case, her biggest risk, I think, is exclusivity. So many millions of fans worldwide will no doubt be desperate to see the play the moment it opens, and yet few will be able to. The story as a book – or a film, or televised play – would have allowed instant access to fans all over the world. But as a play showing four times a week to an audience of just a few hundred at a time in London, so many are excluded.
What do you think of the culture of the sequel? Do you look forward to revisiting story worlds? Do you ever worry about what effect a sequel may have on your interpretation and enjoyment of the original work? Have you read Twilight Reimagined? My own novel Masquerade? Did the fact that the books were sequels deepen your connection, compel you to revisit the earlier works? How about the Harry Potter play – will you try to get tickets? I would love to hear your thoughts.
I recently came across an article discussing the British Library’s collection of images. Fascinating, I thought at once: I love to visit the library when I am in London. Then my eye caught the word ‘online’. I was astonished to read on and learn that the British Library has shared via Flickr more than a million centuries-old images. They date back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and cover a fantastic range of diverse subject matters, from maps to cycling to dance to costumes to architecture to castles to travel to Christmas, and many more besides.
Here are just a few pictures that caught my eye when I browsed.
This image is from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians, published in 1837, which is captioned ‘Great Funeral Procession of a Royal Scribe at Thebes’. It reminds me, of course, of my homeland: Egypt.
From the intriguingly entitled Richardson’s New Fashionable Lady’s Valentine Writer, or Cupid’s Festival of Love. The colours are so vivid for the era (early nineteenth century).
From an 1870 book with a ‘tells exactly what it is’ title: In Fairy Land: A series of pictures from the elf-world by Richard Doyle With a poem by W Allingham. This delightful illustration is captioned ‘an elf and a fairy kissing’.
This fantastically detailed illustration is from Rose Mortimer; or, the Ballet-Girl’s revenge … By a Comedian of the T. R. Drury Lane. It was published by the London Romance Co. in 1865. The caption reads:‘Rose Mortimer, with no guardian but her criminal father, has chosen the stage for a livelihood. While awaiting an interview with a theatrical manager, she falls asleep and dreams of her future career.’
From the beautifully named Love-Knots and Bridal-Bands: poems and rhymes of wooing and wedding, and valentine verses – from the nineteenth century, an era when romance was so romantic! The caption is a verse:
‘Oh, wandering river than my love and I
Be-hold today through many a leafy screen.’
And finally, this book cover, which I chose from many beautiful and fascinating designs for the evocative title and illustration, but most of all for the publisher name: ‘Thrilling Stories Committee’ (1892). I feel I would love to live in era when stories were marketed as ‘thrilling’.
All of these images and so many more are online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary. They were automatically generated by the Mechanical Curator – a program that posts images from the books the Library has digitised – and then catalogued by a team of hardworking volunteers.
There is so much fascinating material to explore and use as inspiration. Best of all, each image is entirely copyright free (being so old), which means you can copy pictures and use them in your own creative projects. Be warned, however: you may find that you procrastinate in starting that creative project, because you are so immersed in antiquities!