When you really really want to read a book…..

It’s bad enough when you order a book and it turns out you can only pre-order it and it will arrive oh, months in the future that doesn’t feel real. But it’s even worse when you know that a book you are really excited about is just a smidgen away from being published and needs just a teeny fund raising boost.

That’s the case with my friend and colleague Adam Robert’s book, a collaboration (beyond the grave) with the author Anthony Burgess, to complete his book The Black Prince.

The book is over at Unbound, the crowdfunding/subscription publisher, and it is currently standing at 81%. It just needs 80 of you to sign up for the signed hardback, which comes with a free e-book, for £25.

Adam Roberts is one of the most interesting writers around. His work is deep, complex, frequently leaves me baffled and always challenged. You won’t regret purchasing this book.

Below I persuaded him to answer a few questions.

What is it about The Black Prince that attracted you to the manuscript?

It was the Anthony Burgess angle rather than the historical fiction angle that first drew me. Which is to say: it’s not that I had any great hankering to write a historical novel as such. But I’ve long been a fan of Burgess’s writing and when I chanced upon an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1972 in which he said he was 90-pages into “a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices”; a novel “about the Black Prince” I was intrigued. Writing medieval history via a writer as famously modern and experimental as Dos Passos—it’s a bold and I think brilliant idea. Burgess said: “I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.” The thought of (a big chunk of) an unpublished Burgess novel, and the thought that I might complete it, led me to the Burgess Institute and the Estate.

Why you? Why are you the best person to write this? No false modesty please!

A writer probably isn’t the best-placed person to have a clear view of his/her strengths, but still: there are, I think, consonances between the way Burgess wrote and the way I write—in part because reading Burgess as I was growing up influenced the sort of writer I became myself. So for instance: Burgess was an expert writer of pastiche, and could reproduce styles and idiolects brilliantly. That’s something I can do too: indeed, I don’t see ‘pastiche’ as a negative thing. Quite the reverse. So: to prepare for this novel I re-read Dos Passos’s “USA” and the complete run of Burgess’s writing, and then sat down to pastiche, as expertly as I could, Burgess-pasticheing-Dos-Passos. Just the technical challenge of that excited me. As I say I’m not the person best placed to say so, but it seemed to me I manage this. There are some other things: I share Burgess’s fascinating with literary form, and was able to do (to me) interesting things with the structure of the novel: Edward the Black Prince was by all accounts obsessed with the trinity, and the holy spirit, and I worked all sorts of threes, and nines, into the structure. But the main thing is that I really love Burgess, and that meant I could really immerse myself in the Burgess mode. I wanted to produce something of which, were he alive today, he could be proud. Or at least, not ashamed.

Can you elaborate on the links you see between historical and science fiction?

There’s a lot I could say in answer to this, but to be brief: both sorts of writing have to build their worlds, in ways neither obtrusive nor false. Both have to find ways of estranging their characters from the assumptions of their readers—medieval people really weren’t just 21st-century people in funny clothes, just as aliens really need to be more than human beings with pointy-ears or crumpled-foreheads—without pulling them so far out of the contemporary frame that readers lose the ability to empathise with and care about those characters. Writing the novel proved a fascinating business for me, actually. When writing SF it’s usually possible to shuffle the terms of the world, or the parameters of the physics, if they get too constraining of your story. I’m not advocating the completely untrammelled hand-wave as the basis of writing SF, but one of the attractions of writing in a fantastic idiom is that it just offers the writer more imaginative freedom. Writing a proper historical novel was something else. I read pretty widely in the history of the period—Jonathan Sumption’s multivolume history “The Hundred Years War” is very good—and poked and pried, but I found weird little gaps that my reading refused to fill. For instance: there’s a lot of stuff about how knights fought on 14th-century battlefields, and some stuff about how ordinary soldiers fought, ground troops and archers and so on. But let’s say you want to know exactly how the chain of command functioned, in the heat of battle. Are there, let’s say, medieval equivalents to modern NCOs? How, exactly, did sergeants or ensigns (Shakespeare’s Ancient Pistol = Ensign Pistol) liaise between the high command and the men? Were orders written on bits of paper and taken by riders to the front, as happened in the 19th-century? We know that trumpets were used to announce advances and so on, but were there whole descants of different musical parpings telling bodies of men to wheel, stand, retreat, fire arrows and so on? There are libraryfuls of books of military history, but lots of this nitty gritty is surprisingly elusive—or at least I found it so—and you need to know it if you’re going to write it from the grunts’-eye view. Some of it falls into the “we honestly don’t know”, because the written records from that time are really only interested in what the posh nobs were doing, on their champing-stamping heroic steeds, and the accounts of battles tend to be inflected by chivalric codes anyway. In a SF text you can simply fill that gap; but writing a historical novel is a much more painstaking business.

To order your copy of The Black Prince by Anthony Burgess and Adam Roberts, go to the project page at Unbound.


We have a title!

When this project started I didn’t have to have a title. The book was part of a series and it would be known simply by the name of author. It was only once I submitted the book that we realised that calling it simply Robert A. Heinlein would not make it terribly searchable in the e-book stores.

One of the comments I’ve frequently made, is that in some ways I have been channelling the great man himself. Verbosity, intemperance, etc etc. But nowhere has this been truer than my inability to come up with a title. Heinlein had a terrible ear for titles. Most of his stories were titled by magazine editors, and most of his adult novels were titled by Virginia. His original title for Number of the Beast, for example, was The Panki-Barsoom Number of the Beast, or even just Panki-Barsoom.

So I did what Heinlein did and outsourced the problem, in this case to many friends on facebook. I assembled 12 titles, submitted them to Unbound, and after some back and forth as our ideas changed we finally settled last week

And the title is…..

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein.


release date: March 2019


Despite what it says all posts here are by me, Farah. I only realised this evening that they are “authored” by EF James. That would be the beloved, the person who spell checks and fact checks my work and also makes sure all the footnotes are formatted properly.  This time round he has done so much work on the book that he gets an editorial credit. Fair’s fair.

I’m off to the University of Chichester tomorrow to do a couple of talks, one on Jewish fantasy writing which I first gave in Vienna last year, and which is still very much a work in progress. The other, less formal, is on Heinlein (inevitably). I was asked to send a story in that I wanted to talk about to send in The Green Hills of Earth. I was really touched to find in the next email I received that the story still has the power to move when read for the first time.




The State of the Manuscript: Heinlein Unbound

The year is ending and I am getting queries as to when the book is coming out. The answer remains “next year” but as that can feel “this year, next year, sometime, never…” I thought I’d give you a State of the Manuscript Report.

When Unbound accepted my book on Heinlein a manuscript existed of over 150,000 words, designed for another publisher who had some series based requirements, and which was also very definitely an academic publisher.

Unbound asked me to cut around 10,000 words, and I decided that as so very many of you are not academics, some of what would go was the academic “architecture” that can make a book feel stodgy. So we’ve made new decisions on how to do the citations, and cut some of the references to other critics which are there to show off that I’ve read everything even it if it wasn’t terribly relevant. We also have to check all the spellings and punctuation and even some of the grammar, because the original publisher was American and Unbound is British.

The editing goes in stages. I spent a week going chapter by chapter making cuts and line edits and generally trying to lose repetition, and where I had repeated things, deciding where the best possible place was to put something. I did all of this on paper. As someone who hates hand writing and barely picks up a pen for more than the shopping list, I still regard this as absolutely necessary. My preference is to print out on the left hand side of A3 paper, leaving the right hand side (the equivalent of an A4 sheet) to make notes. I also like to edit using Sarasa’s blood red gel pens. They stand out without reminding me of school. I end up with a full manuscript covered in hand writing. Then someone has to input it.

The someone—and I swear he is a hero—is my partner, Edward James. There is a thing in traditional academia where academic acknowledgements often reveal sexism and downgrading of wifely labour at startling levels. My favourite is “I would like to thank my wife for conducting and translating the interviews as I did not speak Japanese”. Er, sir? Are you sure that she’s not your research assistant, and how much did you pay her? When this comes up I always feel a bit embarrassed because lurking behind every one of my books is my partner. Some of it is because I’m mildly dyslexic, some is because one always needs a fresh pair of eyes, and some of it is because he is just more careful and pedantic than I am. So right now, as I write this, he is downstairs inputting all my corrections, cutting yet more material and popping upstairs every now and again to clarify issues, make suggestions and ask if I really meant what I wrote on that page. Again, this process will take about a week. He is being rewarded with acknowledgments and the past week’s experiments in gluten free and dairy free muffins (lemon and poppy seed last night, tomorrow cheese and onion souffle muffins).

Between Christmas and New Year the manuscript will land back on my desk again. I’ll go through every query left, make some final choices on possible cuts, and then read it once more to make sure it makes sense and we’ve not made hash of the meaning from the cuts. Then it heads off to Unbound.

Once Unbound have read it, it still has to be laid out, copy edited, proof read and indexed and eventually slotted into a schedule. It’s a long task. Realistically we are looking at autumn of next year. If that seems a long time be reassured that’s actually rather efficient.

So while you all wait, may I wish those of you who celebrate a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year.

Spreading myself a little thin…

I was recently asked to name a fault in working practice, and I had to admit, spreading myself a little thin is probably one of them.

These are my current projects:

In September I successfully crowdfunded my new book on Robert A. Heinlein. This is the first substantive revisit of Heinlein’s work since Leon Stover’s book in 1987 (the excellent book by Thomas Clareson and Joe Sanders published in 2014 is a general overview). On Monday I begin the final edit, with the aim of cutting 15,000 words. It will be delivered to Unbound during December and we all hope will come out next year. You can pre-order, and also sign up for notifications, here.

I’m working on the first draft of a book on Memory and the English Civil War as created in fiction for children and teens from the eighteenth century onwards. I know that’s a mouthful but I’ve yet to find a succinct way of expressing it. I also know that “War of the Three Kingdoms” is more current terminology but I’m having enough problems that if I just say “Civil War” my American readers think I mean theirs. You can find a list of the titles I’m working with here.

And because I am a glutton for punishment, in the new year I’ll be beginning my second novel, a sequel to Spring Flowering. It’s set in Birmingham in the early 1830s. And my heroine Ann and the coterie she is gathering around her, set out to investigate a cold case with roots in the Priestly riots. I’ll set up a page for that when I begin the research but for now, here I am talking about the first book at the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.