This week we welcome Chaz Brenchley. Also known as Daniel Fox. Also known as Ben Macallan. Also known as Carol Trent. Also known as are-you-serious-I-can-barely-manage-one-career-and-you’re-juggling-four??? Rumor has it he’s assisted by an infinite number of typing monkeys, but this has not yet been confirmed.
Famously, the first question non-writers ask is “Where do you get your ideas?” After that, when you’ve been around a while, a popular twosome is “How many books have you written now?” and “Which one is your first?”
In answer to either of those, I tend to say “It kind of depends how you count.”
At which point people look at me a little oddly, and murmur “One, two, three…” under their breath, and I have to elaborate.
So, elaborately: there are three books out there that I fondly refer to as my first, depending on the company I’m keeping and just how elaborate I want to be.
Way back in the early eighties, when I was a baby writer living off teenage romance for magazines, I heard through the grapevine that a London publisher was launching a new series of romantic thrillers; they would provide the storyline, and all the author had to do was turn a 5K synopsis into a 50K novel. At this point, I’d never actually finished a novel. But I was young, I was confident; I thought, “Cool, here’s an easy way into where I want to be.” So I wrote to the publisher, asking if they wanted new writers for this exciting new series of theirs, because if so here I was and this was my track record.
They passed the letter on to a literary agent, whose idea the whole series had been. She wrote back to me to say yes, they were very much looking for new writers, and please would I write them some sample chapters? So I did that; and she liked them and so did the publisher, and so I was offered a commission. They gave me a choice of three storylines, I picked the least-silly and wrote it in three weeks. It was published the following year as Time Again by Carol Trent, and technically I guess that’s my first novel. Except. It didn’t have my name on the cover, but that’s nothing; more importantly, it wasn’t my idea, wasn’t my plot, wasn’t mine in any way beyond the actual succession of words on the page. So sometimes I do count it, and sometimes I don’t. Depending.
The series bombed, but the agent invited me down to talk about other work, real books I might write. She’d recently represented Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon in the UK, and suggested I look at that; so I read it on the train home, came over all excited, and spent the next few weeks putting together an idea for a serial-killer thriller. Once it started giving me nightmares I figured it was ripe, so I wrote a synopsis with samples and sent that down. She liked it, a couple of publishers were interested but not prepared to commit; she told me to write the book and then she’d sell it.
This one took me four years. She was right, though, she did sell it once it was finally done. We signed the contract in ’87, and the book came out the following year. The Samaritan, by Chaz Brenchley. All my own work, my own name on the cover: by many standards, you could call that my true first.
Except that the main reason why it took four years was because I had to earn a living, so I was busily writing other stuff as well. Amongst which was a children’s fantasy, The Thunder Sings. I wrote it on spec, we touted it around all the major publishers, various people were interested but no one would commit; I’d more or less given up hope even before we sold The Samaritan. And then I was an adult thriller writer, working on my second novel while I waited for the first to come out – and then a package came to my door, and that was the proofs of The Thunder Sings. Which a small educational publisher had received, and liked, and was taking to press without thus far troubling to tell either me or my agent.
So we negotiated a retrospective contract, and The Thunder Sings was actually published a few months ahead of The Samaritan – but only to schools, as part of a reading programme. It wasn’t available in bookshops. So sometimes that too is my first book, and sometimes not.
And then there’s Daniel Fox’s first book, Dragon in Chains, which came out just a few years ago, and Ben Macallan’s first book, Desdaemona, which is just out now. And then there’s that whole “How many books have you written?” – which is a whole nother question, and even more complicated an answer, and yup. It just depends how you count.