In the late 1980s a psychiatric nurse from Yorkshire penned a slim novel that was to shake the London literary establishment to its foundations.
Arguably, the success of Paul Sayer’s The Comforts of Madness (1988) still has some of the heavyweights vying for The Whitbread Book of the Year that time scratching their heads.
When you consider one of them was Salman Rushdie, and that the book he had in the race was The Satanic Verses, the image of head scratching suddenly seems insufficient.
Tic-ridden apoplexy seems more appropriate.
Sayer’s win was an upset for the old order. And justification writ-large for the team at Bloomsbury - the ever-agile publisher that was to score another success a few years later with a certain boy wizard.
The critics, championing the result, waxed lyrical:
“The Comforts of Madness is surely sad, but enthralling in its excellence. Sayer's style is understated and sure handed,“ announced New York Newsday.
Two decades later the author is still bashful about his incredible success - an achievement, which despite a Booker Prize long-listing in 1999 for Men in Rage, remains a career high. Sayer has continued to pen engaging, testing works, however, and even dabbled in the crime genre with The God Child (1996).
His crime offering received rave reviews with The Times declaring Sayer a “subtle moralist with an eye for the stranger byways of vice and virtue” going on to declare the novel as “fresh evidence for his talent and seriousness”.
The God Child is indeed an unusual crime novel. The intense, brooding conflicts of the Yorkshire coast almost strangle the reader with their agonies. Protagonist Harold Broom is a put-upon, cuckolded bankrupt who is taunted by letters from his wife’s lover. And miracle child, Maisie - born to Harold’s brother’s wife after a car accident - is a furtive teen without her troubles to seek.
PULP PUSHER spoke to Paul Sayer about The God Child and asked about his dabblings in crime, and the rewards of overthrowing the old order.
TONY BLACK: The book that introduced me - and quite a few others, I'm sure - to your work was The Comforts of Madness (1988). It proved to be quite a calling card for you.
PAUL SAYER: The Comforts of Madness was my third attempt at writing a novel, and if it hadn’t made it into print I may well have given up trying. In the end, the route to publication came through its winning The Constable Trophy, a now sadly defunct Yorkshire Arts initiative to find ‘the best unpublished novel in the North of England’. I’ve always thought it highly unlikely that any agent or editor would ever have taken it on, owing to its shortness and dark nature.
How did it feel to pick up the Whitbread Book of the Year award?
Winning the Whitbread, for which The Satanic Verses was a hot favourite, was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else: I was already more than satisfied with the book’s critical reception and the Whitbread First Novel award, and on the night the overall prize was awarded I was certain I was only there to make up the numbers.
You'd been working as a psychiatric nurse at the time, I believe, at what stage did you realise you wanted to become a writer?
Being from a rather modest background, I had no game plan at all for becoming a full-time writer, and I’m not sure that, with a wife, mortgage, and a son just about to start school, that I really wanted such a thing. But, of course, an award such as the Whitbread lifts you into a different league, both commercially and critically, at least for a little while, though the reality of what you earn rarely stands any comparison with the fabulous riches that many people imagine such an accolade should bring.
Obviously that job was influential in the writing you produced then.
Working as a psychiatric nurse constantly exposes you to lives lived in extremis and most mental health nurses I know seem to develop the same sixth sense about the human condition, and what is or is not genuine behaviour. For any category of writer, this kind of insight is priceless.
One of your subsequent books The Absolution Game (1992) was long-listed for the Booker Prize; you must have thought you were knocking at the door of the literary establishment.
The Absolution Game was a book I laboured over for too long – nine and a half full drafts in total – and I was so tired of it I never really cared for the final outcome. The Booker ‘long-listing’ was about as far as it was likely to get. Its reception also convinced me that the novel of contemporary social concerns was not keeping pace with modern tastes and thinking, leading me further into the mainstream, first with The Storm Bringer and then The God Child.
We're well and truly used to literary authors becoming genre writers now (Kate Atkinson and John Banville to name two) but back then it was quite a brave step.
What most literary authors are looking for, whether they admit it or not, is that most desirable of novels: one which is both well-written and well-crafted, but which also has a wide and popular appeal. You mention John Banville – I’m guessing you mean the finely rendered The Book of Evidence, which pre-dates my book – and indeed that work, along with Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, and some work of the late Brian Moore, and others, showed that you can give great depth and resonance to the often one- or two-dimensional crime novel. My agent at the time, Carol Smith, absolutely loved The God Child, but for me it brought the discovery that those who write genre novels best are the writers who are fully committed to the form, and I probably was not one of them. Alas, I’m no Raymond Chandler – for me one of the greatest prose fiction writers of the twentieth century.
I was thinking more of Banville’s crime writing success as ‘Benjamin Black’ …
I do try to pay attention to what’s going on in the literary world, but I’m afraid the Benjamin Black ouvre has passed me by completely.
The setting of The God Child is mired in a kind of claustrophobia. It's very noir, very murky. It's also very filmic; did you write it with one eye on the screen?
I do like narratives which are close and intense – the panoramic sweep of so many great American novels is beyond me and may have something to do with my Englishness and the small landscape I inhabit. But that’s not to say that the deepest and most universal truths cannot be found in the often stifling social microcosms in which we Brits live. As for writing with the screen in mind, I don’t know that anyone can take that as a principal motive for creating a novel: the literary scene is such a crowded marketplace these days and only a very tiny percentage of books actually make it into production.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that the initial germ of inspiration for The God Child came from a real-life murder in the late-70s/early-80s in Filey, the Yorkshire seaside town which I disguised as Oughton Bay. It involved the killing of a hotelier by his wife, and a barman at the hotel who was also her lover. It’s a long time ago and the details are a bit sketchy in my mind, though I do remember the Daily Mirror helpfully printing a photograph of the hotel’s pool table on which much bonking by the guilty couple was said to have taken place.
The characters of The God Child interact in complex ways. I'm thinking of the mother, who comes to play a pivotal role in the storyline, and the godchild, Maisie, herself; the protagonist, Harold Broome, is an uncle and a son and a husband. This much familial context is not something we're used to seeing in a mystery novel, was that something you wanted to address?
The family setting, with all its shades of insincerity, its failed attempts at communication, its conniving and thwarted desires, is of course a great staple of fiction of all kinds and it was the only way I felt I could deliver such a narrative. Not for me, I’m afraid, the crime novel with the detective with a suspect temperament and quirky, murky past. Which is not to say I don’t admire the better examples of those kinds of creation: Henning Mankel’s Wallander, for example, has some very edgy ideas about race and sexual politics which I find intriguing.
You’ve mentioned Chandler and Mankel, are there any other crime writers you admire?
If I was to get metaphysical about the genre, I’d say virtually all crime writing owes something to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a modern classic derivation, while not exactly a novel, is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another source of inspiration for The God Child. Amongst modern writers of, if you like, ‘pulp’ crime fiction, I find the output varies wildly in quality – some readers appear perfectly happy to accept quite low standards of writing, and the plots and characterisation in many of these books can be terribly hackneyed. However, I do find Ruth Rendell’s Barbara Vine strand always seems to reach a reliably intelligent level of reader engagement.
How do you feel about The God Child all these years after its publication? Is there any part of it you would change?
If I was to write The God Child again, I’d make more of Harold’s relationship with his wife – I feel I rather skimmed it a bit and there was a lot more that could have been learned about him from that.
You seem to be quite heavily involved in teaching writing at the moment; are you getting much writing done?
At the moment I‘m involved with writing about crime of a different kind with a book entitled The True Adventures of Richard Turpin. The title says it all really, since it’s a novelised account of the real life of the burglar and highwayman Dick Turpin: a story considerably more interesting than the mythical Black Bess and ‘Stand-and-deliver!’ version, though I suspect some people will always prefer the pantomime villain to the real thing, since he could be brutal and callous and it’s not easy to inspire sympathy for him in the reader. I twice thought I’d crossed the finishing line with the book, only to learn that I still hadn’t really got to grips with a very complex story and my organisation of the historical material continues to drive me slightly loopy. Over the last two years I’ve also been dogged by a little ill-health, namely a very old renal problem - polycystic, if you’re interested in such things – which led to my having a kidney transplant at the end of October. However, I’ve managed to avoid dialysis and my recovery is good, if a little slow, and by early next year I’m hoping to be back on track when I intend to nail that blackguard Turpin for good! All breath should be kept suitably baited.
Would you tackle crime fiction again? How do you feel the genre has developed over the years since you tried your hand?
I would certainly be interested in writing another crime-driven novel, if only for the opportunity it would present to examine the incredibly complex nature of evil, of which I have never read a satisfactory definition. But with such plot-driven writing, you definitely have to be ‘in the moment’ and to hit a certain groove that must be followed to the end. And the great rule, of course, is that you should never know how the story ends until you get there.
How do you feel about the current state of publishing in general?
The traditional London-based bricks-and-mortar publishing houses still have a stranglehold on print review space and the industry as a whole, but the world is changing fast and their approach to e-books seems very fragmentary and likely to find a few of them out quite soon. The scope for small independent houses - offering print-on-demand and other formats for the cyber-savvy -would seem to be better than ever before. But the old soldiers in the book business, who are generally ‘conservative’ in both the chief wretched senses of the word, will remain very difficult to shift from their entrenched positions as arbiters of literary taste and fashion.
Are you interested in eBooks? Do you own a Kindle?
I have yet to read an e-book, however I was recently given a Samsung something-or-other which I think has Kindle properties, though I’ve yet to work out how to use it. Look, all my life I’ve been a reader of physical books, and then a writer of the same sensual and iconic artefacts, and old habits like that die incredibly hard, though I know I’ll have to come to terms with the new production methods sometime. Adapt or perish: it’s ever been thus.
:: Paul Sayer's
Men in Rage is