Monday, June 13, 2011

My First Time: Henning Koch

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Henning Koch, author of Love Doesn't Work, published earlier this year by Dzanc Books.  Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007 he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  His interest in Mediterranean and Hispanic cultures has been a strong influence in his writing, and continues to be a driving factor.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming from Dzanc Books in September 2012).

My First Publishing Deal

It was the late 80s and I was renting a room at the back of an apartment block in Barcelona and my window overlooked a dark central well that reeked of burnt flour and rancid oil from the bakery at the bottom.  I had the bit between my teeth that year and sat at my desk working on a series of stories that, I felt sure, would finally propel me into the exalted world of published writers.  At that time there were was no digital realm, no twittering, no blogs, no online journals--just a lot of genteel publishers lounging about with glasses of cognac and discussing “literature” whilst fondling their cheque books.

I was sharing an apartment with a chain-smoking German photographer who kept synchronised cigarettes burning in every room as she nervously paced, occasionally picking up one of these cigarettes, taking a puff and putting it back in the ashtray.  Also an American stick-woman who only ate apples and nuts, which she kept in sealed glass jars in the fridge.  Oh, and I mustn’t forget our friend Raol, a tall, anorexic Argentinean working as an extra in horror films.  Raol liked to spend his days brooding on the leatherette sofa.  I wove his tales from the Pampas into my “literature production,” pleased to have found this very authentic Hispanic note, which would surely appeal to readers out there who loved Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark and Eric Newby.

I produced a number of stories mostly set in the Barcelona slum, a place I knew awfully well as I used to go there to score hashish from the gypsies.  My stories were mostly about the pimps, whores, alcoholics and drug addicts of the Barrio Xino (oddly enough, no Chinese lived there) who impressed and frightened me with their destructive glamour, particularly when they waved their knives at me.

Shortly after arriving back in London, I saw an advertisement for a new publishing company calling itself “Little Fish.”  I typed up and edited my stories on my weird, kryptonite Amstrad computer.  It was a horrible, hot summer and this time I was staying in a house infested with woodlice--pity they weren’t edible!  To my enormous surprise, I had a prompt reply from Little Fish, who offered me an advance of almost $600.  I met the editors for coffee in Notting Hill, London, and found they were smart business types in Burberry raincoats.  Their marketing concept was to sell pocket-sized paperbacks in specially-made display cabinets at supermarket checkouts.  While this did not really appeal to my notion of what a book ought to be, I welcomed the idea of having my books picked up and read by shoppers, possibly even shoppers whose minds were more concerned with turnips and cranberry juice and frozen pizza than with the amazing perspicacity of my writing.

Once we got onto my manuscript, the Burberry publishers clarified that they only liked some of the stories which, they said, were “too good to waste.”  But many of the stories were poetical to the point of exasperation and I needed to get myself a good-sized trash bin.  Did I have any other short stories knocking about?  Could I rustle up a couple in a week or two?  If so, we could go straight to press and my book would be out there with the cabbage and chewing gum before you could say so much as “cheese soufflĂ©.”

I set to work.  The days were hot, my Amstrad computer groaned and creaked, the woodlice swarmed the kitchen.  The printer spat out one story after another, but none seemed to reach the highs I had achieved in my hellish Barcelona apartment, listening to Raol muttering about the Pampas, his gambling father who lost the hacienda, or the Stick-American insisting on the dietary benefits of a hell of a lot of almonds, or the German photographer casually lighting up another cigarette until the apartment resembled an industrial landscape with palls of smoke rising from every strategically placed ashtray.

Like a tennis player who’s five sets up and serving on match point, my nerve failed.  The publishers, who repeatedly sent back my new stories with a few chastening comments, began to smell my fear.  I had a few encouraging letters, telling me to relax and write instinctively.

It sounded easy but it wasn’t.

One November morning, I had a letter from Little Fish letting me know they would soon cease trading.  Their distribution agreements had fallen through.  There was a perception in the supermarkets that more money could be made by removing the display cases and selling batteries and disposable razors instead.

As soon as the deal was off, I easily finished the remaining few stories and then put the manuscript away.  Twenty years later it still lies hidden at the back of my desk drawer.  I have never shown it to anyone else, and I don’t expect I ever will.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on LOVE DOESN'T WORK! As far as your 20-year-old ms, why not "fish" it out and offer it elsewhere? Or pull the best stories and submit to anthologies? Good luck with all your writing!