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Thoughtcat exclusive – An interview with Charles Webb

Charles Webb (courtesy BBC)Following is a feature I wrote recently. I have spent the past few weeks submitting a shorter version to a number of newspapers and magazines but none have expressed an interest, so I thought I’d just blog it instead. I hope you enjoy this Thoughtcat exclusive.

* * *

In April the Guardian reported that a panel of experts had drawn up a list of the “50 best film adaptations of all time”. Inevitably, any such list will have glaring omissions – no Lord of the Rings, no Gone With the Wind – but it’s doubtful that many except the most die-hard of film fans would have wondered why The Graduate didn’t make it. Not because it’s not a great story, but because Charles Webb’s original novel isn’t, for whatever reason, as famous in its own right as other book/film classics of the era such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead, in another list published the same month, the screenplay for Mike Nichols’s film by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham ranked 13th in the “top 101 of all time” as voted by the Writers’ Guild of America.

Think of The Graduate and you’ll probably think of Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson attempting to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s hapless Benjamin Braddock. (In the popular imagination, the two stars are permanently linked with the roles – the film launched Hoffman’s career, and when Bancroft died last year just about every obituary headline referred to “the Graduate star”, despite her dozens of other films and her Oscar for The Miracle Worker.) The jaunty Simon & Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson will probably also come to mind, as might the recent Broadway and West End stage version with its celebrated “nude” appearances by latterday Mrs Robinsons Kathleen Turner and Jerry Hall.

Whatever you connect with The Graduate, chances are it won’t be Webb’s name, although his authorship of the original 1963 novel should by rights have earned him a place in modern culture as permanent as that of Mrs Robinson herself. When as part of my research for this article I asked two modern film specialists from the universities of Sheffield and Hull why they thought Webb’s novel hadn’t achieved the same classic status as the movie, both, while talking at some length about the latter’s cultural impact, candidly admitted they had never read the book. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed as far back as 1970 that Webb “seems to be the forgotten man in all the publicity, even though 80 percent or more of the dialogue comes right out of the book. I recently listened to some knowledgeable people parcelling out writing credit to Nichols, Henry, and Willingham as if Webb had never existed, as if the quality of the film were predetermined by the quality of its script, and as if the mystique of the director counted for nought. These knowledgeable people should read the Webb novel, which reads more like a screenplay than any novel since John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.”

Then again, maybe you do think of Webb’s name these days when you hear yet another mention of the movie – but very likely for the wrong reasons. Webb hit the headlines in April when it was reported that he and his wife Fred were overdue with their rent, defaulting on their bank loans of £30,000 and about to be evicted from their home in East Sussex. Moreover, Webb had written a sequel to The Graduate called Home School but couldn’t publish it because due to a legal loophole a French media company owned the film rights to the characters, and could knock out an almost certainly inferior sequel without his permission. On top of all this, Fred suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago and has been clinically depressed and dependent on Webb’s care ever since.

Thanks to the press attention, Webb and his wife have of course since been offered temporary accommodation by a well-wisher in Suffolk, and the author has just signed a contract with Random House to publish Home School in 2007. Mrs Robinson makes a repeat appearance in the story, putting the skills for which she is best known to good use to persuade a senior school official to allow her grandchildren to continue their home education of the title.

However, the weeks before the good news was announced were tense for Charles Webb.

I was minding my own business surfing the web when I first heard about all this, and my heart went out to the guy. To be honest, at that point I’d never heard of him myself, even though The Graduate is one of my all-time favourite films – probably, again, for the wrong reasons. The symbolism, stylishness and social iconoclasm all escaped me when I first saw it at the tender age of thirteen: all that hit me about it then was Anne Bancroft. (I even felt let down when Hoffman fell in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine: it seemed a cop-out. Mrs Robinson was the story, as far as I was concerned anyway.)

But I digress. Determined to help him out in some way, I tracked down Webb’s literary agents online and sent him an email. I had no idea what I could actually do to help – I was certainly not the well-wisher that the North Korea Times (of all papers) reported he was hoping would come to his aid with the offer of free accommodation. Nonetheless, I found myself offering to help set him up one of those websites you hear of every so often where people tell their miserable life stories and request donations via PayPal, only to find a few weeks later that they’re practically millionaires. Failing that, I offered to send him some hard cash myself – not that I have any, but all the same. I should point out that, to his credit, after what has now been an email correspondence of several weeks, I still have no idea where I could send him a cheque even if he wanted my money. Which, despite everything, he doesn’t.

* * *

Charles Webb was born in 1939 in San Francisco. By all accounts he had a good upbringing: his father was a wealthy doctor, and The Graduate reflected the monied environment of his youth. He attended Midland School in Los Olivos, California, and Williams College in Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1961, having majored in American history and literature. The proverbial brilliant career beckoned, and certainly he got off to a good start, publishing The Graduate, his first novel, when he was just 24. So how could his current predicament have come about, when the film of The Graduate made over $100m and Webb has published a number of other novels – two of which have also been filmed – in the years since?

Well, for a start, Webb received a one-off payment of just $20,000 for the film rights to The Graduate. Of course, that was worth a fair bit more in the late Sixties than it is now, and must have seemed a good deal for a writer not yet 30. Even so, it wasn’t the most prescient of business decisions. Webb’s story recently prompted the Mirror to make a list of WORLD’S BIGGEST MUGS – AND BLUNDERS THAT COST THEM A FORTUNE, in which he found himself named alongside Decca supremo Dick Rowe – The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles – and someone called Kane Kramer, who invented the precursor to the iPod in 1979 and then let the patent lapse.

To be fair, Webb didn’t deserve a place in that list, crass as it in any case was: the key to his situation seems to lay in a low opinion of wealth for its own sake nurtured since his youth. The Graduate itself drew heavily on his own experience of growing up with – and ultimately rejecting – materialism, Webb turning down a valuable inheritance from his father. He gave away his Graduate royalties to the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation which has been “combatting anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds” since 1913, and he has also given away other earnings to charity.

Some of the causes he has supported seem less worthy than others, however. When he sold the film rights to his 2001 novel New Cardiff (later released as Hope Springs starring Colin Firth and Minnie Driver) for £60,000, Webb – who by then had moved from the States to Hove, near Brighton – gave away £10,000 of it to fund a local artist called Daniel Shelton, who achieved brief notoriety in 2003 by mailing himself to the Tate Britain in a crate. “The idea came from the technique used by inventors,” reported The Times, “who sealed their plans in a postmarked envelope to prove when they came up with their concept. He had turned himself into living art to explore the way that artists are seen as objects, he added.” The article was headlined “The artist who sent himself up”. Some readers might have wondered whether Shelton was actually sending his benefactor up.

* * *
I received the first email from Charles Webb within hours of sending my initial one. “Dear Mr. Cat,” he wrote, “Your email was forwarded to me and I was deeply touched by your concern. I haven’t read the press coverage, so I don’t know how clear it’s been made that the development of a new method of mental health treatment has been what’s kept me from ‘the world of commerce’.”
I replied that I’d heard about his wife’s breakdown and subsequent clinical depression from one or two of the news reports, but hadn’t seen anything about this intriguing “new treatment”. I also wrote with more details, as he requested, about my website idea, and at that point also offered to write a feature on him and his situation which might highlight not just his financial predicament but also his wife’s illness.
This thought-balloon popped when Webb replied to my email saying he’d recently given an interview to a freelancer in which he spoke at some length about the topic that most interested him, “the artist class as an unrecognised minority”. He was disappointed that the piece had never materialised, and seemed unaware of its somewhat limited appeal. Slightly more promisingly, he spoke enthusiastically about his discovery of Skype, the internet telephony service which allows users to make free “phone calls” over the internet. Conducting meetings and interviews using Skype’s videoconferencing facility seemed a cheap and useful way for him to keep up with the “world of commerce” from home, thus enabling him to maintain his responsibilities to Fred. “It could spell the beginning of the end of my financial isolation,” he wrote.
* * *

Researching Charles Webb wasn’t particularly easy. He didn’t have a website or an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who’s Who, the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English or the Oxford Companion to English Literature. There was an entry on Wikipedia which gave a little information, such as that his wife changed her name from Eve to Fred “as a gesture of solidarity with men named Fred who have low self-esteem” (although in true Wikipedia fashion this turned out to be half-true; the group itself was called Fred, while its members didn’t have to be called the same) and claimed the couple divorced “not out of personal differences, but in protest at the institution of marriage”. Some of Webb’s other novels were mentioned, including The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place, Love, Roger and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, which was made into a film in 1971 and had a cameo from ex-Batman star Adam West. The rest of the article was given over to The Graduate, lamenting the lack of credit given to Webb by the hit film.

I logged on to Amazon.co.uk and tried to buy a copy of Webb’s original 1963 novel. Entering “The Graduate” into its search engine turned up 4,329 results, of which the first several pages consisted of titles like The Top 100 Graduate Employers, Academic Writing for Graduate Students and The Graduate Psychometric Test Workbook. The Graduate was nowhere to be found. Next I tried searching under “Charles Webb”. This was almost as confusing, as Webb has a namesake, Charles Harper Webb, a prolific American poet, many of whose titles preceded Webb’s in the search results. Finally I found a paperback of The Graduate, but was astonished to find the only copies available seemed to be second-hand; I couldn’t find a new one anywhere. The book couldn’t be out of print, surely? There were any number of editions, starting at the princely sum of 1p. Instinctively I didn’t trust such a price – surely the binding must be falling to pieces? – but one of the 1p copies was described as in excellent condition, so with only a penny to lose – plus £2.75 for postage and packing – I decided to try it out and see what turned up.

What turned up a few days later was a very recent Penguin paperback edition with a retro cover design in such good condition that I would have paid the full marked price of £5.99 for it without a second thought. As web etiquette demanded, I left positive feedback for the seller on the Amazon site. But something about the whole transaction disturbed me: was Webb’s classic really so tough to shift that sellers were reduced to flogging copies for a penny? I emailed the seller. “The reason most of the books I and other VERY small booksellers price the majority of their stock at 1p is simply we make our profit on the postage!!” she replied. “There is no point in pricing higher as Amazon customers seem to go for 2 things… the price and the sellers’ feedback… therefore I rely on customers like you who take the time to rate my business highly.”

Fair enough, but it still seemed ridiculous that the novel, especially a recent imprint, was now out of print. I tried searching for the title on Waterstone’s own website, but as this uses the same search engine as Amazon’s, I got exactly the same results. I emailed Waterstone’s in London’s Piccadilly and asked why all this should be the case, only to be told that, paradoxically, The Graduate is in fact still going strong. “Penguin publish and distribute this title in paperback and Constable & Robinson also publish it in hardback,” came the reply, “and there are US editions on the market as well.” I wrote back, pointing out that anyone using the internet to try to buy the book would likely come to a different conclusion. “Yes that is odd,” replied the assistant. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you an explanation for this error, I will endeavour to inform our Head Office.”

As helpful as the Waterstone’s assistant was, I’m not sure whether the message actually got through, as three weeks later the second-hand 1p versions still came to the top of the search results and the in-print versions were buried somewhere underneath. It seemed that Webb – to rub salt into the wound – has become a victim of the vicissitudes of internet technology, so that not only can all but the most intrepid of online book-buyers read his most famous book for next to nothing, but in doing so they also rob him of any royalties he might have earnt if they’d bought the new copy instead. Then again, maybe I’m just naieve – of course the cheaper edition is going to be the most popular. Why bother paying the full price for a new copy when you can buy a nearly-new one for a penny?

It might not be such a bad thing though that Webb’s latest novel New Cardiff, which is definitely not out of print, is the top “Charles Webb” search result in Amazon’s books section. Ironically, type his name into the main search engine and the first thing that comes up is a Graduate DVD; the book (in penny paperback) comes in fifth. Meanwhile, searching on Penguin’s own website initially turned up no results when keying in either Webb’s name or the book title; somehow, the ISBN given by Waterstone’s worked, but the result was for a 1973 edition and the catalogue listing didn’t even say who wrote it. That was a few weeks ago; now, searching under the title or author works fine, but the ISBN doesn’t…

* * *

I received another email from Charles Webb. “We have two plots in the ‘natural’ cemetery in Brighton,” he wrote, “and I’m thinking of putting them up for auction on eBay for some quick cash. Any tips?”

I’d both bought and sold items on eBay but my first thoughts were of the technicalities: could you sell a graveyard plot in the UK without getting into miles of red tape? It certainly had the makings of a newsworthy story, although there was something sad about it as well – doubly sad in fact, as not only did the thought of a couple in their sixties selling their own graves tug at the heartstrings, but I secretly doubted they’d get very much for them – certainly not enough to make a meaningful dent in their debts, anyway.
Their domestic situation seemed to be looking up, however. “Because of our decrepitude, the Hove Council is legally obliged to put us up in a B&B; if we’re evicted rather than let us live on the street,” he wrote. “If it turns out that happens before a book deal can be put together, it might be a good handle for your article.” He added that someone who had read about his predicament in the papers had come forward to offer them accommodation in Woodbridge, and did I know the area at all? I didn’t, and wasn’t actually sure where it was. I went back to Wikipedia and found several Woodbridges around the world, one of which was in Tasmania. Was he seriously considering another international upheaval? “Tasmania would have been nice,” he replied, “but alas, we are only talking Suffolk.”
* * *

Finally, Webb and I agree a time to talk. We have arranged to speak using Skype Video on the morning of the recent spring bank holiday. Webb calls me, rather than the other way round, as I’m the one who tends to be online more often. At precisely 11 o’clock my Skype “phone” rings and when I answer it Webb pops up in the centre of my laptop screen, looking healthy and relaxed in a dark shirt, a large pair of wire-framed glasses and an earphone-and-mic headset that gives a slight impression of an air traffic controller. I’m not wearing a headset myself, using speakers and the laptop’s built-in microphone instead, a setup he refers to admiringly as “hands-free”. “This is interesting to me,” he says. “I’ve tried so many people to get to talk on this video conferencing, just to get a feeling of it, just to get a practice of it, and nobody – well, I guess some people will, but you’re the first one who’s thought nothing about it…”

We start off talking about his idea to sell the graveyard plots. “It actually has a serious purpose,” he says, “and your points were well taken about legal issues but I’m going to disregard them. If it doesn’t work out it’s really not all that crucial. When these graves were purchased, which was, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, it really did look like the end of the line for Fred, and at that time I was listening to all the advice from the doctors and experts and shrinks and the rest of it, and it had reached the point of total hopelessness, and I finally decided to do this which I’ve had at the back of my mind all along.”
How is Fred’s depression now? “She’s now coming out of it,” he says. “But the graves were bought at sort of the low point of everything, so I was hoping through the attention of the graves sale to sort of call attention to that. It would be really nice to get some money out of it too, but who knows if that’s going to work out. I’ll throw it up on eBay and see what happens… We sold a grave site before in Hastings, New York – we had a family plot worked out but then we decided we weren’t going to do that.”

What made him move to England in the first place? “I wanted to see if I could write a British character. I couldn’t seem to get it right in the States so I thought if I came over here it would infuse, which it did. I couldn’t get the feel of it over there.”

What does he make of his recent appearance in the media? “I guess the interesting thing to me is that every so often the public seems to want some kind of ‘Graduate author hits skids’ story… now, the press thing, as far as what the press says, I don’t know if I can assist you there with something, but Marshall McLuhan, his whole thing was ‘the medium is the message’, and I never read anything of his but just that concept appealed to me. So when you’re reading the paper I think it’s not necessarily as important as just the experience of the person reading it that day – they might have read about a bomb in Iraq and might also be reading about the author of The Graduate being evicted. In each case you might be drawn to one and someone else might have been drawn to the other, but in each case – that person has a feeling of being lucky if they’re not that that way, so I just think the newspapers and the TV, for the most part, serve a purpose for the reader that helps them get along through their day.” He smiles, appearing happy to perform this “service” to readers.

Further to his thoughts about moving to Suffolk, I wonder if his life has been itinerant. “Yes it has,” he says, a little sadly. Home School picks up the story of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson a decade after they ran away together, now living in New York and – as the Webbs themselves did in the seventies – teaching their children at home. This was illegal in those days and they had to move around a lot to evade the authorities, who wanted to put their children back into formal education. Was that a stressful time? “Well that was itinerant, we went to camp grounds, things like that. Yes, it was very stressed.” Was it worth it? “I think so, our sons turned out well. They went to university, so it wasn’t like they never saw the inside of a school.” One of their sons works for a research company that advises companies on petroleum; he’s just gone to Moscow for a few months. Their other lives and works in Los Angeles.
The original Times report on their current circumstances gave the impression that Webb and his family hid in nudist camps to escape the educational establishment, but it wasn’t quite that way – it was just one camp rather than several. “This place in New Jersey needed a manager, and we took the job.” Was it good fun? “It was an interesting experience.” You wouldn’t do it again? “No, I don’t think so.”

Inevitably the conversation moves to The Graduate. Was his $20,000 flat fee a better deal in some ways than it might seem now? “I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t know about the comparative movie sale deals [at the time].” But could you, for instance, buy a house with that sort of figure in those days? “I don’t remember if we bought a house at that point… we got a house or two along the way, but I don’t know if it was with that money, or… I don’t remember exactly where every penny of it went.”

Did The Graduate launch him? “Everybody talks about these subjects in these sort of frames of reference, but it’s very difficult for me to relate to. I think that ‘launching’ is something that PR people think about – I don’t know what you mean.” Well, did it help at all, did he feel as if he’d been ‘launched’ and now there was an expectation for him to perform? “No… someone else maybe would’ve felt ‘launched’, I don’t know. But it was very useful, people’s reaction to the success of the film was a very useful thing for me… over the years people would react to me in a certain way. So that was interesting.”

The old Mrs Robinson fan in me is intrigued to know whether the story was based heavily on his own experience. “The Graduate was about going to college,” he says, “and then, well actually it was a lot of things – I got interested in the wife of a good friend of my parents and realising it might be better to write about it than to do it.” He breaks off. “It’s interesting – it seems like you’re operating from this sort of big databank of stereotypes with these questions, which is interesting in itself. Which is fine, I mean I don’t know what else you’d have in your mind but those. You have those, and you base what you think on that, and what else would anyone expect?”

I could say I haven’t exactly found it easy to turn up much information about him other than what I’ve read in the papers in recent weeks, but instead I take this as a prompt to move on to subjects other than The Graduate – after all, even though his novel is the thing that got us talking in the first place, I can understand how boring it must be when the only thing people want to talk about is something you did over 40 years ago. Going back (or coming forward) to New Cardiff, his 2001 novel, I ask how £10,000 of his advance for the book ended up funding Daniel Shelton to post himself to the Tate. “Fred gave that,” he says. “We thought it would help the fella, this fella that was here in Brighton.” Is sponsoring other artists something he’s interested in? “I’m interested in other artists, not in sponsoring them so much. I thought it would suit the fella. It was an interesting thing to do but I wouldn’t want to do it more than once.”

The Shelton connection did indeed come through Fred, an artist in her own right, her work including some superb pencil illustrations for New Cardiff. Has she exhibited anywhere or have work for sale? “She has a lot of back drawings,” says Webb. Brighton surely has a lively art market – wouldn’t it make sense to try and raise some money by selling her work locally, or even online? Webb seems hesitant, but reveals there are other artistic plans in the works. “There’s a gallery in California to open up, called The Talking Parrot. That would represent the ‘cure’ for Fred if we had our own gallery, and we have a woman out there, Pamela, who never seems to get mentioned in these articles, but when we open the gallery I think Fred’s drawings will be the basis of a lot of her show. Maybe you could come out for the opening? It won’t be right away, but…” I’d be delighted, I say, but why is this happening in the States when they’re now living in the UK? “Well, because of Pamela,” says Webb. “She’s there, she can advise on the purchase – she has a lot of practical ability and can organise the place and a lot of business stuff. I don’t know. We’re not very good at that, so she’ll be in charge of that.”

Was Fred’s condition related to their debt? “No,” he says. “It was related to her pressures over a lifetime, that I think had everything to do with her artistic temperament.” Has he ever experienced depression himself due to the ‘artistic temperament’? He seems astonishingly laid-back given what he’s gone through in recent years. “Some artists don’t figure it out as well as others,” he says. “I had it figured out a little better than, say, Fred, so…”

I ask him to tell me about this curious “new mental health treatment” he mentioned in his first email to me. “It’s called Sleep,” he says. Sleep? “Sleep.” What, sleep? “That’s right. That’s it.” Just sleep? “Sleep, yeah,” says Webb. “Fred slept for two years, and now she’s getting well. For two years [previously] they tried other things, and then I took over, and let her sleep for two years, and now she’s getting well.” I’d been under the impression he was talking about a major new treatment being developed with doctors in the States which involved an expensive “method” of some sort. But no. “The method is called ‘letting a person sleep’,” he says, “and this person [in the States] gave me a lot of support. All the doctors said I was crazy and it was wrong and the worst thing I could be doing, but this person gave me the support just to let Fred sleep. So she slept for two years even though everyone said that was wrong, and now she’s getting well.”

So the technique is – what? Whenever she wants to sleep, he just lets her sleep? “She did sleep for two years.” What, solid? “She got up to go to the bathroom every day and I would bring her food which she usually ate in bed, and after two years she started sleeping a little less, then a little less, and then she’d be up for a day and sleep for a day, and now she’s getting to the point where she’s up more than down, and she’s getting well.

“I think the main thing is, for those people in the medical profession that understand, you know, sleep isn’t bad. It was like I was being totally irresponsible – you know,” he says, imitating what some experts told hi
m, “‘This is bad! She’s chronically depressed, you don’t want to let her sleep! She just needs a different type of antidepressant, a different type of antipsychotic – here, we have a new kind of therapy, let’s try this! She needs to be kept up – prevent her from going to bed, prevent her from being in her bedroom every day…’ You know, this went on for two years and I didn’t know what else to do, so I let the experts take over and just went on trying [what they said] for two years and she got just slowly worse. And I finally said, ‘Well, look, if she’s going to die then, you know, let her die in peace. She wants to sleep, so let her sleep.’”

If it worked for Fred, why were all the experts saying it was a bad thing to do? “Because they don’t understand the healing powers of the body and the power of the mind itself. What happens to you and I overnight happened to her over two years. I often feel like I’m Christopher Columbus telling everybody the earth is round – everybody thinks I’m crazy. They don’t understand, they think you have to put chemicals in [the mind] and manipulate it, and all this stuff. They don’t understand that the mind can heal itself if it’s allowed to, at least in her case – in some cases it can’t, but certainly in hers. They can’t grapple with that concept of the mind healing itself.”

Webb is clearly passionate about the subject and is keen for other sufferers of chronic depression to know that there might be a non-medicinal alternative to their treatment. He’d like to set up a website giving more information, and to try to get some kind of endorsement from the mental health charity SANE which he has found supportive and helpful; however, he’s aware that “there may be some mildly controversial elements in what I have in mind and in the end these might be a factor in SANE’s decision to show the link on their site or not.”

Is ‘sleep’ a treatment he advocates for other sufferers? I know that’s not what he’s here to do, I say, but… “It is what I’m here to do,” he counters. “I noticed it; why shouldn’t other people benefit? Why should the doctors keep killing off the mental health patients?” Then again, he cautions, “I don’t know how you would do this without someone else [there], because you really have to have a sort of a supervising atmosphere, you can’t just leave the person on their own. You know, I would go off and shop every day and do the different things, but I couldn’t – I sort of always had to have my eye on the situation, so I don’t know – obviously a lot of people wouldn’t be in the situation to do it all, so I don’t know how it’s going to work out that other people could benefit.”

* * *

As the conversation draws to a close, ultimately we return to the subject of money – and, once more, The Graduate. Does he ever feel bitter about selling the film rights for a few thousand dollars, only to see the movie gross a hundred million? “Well, if I’d had a hundred million dollars it wouldn’t have taken me that much longer [to spend] than twenty thousand, and that would have been a whole lifetime’s work getting rid of that much. I think I would’ve been bitter to get that much money – I think,” he smiles, “I’d be a bitter old man at this point. I’m sure I’d still be shovelling it out the door.

“I know that without having money it becomes a preoccupation, obviously, and people think of it that way. I don’t know why people have to keep thinking about money. I know you don’t have enough,” he says diplomatically, “but people who, once they have enough and they keep thinking about it, what’s that all about? It’s a boring subject.”

Having lots of money is such a boring subject to Webb, it seems, that actually being in debt is something he describes as “fascinating”. “I’m in a fascinating relationship with the credit card company, and the way those people operate, which I would of course never be in a position to discern if I wasn’t, shall we say, prodded by them into paying them back – I would never have had any insight into the mechanics or mentality of a company like that.”

Webb reveals he’s currently working on a play about a character who’s in debt “and I’m sure it’ll wind up there. I don’t think it’ll be a writing project based on a person’s relationship with a credit card company, but the important thing – it’s just fascinating the way they operate. How could I learn that if I wasn’t in this position? I couldn’t. I would have died an uneducated person,” says the author of The Graduate and Home School, “if I hadn’t seen what happens if you don’t pay your credit card bill.” What are they doing, then? “Well they have very interesting techniques,” he says, cryptically. “It’s obvious that they read their training manuals. It’s just very, very bizarre they way they deal with one person and then deal with another and you find that the technique is the same… well, you can read all about it.”

I look forward to it. I’m pleasantly surprised, if not amazed, that he’s so philosophical about the subject, and that he’s found a positive way of using such a negative experience. “Well, that’s why you’re a writer,” he says. “Whatever happens to you, that’s what you write about. Doesn’t matter what it is. What else do you write about except your experience?”

© Thoughtcat 2006

The Great Kind of Blue Story Challenge

Thoughtcat’s Man in New Zealand, Chris Bell, recently wrote a very good short story called Kind of Blue: A five-part seduction fantasy, which not only looked to the great Miles Davis album for its inspiration, theme and structure but, in a nod to the way jazz records are made, the first draft was also “improvised” along to the record in real time. Even though, by his own admission, Chris did revise that first draft a few times before he was happy to unleash it on the NZBC blog to which he is a regular contributor, the idea of approaching a short story “[without] a preordained plot and a line of action, [trying] to get most of it down during one sitting, beginning with a sketch, and attempting to capture the spirit of discovery with no unnatural or interrupted strokes” was, I thought, a great idea. My imagination captured, with Chris’s permission I’ve started The Great Kind of Blue Story Challenge, which invites Alan Sundry to beat Chris at his own game. The “rules” are, basically, to write a story, about anything you like, in a single sitting, while listening to Kind of Blue, then email the result to us. So come on, then, if you think you’re ‘ard enough…

Publish and be ignored

A couple of years ago I entered the manuscript of my unpublished first novel All My Own Work into a competition run by two small UK publishing firms called Publish and be Damned (PABD) and UKA Press. I’d first heard of PABD through an article in the Guardian about publish-on-demand (POD; basically an affordable kind of vanity publishing) a few months before. The prize was several copies of your book “published” by PABD, to be offered for sale on their site as well as Amazon’s and UKA Press’s, and surrounding publicity. I recommended the contest to my mate Chris Bell, whose excellent and equally unpublished first novel Liquidambar had been unaccountably passed over by regular publishers. Both of our novels were shortlisted for the prize, and Chris’s went on to win.

Sadly the prize turned out to be incredibly disappointing, with production errors in the “finished” book, PABD and UKA Press doing very little by way of promotion, the title not turning up on Amazon for months and royalties and sales apparently unaccounted for. Chris is still, nearly two years later, embroiled in a dispute with PABD over all of this; PABD have now incidentally moved to Canada, as you might do if people were chasing you for money.

This would be bad enough, if perhaps predictable for the kind of smalltime, amateur outfits that PABD and UKA Press have sadly turned out to be. However, you might not expect almost as poor treatment at the hands of a national newspaper of the quality of The Guardian. Not long after Chris won the contest and received copies of his book, I offered to send one to the Guardian’s weekly books supplement, Guardian Review, on his behalf – not that I have any special contacts there, but the Review is based (like me) in the UK and Chris in New Zealand, and as mates we’d long agreed to do whatever we could to help promote each other’s books.

While PABD were not (and still aren’t) a regular publisher of the sort that the Review normally reviews, in May last year I’d noticed a new section in the supplement called Footnotes, apparently edited by ex-Bookseller supremo Nicholas Clee, which reviewed a selection of quality books from the small presses. This, combined with Chris’s newsworthy competition win and the Guardian’s own apparent interest in POD from their article that had brought PABD to our attention in the first place, made it seem reasonable to bring Liquidambar to Clee’s attention.

I wrote him a nice letter (in retrospect at two pages it was probably overlong, but I wanted to give him as much relevant information about Chris and the competition win as possible) and sent it with a copy of the book direct to Clee at the Guardian’s Farringdon, London address.

To be honest I’d guessed Clee’s most likely response would be a swift “thanks, but no thanks”, not because Chris’s book isn’t excellent but because he and the rest of the Review would no doubt be inundated with these sorts of author-attempts-at-getting-foot-in-door approaches. What I didn’t expect, though – however naievely – was to not get a response at all. When I’d heard nothing after two months I wrote Clee a much shorter letter reminding him of the book and asking again if he would consider it for the next Footnotes section.

By the end of September I’d still heard nothing from Clee, so as much as I hate going over people’s heads, it seemed a letter to the editor of the Review would be in order. Their name was not published anywhere in the Review or listed in the contacts section of the Guardian’s website, but it was given in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (albeit the 2004 edition) and on Wikipedia as Annalena McAfee, a.k.a. Mrs Ian McEwan.

Guess what.

By November I’d still not heard anything at all from Clee, McAfee or anyone at the Review, so by now fuming at their total lack of any form of courtesy whatever – by now even a letter telling me to fuck off would have been better received – I decided to go right over all their heads and ask the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger what was going on.

Funnily enough, this appeared to help.

Finally, just before Christmas, I received a reply, although not from Rusbridger or even McAfee, but the deputy editor of the Review, Georgina Henry, who firstly said McAfee had not been the correct person to write to, as she was not the “literary editor”. The fact that I had deliberately written to the editor-in-chief seemed to escape her, as had the tautology of there being a “literary editor” on the staff of a literary supplement. Nonetheless, she did say (for the record and anyone who cares) that said “literary editor” is Claire Armistead (note the spelling) and that (although she was apologetic) she was unable (or unwilling) to reconsider Liquidambar for review, saying their original decision not to review it should stand.

This letter to me was followed in January this year by another, this time from McAfee herself. I managed to control my excitement at receiving a letter from the wife of Ian McEwan, although this was quelled anyway by her comment “because of the large number of books coming in to the office we are unable to give feedback on individual submissions”. This is exactly what I’d thought would be their reaction in the first place – but how was I to know that if they didn’t tell me? If this is their official position, surely it might be a reasonably bright idea to photocopy it onto a few hundred sheets of Guardian headed paper, or (to be more eco-friendly about it) store it as a standard email, and just send one out to everyone who submits unsolicited books for review? I know the Guardian sends out unsigned, anonymous standard letters, because I’ve received three or four over the years from their “People Department” when I’ve been turned down for jobs at the paper. In fact, if the Guardian employed me to do nothing but send out these letters or emails, that might kill several birds with one stone.

McAfee then went on to say that it had been a further mistake to address the book to Nicholas Clee because “Nicholas writes for the Review on a freelance basis and is not involved in the commissioning of book reviews”. Apart from the fact that Clee had appeared to be “in charge” of the Footnotes section, and I was trying to avoid going round all the houses by sending Liquidambar direct to him, you might have thought that an organisation of the size of the Guardian could manage to get an envelope addressed to an important contributor, even a freelance one, to the man himself without too much trouble.

Finally McAfee said “can I suggest that any future books are submitted to our Literary Editor, Claire Armitstead [sic].”

McAfee obviously could do with someone to proof-read her letters before they go out (something else I could do around the office, perhaps!) as shortly after writing to me she also wrote to Chris, addressing his letter to “Auckland, Australia”.

I reckon all this should be a warning to an
yone wanting to get published: either be Ian McEwan, or be married to him, because everyone else may as well fuck off.

Chris’s own account of the whole sorry farce can be found here

Well, I thought it was funny

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a bar with some colleagues having a drink after work, when one of them – I forget the exact context – compared the noise of something to “A skeleton falling down a flight of metal stairs.” Not unreasonably, I asked him: “Under what possible circumstances might you have come to know what a skeleton falling down a flight of metal stairs sounds like?” “Ah,” he said, “because I used to own two of those Sound Effects records.” He then proceeded to approximate several intriguingly-titled sound effects such as “Mob rioting”, “Man washing up”, “Wet footsteps”, “Miscellaneous Screams 1-17” and of course the skeleton falling down the metal stairs (which incidentally nearly got him thrown out of the bar). Anyway we had a laugh and the topic was forgotten. Then on Sunday I was sitting in the bath – the place where many of my greatest ideas come to me – and for my own amusement started improvising a list of some of the more unlikely sound effects you might “hear” on a Sound Effects record, thus:

1. Crowd of people wearing dayglo underwear, chatting

2. Fake fur coat tumbling down escalator

3. Telephone not ringing in a lonely person’s apartment

4. Van Gogh canvas being eaten by killer whale (one of a series of impressionist works being fed to ocean beasts)

5. Occasional table being painted (gloss)

6. Occasional table being painted (matt)

7. Occasional table being painted (watercolour)

8. Tony Blair being hit by gooseberry thrown during press conference

9. Mime artist faking orgasm in charity shop

10. Stenographer mis-spelling antidisestablishmentarianism

11. Bedroom door opening, being shut, opening again, being shut again, opening again and then being beaten to matchwood by long-suffering owner

12. Sheet of yellow A4 paper being dropped in the London underground (Mornington Crescent station)

13. Sheet of yellow A4 paper being dropped in the London underground (Knightsbridge station)

14. Skirt being looked up

15. Thai restaurant being bought by cigar-smoking businessman

16. Harold Pinter’s stunned silence at being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature

17. 91-year-old judge breaking wind discreetly during high court libel hearing

18. Cat being put among pigeons

19. A person when they were nothing but a twinkle in their old man’s eye

20. Bowl of porridge

I then had the brilliant idea that estimable humour webzine McSweeney’s might like this list for their very funny Lists feature, in which clever people contribute amusing lists of things – among recent ones are “Subjects of ‘light bulb’ jokes that will probably lead to boring punch lines”, “Fruit drink flavours that never took off” and “Ways in which the disinterred corpse of silent-film actor Lon Chaney would be a better vice-president than Dick Cheney”. I checked the McSweeney’s site today and found that four new lists have been published in the past week – but than mine is not among them. Okay, so maybe my “Twenty Rarely-Used Sound Effects” lacks the topicality of the Lon Chaney/Dick Cheney one and is somewhat longer than “Leonard Cohen’s Seven Immutable Laws of Business”, but that’s no excuse for giving me the cold shoulder. I even sent my list from a different email address than my usual Thoughtcat one so they wouldn’t think I was cynically contributing a piece just to promote my own site. I mean, honestly.