Alan Glynn, the novelist behind the phenomenally successful Limitless, tells us about overcoming rejection, the “amazing sensation” of getting a book deal, and how a movie deal changed his writing career. Alan’s fifth novel Paradime is out now.
You’ve been with the literary agent Antony Harwood since 1997. Did it take you a long time to get an agent, and how did it come about?
By that point, 1997, I had spent a couple of years sending the manuscript of my first (still unpublished) novel out to Irish publishers and getting nowhere. Either I’d get a reply after six or nine months saying they hadn’t read it and didn’t have the time or resources to do so, or I wouldn’t get a reply at all. I think I got one response from a person who’d actually read the book, but it “wasn’t for them”. And by “sending out” I’m talking about expensive photocopying, padded envelopes and postage. Then I started an assault on UK publishers. Response times were quicker, but still no luck. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I should have an agent, but then a friend passed my manuscript to writer Douglas Kennedy, who very kindly showed it to his agent, Antony Harwood, and soon after that Antony took me on. It was a favour for Douglas to read the book, but it wasn’t a favour for Antony to take me on, because he runs a business.
Your agent sold The Dark Fields (adapted for film and TV as Limitless) at the end of 1999, after trying to place two of your previous novels. Did you always believe you would get published, and how did you stay motivated in the face of rejection?
People think if you get an agent, then the struggle is over, but as you point out, it wasn’t until my third novel with Antony that I got a publisher. I’m not sure I always believed I’d get published, but I have never had a Plan B. At that point, I was in my late thirties, which is not really a good time to be without one. So I think what kept me going was a combination of desperation and denial – but also a deep-seated conviction I’d had since I was at least seven years old that ordering words on a page into sentences and paragraphs was no less an essential part of my identity as the timbre of my voice or the colour of my eyes.
Can you remember how it felt when you found out that The Dark Fields was going to be published?
Yes, and it was an amazing sensation. I got one of those fabled phone calls, on a Friday afternoon, Antony telling me that Little, Brown were going to make an offer for The Dark Fields on the following Monday. The cliché “walking on air” comes to mind, but that’s really what it was like.
Was the book deal as lucrative as you had hoped or expected? Was the advance (and subsequent earnings such as royalties and/or the sale of translation rights) substantial enough to allow you to write full-time?
The book deal, to be honest, was not as lucrative as I had hoped, at least not initially. This was a different time, remember, when all sorts of crazy deals were happening, so it was easy to lose perspective. But a few nice foreign rights deals came in, and then the movie option, so soon enough I was able to write full-time. I had been teaching EFL, which wasn’t very lucrative anyway, and I was ready, and very happy, to move on.
It has been very important. It took more than ten years from the time the book was optioned to the release of the movie and during that period the option was renewed multiple times. That was basically my income during those years – augmented, towards the end, by comparatively modest publishing deals for Winterland and Bloodland. The movie has also raised my profile and made it easier for my stuff to get seen. So I’m very happy with it, and I wouldn’t dream of complaining. But there’s a part of me that wishes it weren’t necessary to have a movie deal in order to maintain a writing career. Things are a lot tougher now than they used to be and a lot of good writers don’t earn enough to make a decent living. That’s not how it should be. What goes into writing a novel, or into any creative effort, should be valued more, in economic terms, than what goes into producing a cup of coffee.
Large publishing houses (and Hollywood) seem to like high concept ideas that can be easily pitched with a catchy one-liner. You have said in the past that the The Dark Fields/Limitless was pitched as “Viagra for the brain” (or, even more pithily, “a pharmaceutical Faust”). In your opinion, do aspiring authors need to consider the commercial viability of their idea, or should they simply concentrate on writing the book they want to write?
Concentrate on writing the book you want to write, no question about it. The thing is, no one knows what will be commercially viable, so trying to second-guess the “market” is a mug’s game. I didn’t come up with those pithy one-liners and then write the book, they came afterwards. Writing a novel is an organic process and you can’t shoe-horn one into a pre-existing formula. It’s not your job to come up with the pithy one-liners in any case. They have marketing departments for that.
Is there any other advice you would give to writers trying to crack the world of publishing, but who may be getting disheartened?
Because I’ve had an agent for so long, and have been with the same publishers for so long, I’m sort of cocooned by this stage, so I wouldn’t really know what advice to give about breaking into publishing today. In terms of writing advice more generally, however, the best advice – which I wish I could stick to myself – is just to get out of your own way and write. It’s so easy to let yourself be distracted or to convince yourself that certain obstacles are real. It’s so easy, in fact, to do anything but write. Get to know your own avoidance strategies and learn to short-circuit them.
Do you have a writing routine, such as a set time and place, or a daily word-count?
Oh God, I wish. I love stories about disciplined writers, like Anthony Trollope writing two-hundred-and-fifty words every fifteen minutes. I do get up early, however, and if I’m not working all the time I’m certainly thinking about it all the time. As a result, I have no conception of what a weekend is, or a bank holiday – it all bleeds into one. And it depends on what stage of a book I’m at. In the early months, it’s very loose and undisciplined, but then things tighten up as the novel comes into focus. Word-counts don’t work for me, because I rarely meet them and then end up feeling bad, so I avoid them. But five hundred words is a good day, and fifty is better than none. There are no rules about any of this.
Finally, congratulations on the launch of your latest novel Paradime, which was recently optioned for TV. Between the success of your novels, and their Hollywood and TV adaptations, do you ever feel like Eddie Spinola/Morra after he discovered MDT/NZT but before the Faustian side-effects began to kick in?
Thanks. I used to say that The Dark Fields was autobiographical, but only up to the point where Eddie first encounters MDT. It still pretty much feels that way. There have been high points, MDT-like moments – visiting the movie set, for example, and attending the premiere, and winning the Bord Gáis award for Bloodland (at which I was seated next to Seamus Heaney!) – but most of the time it’s very un-MDT-like, with the battle always on to keep focused and productive. Being able to write full-time, however, and having this be what I do, is a full-on blast of something that has extraordinary health benefits and absolutely no deleterious side-effects.
Alan’s latest novel Paradime was published by Faber & Faber in June 2016.