I am sure that this is typical of first-time authors, but I was so excited about and so focused on the milestone of getting my novel finished and published that I was not really prepared for all the work that would come after. Yes, I had heard and read lots of times and in lots of places about the importance of distribution and marketing and how much time it all requires. But I still was not quite prepared.
I have no illusions about the fact that I have not given that phase of the process the attention and effort and time that others do. Even so, for a while there, it seemed as though all I was doing was contacting potential reviewers and sending out copies of the book—as well as trying to post fairly regularly on this blog and on my other ones. My dream of immediately proceeding to (actually returning to, since I had already started) the next book was essentially a mirage.
Well, the mirage has since become reality, as I have gotten back to the writing, which is all I ever wanted to be doing. Yes, the guilt nags at me that there is more I should be doing on behalf of the first book, but I have gotten good at ignoring it. And this time I have the extra motivation of knowing that the second book will be one I can hand to my younger relatives and friends without feeling so sheepish about the language. But more on that anon.
One of the side benefits of the publishing/distribution/marketing phase was that it left my brain free for other literary activities since I wasn’t doing much writing. That included reading other people’s books. And the last couple I read were fascinating for me because they felt like variations on my own opus.
I had long been meaning to read Jamie O’Neill’s 2001 novel At Swim Two Boys, and darned if it didn’t turn out to be the quarterly read for the Irish group on Goodreads—which I had joined as part of my efforts to reach out to readers. Like Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, it is the story of a close friendship between male teenagers set against dramatic historical events. Beyond that, however, O’Neill’s book couldn’t more dissimilar from mine. His heavily researched novel covers events in Dublin leading up to the 1916 Easter Rising. At the center of all this is the friendship (and eventual love affair) between studious middle class lad Jim and political firebrand Doyler.
The strength of the book is the portrait it draws of daily life at the time, as well as the various religious and political strands interweaving through society during a time when Irish boys were participating via the British military in the First World War while nationalist groups were becoming bolder within Ireland. If there is a weakness, it is the way O’Neill occasionally puts words that feel anachronistic into the mouths of certain characters to drive home his historical points. The settings and set pieces are so entertaining that I found myself thinking the story could easily be adapted into a great musical. In fact, in my mind’s eye Jim and Doyler were basically slightly older versions of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. And the final section would certainly lend itself to rousing songs on the barricades à la Les Miserables. If you’re wondering about the title, in addition to referring to the boys’ bonding swims at Forty Foot on Dublin Bay it is a play on the title of Flann O’Brien’s seminal 1939 novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which is a translation of an Irish place name on the River Shannon.
As soon as I finished O’Neill’s book, I immediately dove into a memoir by British writer/filmmaker Hugh Thomson called Tequila Oil. I came across the book while researching my novel and immediately bought it—and then locked it away so that I would not be tempted to read it until my own book was done. The similarities between his (true) story and my (completely made up) tale were eerie. In the 1970s, at the age of 18, Thomson undertook a seemingly crazy journey the length of Mexico in a big old GM automobile.
Fortunately, there are enough differences for me to credibly avoid charges of blatant plagiarism. Thomson was English and on his own—unlike my very American characters, Dallas and Lonnie, who also had young Antonio in tow. Moreover, he undertook his journey eight years after the events portrayed in my book. Perhaps most crucially, he was driving an Oldsmobile and not a Chevrolet. But, if anything, Thomson’s true story is more fanciful than my fictional one, but with many of the same elements: dodgy encounters with the locals, much drinking (the title refers to a potent mixed drink), friendships, complications with government paperwork, and at least one experience with gastrointestinal distress.
Thomson’s youthful adventures make for great reading, not only for his entertaining antics but also because the story is being told by a veteran travel writer and documentarian who brings a lot of historical, cultural and literary perspective. At the end of the book, Thomson returns thirty years later to Belize, where his original journey ended, looking for some sort of closure. It leaves a bittersweet taste, perhaps not unlike the titular tequila concoction.
I’m very glad I read Tequila Oil, but I’m even more glad that I only read it after completing my own book—and not before.