By Jay Stringer.
My first novel Old Gold was published ten years ago last month. That's a decade in the game. Nine published novels, a couple in the drawer. A few anthologies.
Ten years in, I'm currently un-agented and not under contract, but having seen the industry from a number of different levels, as well as trying to organize behind the scenes at conventions. What a trip.
But looking back at that first novel -written in my late twenties, published in my early thirties- what is this thing I'm feeling?
A large dose of pride. There’s some fine writing here. A control that was ahead of my years. A confidence. A will to step off the path and present different voices and places. There’s also an anger, and a sense of grief. I was going through a divorce when I started this story, and in a healthy relationship by the time I finished. Without knowing it at the time, I was writing the first few steps of that journey into the DNA of my novel.
There are elements here that were ahead of their time. An own-voices novel of an ethnic minority protagonist. A diverse cast of characters – though my stripped-back descriptions didn’t always make that clear. I laugh now at one of the biggest debates I had with my agent and editors on the road to publication. I would get notes at every step of the way telling me it needed to be clearer why Eoin Miller wouldn’t just go to the cops with his problems. Why is the first act dominated by this working-class Romanichal character doing everything possible to avoid dialing 999? I never understood the note. It always seemed obvious to me. The world has moved a lot in the last decade, and hope writers don't get that note as often now.
Mixed in with the pride is a healthy dose of embarrassment at the elements that haven’t aged well. I was playing with a box of tropes, knowingly. That's the double-edged sword of my twenty-something confidence as a writer. OH I CAN PLAY WITH ALL THE TROPES AND KNOWINGLY SUBVERT THEM. Okay, my dude, but at some point that still just adds up to a book full of tropes. I quite deliberately built the structure around two different approaches to writing women in a hardboiled novel. The first half is just old-school, male-gaze-dominated PI fiction. Around the mid-point Miller gets literally punched in the dick by the main (OR IS SHE...) female antagonist, and from then on the book was dominated by women. Heh. The dumb confidence of younger me, seeing the issue, but not really seeing it. Still, ultimately, writing a book about a sad man motivated by a dead woman. It is what it is. Old Gold is a book I’m proud of, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, except…I’ve been uncomfortable about that aspect of the book since the moment it was released. We live. We learn. We grow. And when you’re a writer you grow in public. It's pointless to deny that growth. Just own it.
There's also an unmistakable element of pose to the book. But, like a musician who spends their first few years imitating their record collection, that can be hard to avoid. It would take a couple more books for me to ease up and realize my humor was a strength, that it could become something readers would come to me for. (The colostomy bag joke I wrote two books later is still one of my proudest moments.)
Another thing I regret is moments where I chickened out. You won’t see them. Aspects of Eoin Miller’s character that I buried away in subtext. The only cryptic clue I’ll give is that one little easter egg remains in the book, one brief moment that hints at a very different path I almost took with Miller. A whole other way the themes and sub-plot were set up to serve the character's growth and self-realization. But I didn't do it. I don't really remember why now, whether I was advised against it or whether I advised myself against it. But that option is still there, on the table, if I ever return to the series.
And then my other naive/bold conceit. The notion that I needed to 'earn' using a first-person narrative in a mystery novel by making it meta. But then...because I love to play games with myself that nobody else knows about...hiding that meta element and never talking about it. The idea that the whole trilogy was a true crime memoir, which could be collected and read in one go as if Eoin Miller had released it himself. I think I hoped that would happen someday, with the books being collected into one edition as a special edition.
Maybe that could still happen, eventually.