A first novel holds a special place in an author's heart – sometimes it is the only book they will write, sometimes the best. Occasionally, the writer would prefer to forget it altogether
Two years later, teaching English and acting in a long-running play in Paris, I started writing my first novel, Counterparts. My mind went back to the novel I had read in 1982. Returning to London in the summer of 1985 I started looking for another copy. I tried libraries, secondhand bookshops, a book search. I tried the British Library and New English Library, because I could remember their logo on the spine, but I could find no trace anywhere of the title dredged up from my memory, The Haunted Shore, by MN Hillman. Thwarted in my search, I stopped actively looking, and as the years passed, The Haunted Shore gradually acquired talisman-like status. I remembered nothing about it, apart from a sense of mystery, inevitably deepened by the book's vanishing act, and the cover: a photograph, with a distinct green cast, of a deserted seashore.
In 2007, a broadsheet newspaper ran a feature on well-known writers' unsuccessful first novels. My eye was drawn to one cover in particular. It was the book I'd been searching for, but the title and author's name were different. The Haunted Storm by Philip N Pullman. The article said that Pullman refuses to discuss the novel and had even erased it from his entry in Who's Who.
My long search over, I went online and found that three copies of the paperback were available for around £100 each. The hardback could be had for £1,000. I bought one off eBay – the paperback, obviously. I kind of had to, really. I didn't read it, however, and in fact I soon gave it away to a book-loving friend, and bought another, which I still didn't read. In the meantime I had joined the teaching staff of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, where my colleague Andrew Biswell taught a literature course on first novels. Why first novels, I wondered.