Sunday, January 13, 2013

The allure of the first novel

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

First novel book jackets
First novels: sometimes treasured, occasionally forgotten

In the summer of 1982 I bought a cheap paperback from Dick's Book Stall on Ipswich Market and read it over the next few days. I was feeling isolated, having just moved with my family from Manchester to East Anglia. In September I would be going to London to take up a university place. I read the novel and something about it seemed to reflect my feelings of uprootedness and anxiety. I found the novel as powerful as it was puzzling. At the end of the summer the book didn't quite fit into my suitcase, and as the content of it was slowly forgotten, along with the title and author's name, somehow the physical book itself also vanished from my life.

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.
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