This old guy sells his paintings, his poetry and his first love, which is his fiction
Bryan Islip: On writing Going with Gabriel
1955, Cambridge. 20 year old ex R.A.F. national serviceman, new husband, father, warehouseman, finishes and closes his library copy of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.He’s overwhelmed by the telling of the story and by the story itself, especially its ending, and by his sense of awe at the sheer power of those fictional words. The young man may have seen the inside of his last schoolroom before his fifteenth birthday but he’d known then and knows now, even more certainly, that one day he himself will be a writer. Yes, a published writer; hopefully a good one. You know - in the beginning was the word …
Fast forward through all the usual constraints of marriage, mortgage and moderation in all things: the joys and heartaches of four children growing up; career progression up the industrial marketing ladder to national / international directorship; wife in her mid-30’s a victim of multiple schlerosis that, twenty five years later will claim her life. He exchanges employment for self employment in the middle east, gains second wife Delia and two more ‘children’. And still the dream lives on, each of the thousands of his business letters as carefully composed as any Hemingway paragraph. But he also composes poems in hotel rooms and airports; writes short stories and the first three parts of a novel about a young girl aspiring to become a snooker star - all the fictions culled from experience distilled by emotion, garnished with imagination, driven by ... what?
September 2001, Holiday Inn, Bahrain: phone rings. Dee calling from our Winchester home: “Quick, Bryan, turn on the telly; America’s under attack!” I rush down to the bar and watch the big screen as bodies tumble lazily from high towers and young Saudis blow kisses at the screen. Later on I return Dee’s call; “I’m coming home,” I tell her. “We’ll take a holiday up in Scotland. I’m going to wrap it all up here … why? … well, it’s time I got on with the novel.”
By one of those strange co-incidences, within a week and nothing to do with the twin towers and in ways it’s best not to go into here (and in any case I don’t do bitter and twisted) we had ‘lost everything’ in Saudi Arabia. Of much greater importance I / we had started on the path towards our new life in Scotland’s Wester-Ross. That’s irrespective of the fact that the young man was now an old man. But one who understood the truth of Willie Nelson’s words: ‘You cain’t write a song if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.’ I had learned plenty, had plenty to say.
Since coming to the Highlands I have had a short story, Claws, published in the USA’s Carve Magazine and another of my stories, Speaking of Champions,won the Scotland section of the 2003 Real-Writers Awards. Then another, Willie's Place, reached the final six in their 2004 Awards. This was included in their anthology. I have a further dozen completed short stories. To provide an income up here in the Highlands of Scotland whilst I got on with writing my fiction we started a ‘publishing’ business, Pictures & Poems. I paint the Pictures in any of a variety of media and compose the associated verse then print and sell the results as cards, signed prints, calendars etc. I also self-publish a booklet called An Incomers Views On Wester-Ross in 24 paintings, poems and narratives.
But my main focus remained on the writing of a novel. I’d told Dee what I was planning. She’d heard it all before in bits and pieces over the past twenty five years. I recall her listening carefully then, after a pause, suggesting it just might be a bit ‘heavy’ - and more than a bit contentious. “Why not go for a common or garden blockbuster to fund the writing of the main event? You know, make some money?” Oh yes, what a good idea. Sounds easy enough. Wrong.
More Deaths Than One emerged one year later, blinking into the light of day. Two years after that, having done all the usual rounds of agents and publishers, reviewers etc, the by then much upgraded ‘blockbuster’ remained unloved other than by me and mine.
Howeveringe of the many, many avenues down which I had taken this first completed novel was a mutual appraisal website sponsored by the Arts Council of England called YouWriteOn.com. Dozens of aspirant writers had reviewed More Deaths and had liked it to the point where it became a YouWriteOn ‘Bestseller’. Ditto when I submitted it to a similar site, (now no more), called The Friday Project. Could I, could all those reviewing readers / embryo writers be wrong? I took advantage of YouWriteOn’s offer to publish at no cost to us. Of course there would be the little matter of learning how to set out the pages in a form acceptable to the reader and to the computed presses of the world’s largest print on demand house. Oh, and there’s the cover design, but that seemed no great problem for am I not myself an artist / designer? A couple of months later I held in my hands a first copy of More Deaths Than One. As I did so I realised that what I had arrived at was no more nor less than fully fledged self-publishing. A second, better edited edition of the novel arrived last October, this time under my own Pictures and Poems label.
The writing of a novel good enough for folk to read and remember and talk of to their friends is of course hugely demanding of time, mostly the early day hours in my own case. The learning about editing and page design proved for me less demanding but by no means easy-peasy for a non-geek. But marketing the outcome? That’s a different scale of difficulty altogether, even for someone who had occupied a working lifetime as a professional marketeer. On a scale of one to ten, marketing a novel gets an eleven. Equivalent to, say, climbing Everest in wintertime or learning quantum theory. Jane Austen or Tolstoi would have cried their eyes out had they been ‘unknowns’ trying to market their work today.
Undeterred (well, almost undeterred,) I had written by then that second novel; the one I’d originally planned as my first. It’s title: Going with Gabriel. It’s main theme is unusual, dramatic and yes, contentious, and it was published by my Pictures and Poems (i.e. myself) on Thursday 11th February 2010. In spite of the fact that five months before that I had sent review copies to all the national media, Going with Gabriel remained unreviewed outside of the Highlands of Scotland and a US based web-site called Goodreads.com - strongly recommended by the way. But why? Could it be me - too old, too out of the mainstream perhaps? Maybe flaws in my writing or story-telling skills? Something fundamentally wrong with the novel - perhaps its semi-taboo main theme? Well, I don’t think so and this is one new born that will not be abandoned. Time will tell.
In the author’s note at the beginning of Going with Gabriel I wrote, “You might wonder what or who could have inspired a man, an old man you might say, to forego the attractions of retirement in favour of enduring the long agonies and occasional ecstasies of writing and getting into print and selling his novels. Well, amongst others … there’s Mister Ernest Hemingway, author in 1940 of For Whom The Bell Tolls, whose words and whose story combined to demonstrate, to me anyway, that fiction, perhaps more than anything else can fly straight and true enough to reach the human soul, wherever she may live.
Bryan Islip February 2010
I wish I could claim to have climbed Everest solo in wintertime or outsold Dan Brown or been awarded a Nobel Prize for something, but I can't. Perhaps that's all in the future.
I paint Scottish Highlands landscapes and sell these through my company, Pictures and Poems, in the form of my 2010 portfolio of greetigns cards, prints, calendars and a self-published booklet.
Bryan Islip Author
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