Sick Of Being Me by Sean Egan
My rock and roll novel Sick Of Being Me is just about to hit the streets. Published by Askill Publishing, it is the 280-page dissection of the life of Paul Hazelwood, a talented guitarist and songwriter who graduates from council estate wannabe to member of a band whose second album is voted one of the Albums Of The Year by Rolling Stone. He then makes the agonising realisation that a return to the dreary everyday from which he thought he had escaped is on the cards when his band progresses no further. Along the way he encounters love, loss and heroin.
As with many literary debuts, Sick Of Being Me is not my first novel at all but the archetypal entrée that makes its way into print after several previous efforts have failed to. I sincerely believe that those books – four in all – are as deserving of publication as (and that one of them, in fact, is better than) ‘Sick Of..’ In fact, when I first came up with the idea of what would transpire to be ‘Sick Of Being Me’ (originally ‘User’, until I found out there was already a novel of that title), I didn't have the heart to actually embark on yet another full-length novel only to have it rejected by an endless stream of publishers. The initial intention was to write a suitably dramatic opening chapter and an arresting synopsis in the hope that a publisher might commission a full-length manuscript on the strength of it. However, once that chapter and synopsis were written and the fish weren't biting, I found that I couldn't wait upon my muse. As the standard rejection letters for chapter one made their way to me, I decided to hell with it and to plough on with the story.
The list of previous rock and roll novels is not impressive. Somehow, post-Elvis popular music doesn't seem to translate well to fiction. Even when rock stars themselves attempt the task, it does nothing to dispel the impression of two mutually exclusive artforms. Ray Davies’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ (1997) is no less prone to ridiculous caricatures, self-conscious jargon and ostentatiously shocking depictions of excess than the work of the average hack who has used rock as a – they imagine – suitably exotic backdrop to a Harold Robbins-type bonkbuster. Though I must confess, using the story of a heroin addict was originally a populist move by me after years in the literary wilderness, the focus of the book soon changed. I hope ‘Sick Of Being Me’ is a profoundly different beast to all the rock novels published before. For me, it is a literary novel, one which just happens to have feature rock and drugs in places.
When the book was finished, as with all my previous works of fiction, publishers were prepared to say very nice things to me about it but not to actually put their money where their mouths were. Nobody said it was badly written, although a couple thought it too grim and overlong. However, when I cut it down and jollied it up somewhat, it still didn't cause anyone to make an offer. I also found (as if I hadn't learnt already) that quality of writing is not the sole criteria for publishers anyway. Tony Lacey, editorial director of Penguin, even told me that though he had read it at one sitting at his kitchen table one Saturday morning and thoroughly enjoyed it, he felt my pitch had been queered by Irvine Welsh, i.e., that the public would not accept such a conventionally written narrative after the more experimental style Welsh had used to explore similar themes in ‘Trainspotting’. Consequently, Sick Of Being Me has been released as the first publication by the tiny Askill, as a print-on-demand paperback (one is produced every time a book is ordered, reducing storage costs to zero).
Despite the modesty of Askill’s means, Sick Of Being Me is festooned with the kind of cover endorsements many big-league publishers can only dream of. This came about almost by accident. With publication due, I decided to ask a musician friend of mine to read through the book to see if he could spot any howlers: the last thing I wanted was for guitarists and suchlike to write to me telling me that I'd got the technical details wrong. Vic Briggs – now known as Antion Meredith – is a brilliant lead guitarist who has played with, among others, Dusty Springfield, Brian Auger’s Trinity and Eric Burdon & The Animals. I had interviewed him for previous books on The Animals and Jimi Hendrix and he therefore seemed the logical person to ask. Antion read through my e-mailed manuscript and to my pleasure reported back that he found the whole thing very convincing. This turned out to mean not only the music scenes but the material about drug dealers, some of whom he’d had the misfortune to brush up against in London in the ’Sixties. He also added that he thought I was “a very talented writer”. A lightbulb popped on in my head. Weren't other people’s novel’s always covered with such enthusiasms from authorities who had been given an advance look at the manuscript? I wrote back asking him if he’d mind if his comments were used for an endorsement on the book’s cover. Antion said to go ahead. This prompted me to think of other people from whom a few exterior compliments might help boost sales. I had recently interviewed journalist Gary Valentine, the former bass player of Blondie and composer of their hit ‘(I'm Always Touched) By Your Presence Dear’ about his punk memoir ‘New York Rocker’. We had got on quite well – partly because, in a shameless piece of journalist’s back-scratching, I had given him copy approval of my piece. I e-mailed him to ask if he would be interested in having a look at ‘Sick Of Being Me’. Gary kindly agreed and a few weeks later I had another satisfying cover endorsement under my belt.
Then I really went to town. Every music journalist has a list of previous interviewees as long as both of his arms: speaking to one’s heroes is a happily everyday part of one’s job. I decided to draw up a list of music industry people from whom a cover endorsement might be a positive sales factor. I sent them all e-mails asking if they'd be interested in taking a look at a novel about their profession with a view to a blurb, making sure to mention that I appreciated they were busy people and that no hard feelings would ensue if they didn't feel like reading it. Some declined. A couple said they’d see what they could do and then couldn’t find the time to read it. Two came through: John Steel of The Animals and Frank Allen of The Searchers. I also approached a couple of fellow rock journos with whom I was in touch: Charles R. Cross, who had recently interviewed me for a piece he was writing on the album ‘Are You Experienced’ by the Jimi Hendrix Experience for a magazine article on the same subject (my book on the album appeared at the same time as his feature) and Richie Unterberger, a well-known rock critic who seems to have written every third review in that weighty reference tome ‘The All Music Guide’. Both liked what they read and each provided a fabulous blurb. Charles’ endorsement carried a particularly quotable sentence: “Where High Fidelity and About A Boy were light and fluffy, Sick Of Being Me is dark but honest, though it never loses sight of its pure rock ‘n’ roll heart”. There’s nothing like dissing an acknowledged heavyweight in a broadly similar field - Nick Hornby, in this case - to guarantee attention. Not for nothing is Charles an award-winning writer (his biography of Kurt Cobain – ‘Heavier Than Heaven’ – carried off the ASCAP-Deem Taylor award for Excellence in Musical Biography). I suppose it shows a certain egotism that it didn’t occur to me that anyone who read the manuscript might not like it enough to offer an endorsement, but, then, I was proved right.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my endorsers, all of whom took the time in busy schedules to read the book and to then give a recommendation through their own generosity of spirit - no money changed hands whatsoever. Those endorsements, I feel, have made a huge difference to the book’s prospects. At the time of writing, it’s too early to tell what the book will do sales-wise. As a firm-sale book – i.e., a book that bookshops can’t return to the wholesaler if it doesn't shift after a certain period – it is not going to be a stock item in many bookshops but instead something that will only be ordered when a customer requests it. Bestsellerdom is not on the cards – at least, not unless a big publisher snaps up the rights from Askill. However, I have noticed that those endorsements have served to magically pique the interest of jaded review editors on whose doormats thump dozens of tomes each week. At the time of writing, the first reviews have yet to see print but they should start appearing in late October/early November in many music monthlies and guitar magazines (the latter an unusual but logical promotional target for a book about a man who sees his destiny as dependent on the way he uses his Fender Strat).
Incidentally, if the above seems to suggest that being turned down by publishers is something that an author good-humouredly accepts as part of his lot, it’s not intentional. For a glimpse into the distress and the humiliation involved in not being able to get a book you know to be good into print, check out chapter twelve of ‘Sick Of Being Me’. In a section which is one of the few autobiographical parts of what is otherwise a work of imagination, I was able to draw on years of frustration and unhappiness as a writer when dealing with the reactions of the Ragamuffins – Paul’s first band – to having their demo tapes returned to them by uninterested record companies. In a way, this chapter sums up the main message of Sick Of Being Me: that little in life can approach the agony of artistic rejection.
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