More About My Books
A History of Sarcasm
The stories in A History of Sarcasm were mostly written between 2003 and 2008. The majority of the stories were published in magazines. One story, The World, was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines programme, shortly before the book’s publication. I don’t remember a great deal about the writing of these strange stories. I was a different person, and a different kind of writer. None of the stories were autobiographical, but most of my protagonists were disillusioned young men, perhaps an exaggerated version of myself at that time. In hindsight, I’d say I was doing the right thing – experimenting with different forms of fiction, opening up the weirder parts of my brain, and seeing what spilled out. I needed to carry on writing in order to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. A History of Sarcasm is by no means my best work, but there’s some really great stuff in there.
An interesting footnote: at the time, it was my ambition to get a book published by the time I reached the age of 30. As chance would have it, the first printed copies of A History of Sarcasm arrived on my doorstep on 27th November, 2009 – my 30th birthday.
Between 2008 and 2009, I did a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, during which I wrote a novel called The Prodigals. This was also a book about disillusioned young men, but unlike the stories in A History of Sarcasm, it was set entirely in the real world. There were some autobiographical elements, but mostly it was a made up story, inspired by a few people I’d met who’d converted to fundamentalist Christian groups. I was trying to be a serious author, writing about important subjects, saying a few controversial things, and generally being cool. I published the novel through Philistine Press a couple of years later. It was out there in the world for a while. Then one day I realised it was a pretty terrible book, and quietly deleted it. I briefly considered rewriting it, with a view to publishing a new and improved version, but really, there were far too many problems to fix. Besides anything else, I didn’t really want to be a serious literary author. Did I want to be cool? Once upon a time, yes I did. Luckily at some point in my early 30s, I decided to stop trying to be cool. My writing was greatly improved as a result.
There is still an angry teenager inside me who wants to write about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Sadly, this part of me just isn’t very good at writing. One of the reasons why my last few books haven’t included any explicit material (I haven’t even used a swearword in print since 2009), is that I’m not very good at that sort of thing. I’m not being prudish. I’m playing to my own personal strengths.
My next book was a series of interconnected stories called Winter Is Better Than Summer, which I managed to find a publisher for, but the deal later fell through. This was probably just as well. Again, it wasn’t a very good book, although there were some very good stories amongst the mess. Fortunately, the process of writing Winter Is Better Than Summer ended up being a useful training ground for what came next.
Although it wasn’t published until 2019, One Hundred was written mostly in 2012. It’s fair to say I was still finding my feet as a writer at this time. But having written two bad books, it was time to write a great one. Perhaps One Hundred is the closest I’ll ever get to writing the perfect novel. I’m extremely proud of what I was able to achieve with this book. I’ll never write anything like it again. I still believe it will be a bestseller one day. For the time being, it’s the greatest novel you’ve never read. Go and read it.
I wanted One Hundred to be a unique and original story (or set of stories), so I set myself a few ground rules before I started:
1. Each story had to be written with as little similarity to anyone else’s work as possible. If a story sounded too much like Kurt Vonnegut or JG Ballard (as some of my previous stories had), the story would not be included in the book.
2. Each story had to have its own unique structure, not resembling anything that had gone before it, including my own work.
To help me achieve these goals, I went to great lengths to isolate myself from anything that might influence my decision making while writing the book. For a whole twelve months, I didn’t read a single book. I stopped reading the news, and disengaged entirely from social media. Consequently, the novel was written in a kind of bubble, and I think it’s all the better for that.
There’s a character in the novel called Jeremy Mercer, a corrupt and incompetent politician, who gets moved to a different department each time he’s hit by a scandal. Consequently, Mercer appears to be systematically destroying the city one piece at a time. While Mercer isn’t based on any one person in the real world, I have to admit he was at least partly inspired by the guy who was Mayor of London at the time. Although I was deliberately avoiding the news, I was strangely fascinated by Mercer’s real-life counterpart. He seemed like a new kind of leader, more of a celebrity than a politician, and a scary sign of things to come. He was by no means the first corrupt politician in Britain, but as far as I could tell, he was the first to be openly and unapologetically corrupt. In 2019, shortly after One Hundred was published, Boris Johnson became the UK Prime Minister. If there’s a bright side to this unfortunate event, at least we can say the satire in the novel was bang up to date.
Another Unpublished Novel
So, let’s just all agree that One Hundred is a masterpiece. What happens when you’ve created a masterpiece? You try to make another one, right? I assumed that I’d found my niche at this point. I was the guy who writes weird novels with no plot and no proper characters, just a big load of crazy ideas. And so, I wrote a novel called A Cloud-Shaped Cloud. I have to say, I really enjoyed writing it. I had a big load of crazy ideas, bigger and crazier than anything I’d written before. Some parts of that novel were genuinely brilliant. Unfortunately, in spite of all the work I put in, the book just wasn’t suitable for publication. Like its younger sibling, A Cloud-Shaped Cloud was an experiment. In One Hundred, the experiment was successful. For whatever reason, the second experiment failed.
And so, for my next project, I decided to do something entirely different. I decided to write a novel in which the key elements of my storytelling were character and plot.
The Ragbag Series
When I wrote the first Ragbag novel in 2019, I hadn’t attempted to write a novel for about three years. Partly I was busy doing other things. Perhaps I was disheartened by the disappointments of my last attempt to write a book, and by my failure to find a mainstream publisher for One Hundred, which let’s just agree, is The Greatest Novel Ever Written. With all this in mind, I was expecting the writing of my next novel to be a difficult task, which was likely to be yet another failed experiment. Thankfully, the opposite was true. A Cloud-Shaped Cloud had taken me a year to complete, and most of it didn’t make much sense. Everything I Am, the first Ragbag novel, took me three months to write, and not only did it make perfect sense, but it turned out to be a brilliant book. At some point during the writing of this novel, it became clear that this was going to be a series. I had lots of ideas to explore, and characters to develop further. I set myself the challenge of publishing a new Ragbag novel every year.
Getting Away With It, the second Ragbag book, is perhaps my favourite one of the series so far. I really like the central character, and the concept of the crime that may or may not have taken place.
Brollywood, the third in the series, was lots of fun to write. It has elements of the interconnected story structure of One Hundred, while also being a proper crime thriller, as well as a character-based story about love and friendship. In its own way, Brollywood is my most complex novel so far. It isn’t ‘serious literature,’ thankfully. But I’d like to think it’s a work of art.
By the way, I hope you don’t think I’m being arrogant. I think it’s important to acknowledge when something doesn’t work very well. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always been the greatest writer in the world. But also it’s important to pay yourself a compliment when you’ve done something great.
Frank Burton, 2022