Herring Seller (as I tend to abbreviate it) took about seven years to write – twelve months or so to write the first draft, then six years to fret about whether it was finished. I suspect the first draft may have been fine, but I have long since lost it, so we’ll never know.
I knew pretty much where the story was going from the beginning, and I wrote the final chapter early on, before going back and writing the middle section. I hadn’t realised that Elsie was going to be one of the narrators until she suddenly popped up about a third of the way through. Like Ethelred, I have little control over what Elsie does.
The two narrators are Ethelred Tressider, obscure author of crime stories, and Elsie Thirkettle, his rather pushy agent. Though people have assured me that they know exactly which agent Elsie is based on, they are all wrong. I know few agents and Elsie is like none of them. My family believe Ethelred is based on myself. This too is mistaken, though I am becoming more and more like him by the day. I am however (in terms of height and weight) actually far more like Elsie.
Geraldine, Ethelred’s (ex) wife, is somebody we get to know only through other characters’ conflicting descriptions of her, but she is central to the events that are described.
I found Rupert one of the more interesting characters to write because, although he is a bit of a pseud, he is aware that he is a bit of a pseud and doesn’t really care. He is part of a great literary tradition that includes Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited and Stringham in A Dance to the Music of Time. Just as Rupert knows where he acquired each of his mannerisms, I know pretty much where the inspiration for his character came from.
One or two characters are real people that I know well – Karen at the newsagents and Tony at the butchers for example (see in-jokes below). Thistle is a real dog.
The names of the characters were one of the most fluid aspects of the book. Some had their names changed more than once, as it was pointed out to me that their names were too much like somebody I knew or confusingly like that of another character. Ethelred Hengist Tressider got his name on Day 1, however, and it never changed.
Question: Both Ethelred and Elsie might be described as unreliable narrators. In what respects is each unreliable? How does their unreliability help the plot?
Question: Geraldine looms large in the plot but we never actually meet her. Does this make her more or less effective as a character?
The locations are all real. One is my own house, though it features only in passing and you will probably miss it. Others are mainly locations in West Sussex that I know well – for example West Wittering (where we walk the dog), Nepcote Green (ditto), Cissbury Ring (ditto – I lead a fairly dull life). Greypoint House, where Ethelred lives, is real, though I haven’t worked out exactly which flat he owns. I could also take you to the precise locations of Geraldine’s flat and office in Islington. The only fictional location is the small town on the Essex coast, where Geraldine lived and where she and Ethelred got married. I don’t know why I invented this place, other than that I could not be bothered to go up to Essex and research somewhere.
Question: How important are real places (e.g. Dexter’s Oxford, Rankin’s Edinburgh) to crime novels? Does it help the reader to know the location? Do fictional locations work as well? And (slightly deeper) aren’t all locations in fiction basically … well … fictional? Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth, for example, bears only a passing resemblance to the real one. Dickens’ London is very much London seen through Dickens’ eyes.
Ethelred is on a literary treadmill, churning out three series of novels (two detective, one romantic fiction). He wants to write real literature, but Elsie is not keen. In arguments of this sort, Elsie always wins. The four “pastiches” that Ethelred writes and abandons are each in the style of a well-known writer.
Question: Can you identify which writer Ethelred is imitating in each of these chapters? (Two are quite easy. One is tricky. One is probably very difficult indeed, unless you read French philosophers.)
The Spanish Armada and Other In Jokes
Unless you know me well, it is unlikely you will spot all of the in jokes. I’m not planning to point all of them out. There are one or two remarks that I may as well explain here, however.
Malay – pg 63 - The joke, which Anthony Burgess does not explain, rests on the fact that bulan in Malay means moon. Not one in a hundred of the people who read Enderby Outside would know this, so ninety nine would not even notice the joke. If you ever read Enderby Outside, however, you will now be one of the enlightened one percent.
The Spanish Armada - pg 64 – The reason that the dates are different is that, by 1588, continental Europe had switched to the Gregorian calendar. England still stuck tenaciously to the Old Style, which was ten days behind.
Danish - pg 65 – the title can be translated as “Mr Fairfax’s Feeling for Dates” – a reference to Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (by the Danish writer Peter Høeg).
From the above you will see how little you would gain if I explained all of the more obscure references.
Question: Are in-jokes that you understand all the funnier because they are in-jokes, or is it just a bit too irritating?
Do you have any questions for me?
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