Of Mr Gupta and Titivillus – the origins of a novel

I have dedicated Mr Gupta goes to the Sea to my dear friend Harvey. Harv (I think I may be the only person in the world allowed use this hypocorism, ‘Harv’, and I cannot break the habit) and I teamed up in Ecuador eleven years ago in 2009. We had both decided to climb a series of mountains with a party of like-minded souls. Yet we had made a similar error – everyone else was fit and we were not. An expedition of mixed fortunes ended early as we were both struck down with a dose of catastrophic food poisoning on the picturesque Cotopaxi. Harv was so weak he never left for the summit, and I managed to reach the first snowfield before I experienced delirium and projectile vomiting of a Technicolor nature. I crawled back to the refuge to groan the night away. The following evening we spent at a hacienda, where, in unison, but in separate rooms, we suffered an explosive bout of the shits… we were strapped into a Land Rover and sent down to Quito, where we slowly recovered by wandering the city for several days.

Cotopaxi, me and Harv

We became firm friends. I discovered Harv wanted to write book – war fiction. He enthused and sketched out his ideas over beers, interspersed with the occasional dash for the nearest thunderbox. I was also harbouring ideas of writing a book. Indeed, I had already written and had published a factual book for BAE Systems. Yet I wanted to write a novel. I had tried in the past, but never had enough inspiration or momentum and my writing was awful. I didn’t know enough. I had taken Stephen King’s advice in his book, On Writing, in which he wrote that one should read everything and anything, noting how successful authors ply their craft. I subsequently  read hundreds of books, started writing verse and was finally ready to give it a go. We left Ecuador, kept in touch and Harvey began writing and selling books.

By 2011 I had started to write a few short essays and poems, but I still needed an inspirational catalyst. Later in the year I was aiming to climb beyond 6000m in the Himalaya, so joined an expedition to India, in which I would also follow in my father’s footsteps. He had served in the army in India for 6 years between the wars. It was my happiest journey. I was fit, strong and grinned for the whole trip. From Leh I indeed got to the top of my goal, Stok Kangri at 6123m. I loved India.

Leh: snow-capped Stok Kangri in the distance, and
me with Redher next to the hanging glacier on Stok Kangri.

Back in Delhi I took a trip by Shatabdi Express to Agra, saw the Red Fort and the breathtaking Taj Mahal. On the train I had my ticket checked by a Mr Gupta and I wondered what his life was like. On the coach back I watched India from the window, saw ditches with alternating strata of black earth and rubbish, and the novel flashed fully sketched out in my brain. The title, Mr Gupta goes to the Sea, was also there. The opening part of Chapter 1 contains a goodly bit of what I saw that day, including the “Bloody annoying” computer sheets.

Indian Striped Palm Squirrel and a Hawker on the Rajpath

By 2012, Harv pushed me into getting the book started, patiently explaining how to map it out, the various routes open to publish and how to keep going day-by-day. I started writing longhand. Harv was beside himself. Four notebooks later he gave me an old, tatty, outdated iPad which was the best gift I’d ever had. A year later the handwritten bits had been typed up and I finally had momentum. When the old iPad decided to go down with digital-dementia I bought a new iPad Air and continued. Harv thought I was writing a trilogy.

I had finished the long, rambling manuscript by 2015. Then work got in the way. Commuting to London had given me time to write, but the professional role I had became more demanding. It was obvious the 178,000 words I’d written needed a hefty edit… then another… then another. In all I excised 14,000 words, polished the story and did a series of rewrites to clunky sections. At the end of 2019 the final manuscript was done. However, Mr Gupta had become a constant classroom and, with the help of my Passepartout, I continued to work on the manuscript until the summer of 2020. Relief… it was done.

With a supreme effort, Passepartout set the book up for a special first edition, NASA gave us permission to use some of their Hubble pictures in the composition of the dust jacket artwork. At the eleventh hour, permission for song lyrics I had quoted carried a prohibitive cost to use, so, in July I had to invent a whole new thread to the story and rewrite those parts. Finally, after nine years, the 51 limited edition hardbacks were printed under the Graculus brand name.

That is a brief history of Mr Gupta goes to the Sea, but I will also outline some of the most valuable lessons I have learnt. 

Acceptance of errors

First of all I have a deep suspicion that Titivillus is real. Our dear, late friend, Mike Jerome, was a skilled scribe and calligrapher. He taught us that every mistake made in manuscripts by the monks of old, was ascribed to the demon, Titivillus. This dark being collected these errors in biblical copying to be weighed in the balance on each visit to the mythical accounting officer at the Pearly Gates. Counterintuitively, he has been called the patron demon of scribes, as Titivillus provides an easy excuse for the errors that are bound to creep into manuscripts as they are copied. No matter how often one reads a manuscript, there is always some small error left. In a fit of insouciant artistic acceptance, I ceded the field to Titivillus, so blame him, not me!

Stultifying syntax balanced with style                              

This is the biggest point for debate in the writing world. All written languages have rules, and so they should, but there are levels of application. For instance I still maintain that a misplaced apostrophe should be punishable by the stocks, but commas are often 50:50. Italics are confusing and conjugation of verbs, use of past participles and the difference between First Class and first-class has made my ears bleed. Passepartout and I have argued for days over a comma, compromised, agreed, then changed it back to the original over a beer. 

There is also the subtle colloquial nuances a writer carries that drift into a work. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite books of the last decade. Yet it was full of Australian colloquialisms, and this is what made it fly. Shakespeare invented a word to fit his rhythmic work, as did Chaucer. So, there will be a West Country lilt to Mr Gupta, I am sure. I am foremost a poet and lover of rhythm. Therefore, you will find a lot of rhythm in my descriptions. For this I make no apology where, to keep that beat, I’ve played fast-and-loose with prose, punctuation and paragraphs. Proofreading is one thing, but one has to be careful that absolutism does not turn a flower meadow into sterile lawn.  

Style is never preconceived. Mine appeared as I wrote and, I suppose, can be called ‘classic’. Yet I’ve noticed echoes of many styles that originated from my favourite authors, poets and even comedians. On the final read through we were both happy that there is now an ‘Paulie’ style and I hope you will like it.

Become a character and live the character

Gupta is not fast-food, but as rich as a Dundee cake. I’ve written it so that each character becomes complete and not a wraith of the mind. That, for better or worse, is part of my style. This was the steepest learning curve I have had as a writer so far. Unless a character is believable, the story becomes two dimensional. Here poetry helped.

A poem, if written well, is the drumbeat of condensed emotion. I cannot write a verse without tapping into my well of unrefined, mature emotions… then the words flow. Sometimes it can almost hurt. This is the same emotional well I retreated into to find the inner workings of each character. Mr Gupta reflects part of who I am. Kāla-Vaz comes from my nightmares. Olaf is all I once aspired to be, but carries the same weaknesses that I carry. I believe in each of my characters. I have to in order to animate them in a reader’s mind.

Yes, fiction is born of one’s imagination, as is the interpretation of a subject by a painter. The more emotion is tapped, the greater the impact of the creation. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautifully subtle and grows as you look. The technicality on display may well need an explanation. This is similar to ballet… beautiful, perfect, with some need of learned interpretation. Yet, van Gogh’s later work is more like the method I try to achieve. There is no missing the explosion of emotion in Wheatfield With Crows. It is Béla Bartók with bells on! There is a fine balance of technicality and emotion which, I hope, Gupta achieves.

These are my drivers: emotional honesty; effort to justify a reader’s hard-earned cash; fear; joy; despair; and relief.  If you cry before the end, it does everything I hope it will.

Let it find its own way

The creation of Mr Gupta goes to the Sea has seen me make every mistake possible. Each mistake had to be a lesson learned if I am to achieve my aim of writing many more books in the future. In order to understand every strand of producing a manuscript in a finished state for publication, I naïvely took the step of proofreading my own work. This was not necessarily to avoid the cost of having it done for me, but to understand the process and, subsequently, the difficulty of the job. 

All well and good, but one can get too close to one’s work and to give balance I had the unstinting help of my Passepartout. She is the artistic surgeon who sewed all the physical parts of the book into the final hardback version we have just released. Passepartout knew I was too close to Gupta to see any lingering inconsistencies, so read the manuscript thrice in the matter of a week or two, highlighting anything remotely lumpy. Then it was done.

The art of releasing one’s creation

Mr Gupta goes to the Sea has been published. In a leap of hope over confidence, we will stagger its release in different formats. To underline our commitment for our own work, it was decided to underwrite this first book as a limited edition hardback: 50 + 1 books – the odd one to be sent to the British Library Legal Deposit as a requirement of new titles. If we sold these by Christmas 2020, we would make a small loss, but would launch a book of high physical quality to respect those who would invest in us. 

As it happens, the 50 special editions were reserved before they were back from the printer, so we made an early decision to release a limited special edition (100) paperback as soon as we could. As I write the reservations are already coming in. After this, Gupta will go on general release in paperback and ebook formats. 

The future

I think we have got the release of Mr Gupta goes to the Sea right, even if we are still learning as we go. We will publish more titles in the future at regular intervals. Already we have a poetry anthology planned, two children’s books, and my second novel, The Fisherman. Eventually Racing the Reaper Man, my serialised book on this website, on fitness for the more mature person, will be released.

The next part of the process is getting Gupta to as wide an audience as possible and finding a way of facilitating reviews. This latter piece of the process makes me nervous. Once a work is out there, it no longer belongs with you. People can own it and say what they want. However, with Mr Gupta’s help, and Titivillus’s gentle meddling, we will try to make people happy as we go along. If that comes to pass, as Mr Gupta would say, “Then everything is wonderful.”

Me at Base Camp after the climb, so as Mr Gupta would say ‘everything is wonderful’.

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