Sour-sweet relationships

Booker-nominated novelist Timothy Mo has decided to break free and self-publish. Hubris or just hard business sense? Andy Beckett went to meet the defiant author
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The Independent Culture
IN a tall white house in W11 another writer is edging through his forties with troubled teeth, attacks from newspapers, and a name for mercenary advances. Small and nervy, he gratefully picks up a friend's call praising his Late Show performance the night before. Winter-tanned ladies glide by outside; behind net curtains he worries about middle age and money.

A few years ago people put Timothy Mo up there with Amis and Barnes and Rushdie. As the old empire's writers struck back, Mo's complex, confident books about his native Hong Kong and Southeast Asia won three Booker nominations in a row, and advances and sales in the high five, even six figures. But now, at 44, he's publishing his new novel himself, with a block-printed cover as cheerfully low-budget as anything on an Asian market stall. Mo's currency has slipped from "promising" to "difficult": the new book, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, opens with a witty eight-page description of a Filipino prostitute pleasing an elderly German professor by defecating on him. "I'm a loose cannon on the deck," says Mo. "It's very important to publishers that I fall flat on my face with this one."

He's partly right. The last month has seen publishers queueing up to question his talent and judgement - "You'd hardly recognise the same writer at work... Something went to his head," says Ion Trewin at Weidenfeld and Nicholson - culminating with what Mo calls a "street mugging" in the London Evening Standard under the headline "life in the writers' gutter". Mo, the consensus went, was a once-promising author now sliding into creative senility, his new book wilfully shocking, and publishable only by himself. (Interestingly, Jill Paton Walsh's self-publishing of her Booker-nominated novel was regarded as heroic. "You could deduce from that a difference between a nice English woman and an outsider taking on the system," says Clare Alexander of Viking Penguin.)

The manuscript of Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard had been sitting around for nearly two years. Chatto and Windus had published Mo's last two books, An Insular Possession (1986) and The Redundancy Of Courage (1991), to substantial critical approval, but Mo blamed the company for their disappointing paperback sales, so he decided to sell Brownout on the open market. The open market didn't like his opening chapter. "I had a distinct feeling of pearls before swine... I got these weird responses to it, like this guy saying, `It needs a lot of work done to it...' Three bidders left at 125 grand, and I said to my agent, `I don't want to be published by these people with their idiot remarks about the book and their lukewarm enthusiasm.' "

"Timothy Mo had no interest in hearing anybody else's views," says Alexander, who nevertheless offered him "six figures". So Mo, like a student fanzine editor or an undiscovered eccentric, decided to self-publish - to edit, typeset, manufacture, promote and distribute his book himself, against the multi-media machinery of the international publishing houses. "I suspect the sales of this book might be quite modest," said Trewin.

"I thought I was committing suicide," says Mo. "But every day since then it's got better... Publishing yourself is like a jump into a cold pool: quite nasty gearing up for it but... surprisingly easy actually. It's not as much hassle as organising a British Sub-Aqua Club branch dive." Friends - not novelists or publishers, but journalists and newspaper sub-editors - read his drafts and laid out the pages with a desktop publishing program; a small marketing firm was hired, as were specialist bookshop suppliers. All Mo had to do personally, other than negotiate with printers, was coordinate everybody, "the job of about 20 people in a big publishing house".

But was it worth it? Mo thinks he will improve on the typical medium- selling literary author's royalty of ten per cent by "a factor of 2.85". He calculates he'll break even at 1,000 hardbacks and 3,000 paperbacks - a fraction of what his other books have sold. "Tim has a very clear concept of his own value," says Diana Athill, the editor of his first two novels.

And the new book stacked up on Mo's sitting room floor is as strange and exotic as its title, part East-West satire and part Filipino social comedy, with seams of violence and sentimentality surfacing unexpectedly. Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is set in a provincial town suddenly colonised by "the space-age 2001 slabs of the New Asia". It starts out fast and funny with Mo laying out a social landscape where contract killings cost ten dollars and his central character, a journalist called Boyet, can expose local corruption in his column and work for a rainforest-clearing company called Evergreen.

The plot comes from one nicely contemporary idea: that the local politicians, while still essentially gangsters or feudal lords, perpetuate their oligarchy by crudely varnishing it with Western liberal notions. Thus the local Congressman's wife, impatient to be another Imelda Marcos, invites a sweating swathe of foreign intellectuals to participate in a conference on "Cultural Plurality in a World of Ecological Limits". The satirical scenario is obvious, and some of the skewering of Leftists is as amusingly unsubtle as in Bradbury's The History Man, but Mo also springs some clever surprises, like making the delegates vote self-righteously to switch off the conference hall air-conditioning which the Filipinos have just proudly installed.

Mo's pacing is less sure. After the snappy, vivid scene-setting, the conference itself seems to bog the story down, while his writing slows from casual to over-fussy. It's easy to agree with Alexander that the book "needed some organising and editing". And its conclusion can't quite decide whether to praise the ordinary Filipinos, "trying to create their own little oases of culture" amid the everyday violence, or bury them under the German professor's frankly racist assessment that they're fundamentally shiftless - a problematic idea to sell to ethnic-literature liberals in Waterstone's. But, as Alexander admits, "there are brilliant things in the book", mostly cruel details like a hit-and-run jetski rider coming back to finish off his victim's friends, or the pudgy gangster Crescente, "fathomless in utter corruption". Mo can still write.

But can he still sell? Athill has her doubts: "I don't know whether, if you began with Tim now, you'd sell anything of him." Mo disagrees, of course - confidently - but the fact of his self-publication does show a chilling of the climate for literary fiction. By contrast, when he started his career in 1978 with The Monkey King, a sharp but lyrical book about postwar Hong Kong (from which he had come, aged 10, to England, public school and Oxford), the young literary novelist was a rising commodity. McEwan and Amis were established, Rushdie and Granta's 20 young British novelists were on the way, and Mo was instantly compared to Naipaul. By 1987 the commodity was peaking: Mo had published two more books - both Booker-nominated - and told Blitz confidently, "The universities and polys are churning out well-educated young people who wouldn't have been educated before... and they're buying these books." He got a £250,000 advance for his last book, The Redundancy of Courage.

Some publishers say Mo went wrong himself here, dropping the charming ethnic vignettes of his early books for a violent polemic about the invasion of East Timor. The Redundancy of Courage's eerie battle scenes lost Chatto and Windus "an enormous amount", according to his publisher Carmen Callil. But by the standards of the '80s the book was a success: impressing the critics, making the Booker shortlist, and selling a substantial 10,000 copies in hardback and a respectable 31,000 in paperback. What had changed was the industry around it. Literary publishers like Chatto had been taken over by more profit-driven conglomerates (in their case Random House), who no longer saw loss-making prestige publication as their business. Mo didn't like the change; his ally Callil was moved. "The market changed completely," she says. "Hardback fiction completely died."

Authors were now expected to work harder for their advances. "The publishing world has become more tabloid," says Callil. "Authors have to perform." But Mo was fatalistic: "The novel had its purple patch... then the public mood changes. Who's the cultural icon now? Quentin Tarantino?" And uncooperative: he went to live in Micronesia while his first editions fell into the Times' "on the wane" category. His relations with publishers in general, which had been testy as far back as 1982 when he left Deutsch over disappointment at his second novel's paperback sales, had now calcified into hostility. From Random House Mo "wanted to know how many they'd sold, when the reprints were, why the publisher had just pulped some big reprint... Authors are not encouraged to ask questions like that."

The creation of this "difficult" reputation, culminating in the battle over Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, has exposed a tension in literary publishing. While authors are expected to promote their work with a new market-driven fervour, their publishers assume that the old deferential codes of author behaviour still apply, that writers should not demand to know how their product is doing. Mo's self-publishing could be a way out of this bind, for established authors. "It'll be interesting to see if it comes off," says Athill. "There will have to be a new way of publishing this stuff - egghead fiction - because W H Smith aren't stocking it and people aren't buying it."

Or Mo's enterprise could just be the consequence of one author's self- regard ("I have the biggest audience of any living English novelist potentially"), made urgent by insecurity. With things going sour at Chatto, "I did not want to be down there among the bottles and the dead men," says Mo quickly. "And I could see that coming." He thinks he's got enough money left from his previous books to last two years, if he's careful - after that, his writer's life (he has no other job) rides on Brownout. Before I leave, he gives me a review copy - to save £1.55 on postage.

8 `Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard' is published by Paddleless Press at £13.99/£8.99.