LADY LIMBO starts out with a bang. It gets picked up by the extraordinarily generous Joni Rodgers, a New York Times bestselling author, who gives it a fantastic Amazon review followed by a Youtube review that stuns me. But LADY LIMBO doesn’t have an overseas publisher and for many months it’s not even available on Amazon for overseas buyers. At home in South Africa reviewers have the enviable task of wading through a deluge of high quality overseas thrillers and mysteries – and the local writers who do get decent coverage are way cooler and better connected than others. LADY LIMBO gets a mixed bag of reviews. It becomes clear that marketing it as a thriller hasn’t been a good idea since expectations of a speedy high-octane read aren’t met. One review takes LADY LIMBO apart, albeit interspersed with fulsome praise and back-handed compliments. Effectively it says: Great try but you get a big fat FAIL. I try to ignore it. LADY LIMBO is repositioned as a mystery novel aimed at those readers who savour long satisfying reads.
The other day, suddenly, out of the blue, LADY LIMBO is given a breathtaking thumbs up by a fellow writer I’ve never met in person, who gets that LADY LIMBO is just itself. This is the power of social media and Facebook. The power of generous connectivity can replace negative energy with positive energy. Writing a blog post seems like an imminently sensible way of making sure I keep remembering this lesson.
I’m one of these funny people that appreciates cliches in the same way I like my old shoes. These funny reworked sayings become part of us, accumulating nuances and overlays of meaning that attach themselves to the words in stages, stages of a life. When we say them we believe because we’ve said them before and heard others say them. And belief is a powerful weapon in a writer’s arsenal.
So, for those of you starting out: every cloud has a silver lining, let it go like yesterday’s snow, everything passes, you can’t be everything to all readers, no writer is an island, whining or complaining never helped anybody (thank you Johnny Depp and Kate Moss), there’s always another review, the show is not over till the fat lady sings, and finally – a personal favourite borrowed from a minibus taxi slogan – ‘Don’t be a Hater’! Oh, you get the idea. Dredge them up. Whatever makes you sit down and write another paragraph, another page, another poem, another short story, another novel. Whatever keeps you focussed on the act of creative energy.
When an unpleasant review comes along my first thought is to crush it into a tiny ball and bin it, and then never think of it again. Unfortunately, modern-day social media doesn’t allow for quick relief, it’s more the slow water torture variety of psychological torture. So, every time the compulsive, nibbling urge comes upon me to check on new reviews for LADY LIMBO I find myself opening the negative energy reviews and regurgitating the critical comments as if I were grinding stones between my teeth. Sticks and stones may break my back, but words will never hurt. Not true. Google likes online publications that publish regularly and have huge audiences so a bad review can stay top of the pops for a (very) long time. An immovable obsession. Maybe I should try writing something completely different? Oh dear, isn’t that what I said last time?
Honesty is so confusing. I’ve been in the situation myself where I’ve had to weigh honesty up against something else; usually a feeling of camaraderie with my fellow writer. Knowing how much blood, sweat and tears it takes how can I condemn anyone else’s attempt to tell a story that never existed before? But it seems that some reviewers don’t believe, as I do, that the stories are out there waiting to be told, and that we are merely conduits to untold readers. All I can say is that I am forced to listen to powerful voices when I write; voices that insist their story be told and they’ll take their chances. I am allowed plenty of leeway it is true but there is also strict oversight to make sure I remain faithful to the essential message. If I stop listening it’s a bit like being underwater without a pen; garbled speech bubbles rise to the surface and come to naught. The story loses its sinuous sense; my hand is restless but inadequate. It keeps writing and rewriting, an unstoppable itch, but wrong roads are gone down and gibberish emits, dissonant tracts out of sync with the whole; the rhythm lost, the writer forlorn. Listen, listen, listen.
It’s as if all the stories ever written were in a huge calabash and occasionally a giant medicine woman stirs them up and they scatter into the night’s firmament, twinkling messages, all jostling for attention. The lucky ones get picked out by the readers who were meant to read them. So it was with John van den Berg and Lorraine I like to think. Of course I’m a nobody writer in relation to the illustrious quartet John mentions – Kundera, Rushdie, Hosseini and Eco - but that he hears faint echoes of them in LADY LIMBO makes it all potentially worthwhile. I am a devoted fan of these grand masters of chiaroscuro fiction – how did John know? I’m listening to Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in audio book format right now and it’s breaking my heart. This is the power of fiction – to make us feel. For LADY LIMBO to be on the same shelf as any one of their books would be a huge honour. That is a dream worth contemplating.