Interview by Finley Harnett
Paul Ewen’s second novel How To Be A Public Author is a blistering satire of the literary world, published and narrated as the pseudonymous Francis Plug. The Stray’s Finley Harnett chatted with Paul about prize culture, the (in)accessibility of the literary scene, and whether Francis Plug will make a return.
How did you come up with the premise for the novel?
In many ways, Francis Plug evolved from the reviewer character in my first book, London Pub Reviews. In that book, the reviewer goes to real London pubs and reviews them before getting kicked out of virtually all of them. Although the pubs were real, the reviews were essentially stories. However, many bookshops included the book in their ‘London’ and ‘Fiction’ sections. I wrote those pieces while visiting many different pubs as a way to get to know different parts of London after I first arrived here. At the same time I was attending author events, and writing about those too. The same fictional element from my pub reviews came into my author event pieces. In the end I invented a character, Francis Plug, and started asking authors to sign their books to him. Francis Plug’s How To Be A Public Author has been, and still is, sold in the ‘E’s for Ewen and the ‘P’s for Plug.
To what extent is How To Be A Public Author a satire of the literary bubble?
To me, there is an interesting conflict between the supposed solitary life of the writer and the very public world that many published authors are pushed into. These opposing forces provide a good base for humour. In How To Be A Public Author, there is also a sense of class divide between Francis, an alcohol dependent gardener, who is somewhat naive in literary matters, and the literary world itself, which is presented as serious, high-brow, and backed by wealthy commercial interests. By putting an outsider like Francis into that world, it is possible, through his eyes, to satirise it and point out its shortcomings and absurdities.
“I’ve also been told that Margaret Atwood and Thomas Keneally have read and enjoyed it. My publishers sent copies to all the authors who are included, so others may have have read it and may now wish to fight me.”
I enjoyed the bumbling-but-lovable Francis Plug. He is truly a Charles Pooter for the 21st century. Is Plug just a cunning guise for Paul Ewen, or are you completely different to him?
Like Francis, I do enjoy pubs and continue to do most of my writing in them. I have also enjoyed the opportunity to listen to many different authors speak in public, and to learn about how they write, and observe how they bear up in the spotlight. Francis is much more of a ‘loose cannon’ than myself, but we are both wary of the public spotlight and social media, choosing to communicate with the public through our books instead. And via questionnaires.
I’ve read that you have twice as many books signed ‘To Francis Plug’ than are present in the novel. Why did you ultimately decide to focus on Booker prize winners?
The early attempts to write How To Be A Published Author didn’t have the Booker Prize as a central point and used a much broader range of authors. But the Booker Prize winners helped contain and focus the book much more, making it easier to follow a key theme. At times I waited for long spells for certain Booker Prize-winners to visit London, or wider Britain, in order to include them. Ironically, the only living winner I haven’t had sign a book is Keri Hulme from New Zealand, which is where I’m from. She, most wisely, tends to avoid all that public hoo-ha. I presently have over 150 books signed to Francis Plug, some of which date back to 2006, or even earlier.
Do you know if any of the featured authors have read the book?
Hilary Mantel has. She generously wrote a wonderful blurb for the paperback edition, which I found quite surreal. I’ve also been told that Margaret Atwood and Thomas Keneally have read and enjoyed it. My publishers at Galley Beggar Press sent copies to all the authors who are included, so others may have have read it and may now wish to fight me.
When I was reading the book, the literary scene seemed distant, almost aloof, from the everyman types such as Francis Plug. Do you think there is some truth in this idea that prize culture is out of reach for some?
What seems to be happening more and more is that small indie publishers are winning a greater share of both literary sales and prizes, mainly because they are publishing braver, more interesting books from a more diverse range of authors. You would think the huge multinational publishers, with their very deep pockets, would have the money to risk on unknown writers and progressive books, but it is the indies who, despite having so much more to lose, are putting their necks on the line and thankfully finding success with readers. There seems to be a ‘coattails’ approach with the more established publishers, who will wait until a theme or genre proves successful elsewhere before jumping on the bandwagon. They will also sign up authors they have previously rejected once they have found success through a braver indie press. The open-arm approach of the indies, and their increasing sales, is helping a wider range of authors get published and win awards. So while the literary scene as a whole is still very much a closed shop to most, there are signs of more inroads for people like Francis. I would really encourage all readers of The Stray to seek out interesting indie publishers and support them.
Will Francis Plug return in the future?
Yes. As it happens, Francis and I have just finished the first draft of a new novel, which will be published in September next year (2018) with Galley Beggar Press. It’s possible you may see some of those other 150-odd signed books make an appearance, but just who their authors are I really couldn’t say.
- Paul Ewen’s Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author is available now.