To write a bestseller I had to become a woman

    28 March 2015

    It’s remarkable the efforts some authors will make in order to achieve literary fame. Take the American writer James Frey. A few years ago he decided that his hitherto rejected novel, A Million Little Pieces, was suddenly a ‘memoir’ — and, piquantly, rather a good one. As a result he found a publisher, and a public, and sold millions of copies. It was just a shame that he had to sobbingly confess, a few months later on Oprah, that he’d fabricated entire chunks of his ‘autobiography’.

    By contrast, James Joyce trod the long road: spending nearly a decade writing Ulysses, and once taking a whole working day to write a single sentence, which described a man helplessly lusting after perfumed ladies. For the record, that sentence was ‘With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.’

    In the face of such stern competition, and in an ever more competitive market, I took an even more drastic route to literary success. I changed sex.

    It’s not the first time I’ve made an identity switch in the service of literature, and of personal greed. For much of my life I was myself, Sean Thomas, a jobbing Fleet Street journalist, writing about art, travel, politics; I also had a few published but commercially unsuccessful literary novels to my name. And I mean unsuccessful: my first novel, Absent Fathers, sold so badly I once got a royalty cheque for nought pounds, nought nought pence. I think the publisher’s computer could not understand the idea of an author selling zero copies, so the cheque was mailed out anyway.

    To be fair to myself, I did go on to  slightly better things, even as Sean Thomas. My later literary novels were ‘well received’, and in my mid-thirties I wrote a very candid memoir of my love life, Millions of Women Are Waiting to Meet You, which sold nicely, got some lovely reviews and was translated into half a dozen languages, German to Russian, meaning there are people in St Petersburg who know all about the Incident with the Cleaning Lady.

    Despite this modest but growing success, by the time I was 44 or so I was pretty broke. My friends owned cars and houses, I owned a chair. Just one chair. When friends came round to my flat for tea, I had to sit on the bed.

    At this point my brilliant agent Eugenie Furniss (who famously won a record-breaking £1.2 million advance for Piers Morgan’s diaries) told me it was time to get real and write a thriller, because, as she pithily put it, ‘people like stories’. Taking the hint I sat down and wrote a Da Vinci Code type thriller, The Genesis Secret, centred on the 12,000-year-old temple of Göbekli Tepe in Kurdish Turkey. Even in its first draft, this accrued my first six-figure advance from a publisher. I confess we’re talking very very low six figures. But hey, six figures!

    Prior to publication there was, however, one problem. What to call myself? My own name had several complicating issues: it was associated with freelance journalism about art, sex and politics, it was also associated with The Cleaning Lady Episode, so readers might be alarmed by the leap in genre. More importantly, my own name had – to be honest – the taint of literary failure when it came to novels. And finally, my real name just wasn’t butch enough: the type of thriller that I was writing demanded a more virile, thrusting pseudonym.

    Thus it was that after several editorial/authorial meetings, we came up with my new thriller-writing persona, Tom Knox. The process was disconcertingly technical. Did you know, for instance, that it is commercially better as a writer to have a surname beginning with a letter from the middle of the alphabet, e.g. K? That means your book will be centrally placed in the bookshop shelves, one of the first books browsers see as they glide past the neglected top left shelves (A-D) and fail to reach the bottom right units, where wretched Ws, Xs, Ys and Zs gather dust. That poor William Wordsworth, he never stood a chance.

    So there I was, Tom Knox, international thriller writer. For six or seven years my thrillers sold well around the world, enough to buy me a flat on the turbulent borderlands of Primrose Hill.

    And then, suddenly, the selling stopped. The bottom dropped out of the Da Vinci Code-y market. Why? Not because of any intrinsic flaw in the genre. You may not agree with me (few do) but I believe that Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, is a masterpiece of plotting, even if the prose is pedestrian and the characterisation trite. And plotting is no trivial thing: it is the melody of literature. Plotting — like discovering a great tune — is hard and rare, that’s why thriller writers, who have to plot, make lots of money when they get it right. Not many people can construct a plot, though plenty think they can.

    So why did the Da Vinci Code fashion die? Probably for the same reason all fashions die. People of a certain age, who remember the 1970s, will recall how trousers got more and more flared until they were virtually mainsails: absurd and dangerous. My genre followed the pattern: by the end, Templar knights were hunting grails made of anti-matter guarded by Jesuits in rusting submarines. We’d all gone as far as we could.

    Moreover, fashions constantly shift. For a long time ‘misery lit’ — tales of childhood abuse, of impoverished families living in metal buckets — were quite the thing; then, when the genre peaked, suddenly everyone wanted those books with the pastel covers, swirly titles and stories of sweet romantic misfortune: chicklit. For a brief moment, novels about ben-wa balls and bondage were at a premium, after Fifty Shades of Grey.

    Thus, for commercial reasons, Tom Knox had to die. Yet I had already been planning his demise, not least because I’d tasted the change in the wind. Now I wanted to write taut, more literary thrillers — chillers with domestic contexts. But this would again be a massive leap in genre: a Tom Knox fan expecting to see Buddhism decoded as a mind-altering drug would be surprised to find me writing about eerie marital discord in a kitchen, or a lonely child on a beach. So I needed, again, a new ID. A new name.

    And that name had to be a woman’s. Or at least the name of someone not necessarily a man. Why? Partly because I wanted to write this book — about a family who lose an identical twin child, and then fear, a year later, that they misidentified the surviving twin — from the perspective of the grieving mother. The shift seemed aesthetically right, and it was a salutary artistic challenge to me, as a writer, to speak in a female voice. But I also wanted to be a ‘non-man’ simply because it helps these days not to be a man, if you write fiction.

    This may sound surprising; it is however the case. Modern publishing (in stark contrast with journalism, or British TV, or Hollywood) is dominated by women. Take my own situation: my agent is a woman, her co-agent is a woman, my editor at Harper-Collins is a woman, her assistants are women. My publicist is a woman. Over in New York my editor is a woman, her assistant is a woman, the American publicists are women. And so it goes on: most professional fiction purchasers for supermarkets (hugely important) are women. Most fiction bloggers (unpaid reviewers, increasingly important) are women.

    Moreover, most fiction readers are women. It’s long been a publishing truism that men only read military history after the age of 50, but increasingly men aren’t doing any book-reading at all. Some experts estimate 70 to 80 per cent of novel buyers are female in the UK and USA.

    For a time the one genre to hold out against this sweeping, secular trend to women readers was, ironically, the thriller itself. Until a few years ago thrillers were the final redoubt of commercial male novelists, the one remaining place mainstream male authors did significantly better, and enjoyed large male readerships.

    But in the last decade this Spion Kop of literary testosterone has been overrun: it is more often women, today, who will buy classic, pacy, tension-fuelled narratives, or gruesome and slashery chillers. From Gillian Flynn to Sophie Hannah, from Liane Moriarty to Paula Hawkins, female thriller writers are taking over, and reaching – it seems – a mainly female readership. One day psychologists might tell us why.

    Whatever the reason, this evolution is no fault of women. If men have decided they can’t be bothered with books and want to play computer games, so be it. Men can’t complain if the publishing industry is usurped by the gender that still cares about novels. And I am lucky to be surrounded by hugely talented women, from my editors to my agents: they are there because they are passionate and clever and committed.

    Nonetheless, it does present the ‘debut’ male author with a dilemma: do you come out as a man, or do you maximise your appeal all round and be a little more, ahem, gender neutral? I confess I went for the latter option, just like S.J. Watson, the man who wrote the fiendishly inventive thriller Before I Go to Sleep, but changed his male name to something sexually unspecific for the same commercial reasons as me.


    The result? As I write this my book The Ice Twins is number six on the charts. I have my very first Sunday Times best-seller. And some of my readers are presuming I am a woman, they’ve written reviews calling me ‘her’. I find that oddly pleasing.

    Would I have had this success if I had written a book overtly admitting my real, masculine identity? I simply don’t know. But if the shades of Emily Brontë and George Eliot are watching us from the literary Empyrean, they might be smiling with polite irony. They had to pretend to be men to get published and read. The world is turned upside down.