Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hungry City: scratching a seven year itch

This Sunday you can hear a friend of mine on Radio 4, talking about issues raised in her new book. Here's what the relevant Radio Times listing: The Food Programme, Sunday 20 July, 12:32pm - 12:57pm, BBC Radio 4. Hungry Cities: How will we feed the cities of the future? Sheila Dillon is joined by architect and author Carolyn Steel, who explains how food has shaped cities over the centuries. What lessons can planners of today learn from the past?

Carolyn has been working on her book Hungry City for seven years. But it's not some vast, sprawling mass of academic prose and high-falutin' ideological arguments. She's got a relaxed, enjoyable prose style and a choice turn of phrase, and her analysis of how food has influenced the way we live now [and in the future] makes for compelling reading. Her book is getting lots of positive reviews, which must be gratifying after working on it for so long.

[If you want to know more about the book, you can see exclusive excerpts and listen to podcasts by Carolyn at the Hungry City mini-site. There's also a blog that charts reaction to the book, and highlights news stories that relate to ideas in Hungry City.]

One of the things I admire most about Carolyn's book is the time and effort she put into it. Like a lot of non-fiction projects, this was an absolute labour of love. Few writers make money from non-fiction, unless they find a canny way to subsidise their efforts through publishing work in progress articles. Grud knows I couldn't survive financially writing one book for seven years, and my boredom threshold would certainly drive me on to something else.

There's a fascinating article in the Independent newspaper about the preponderance of female commissioners in British TV drama. In it industry people debate why these powerful, important roles are almost exclusively filled by women. Everybody tries to avoid gender stereotyping, but there's a broad consensus that women are more meticulous and have longer attention spans - vital qualities in an area where the development process can take years.

The closest I can get to matching Carolyn's Hungry City odyssey is my big book THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD, detailing the history [and behind the scenes intrigues] of iconic British science fiction weekly 2000 AD. That started life as a short series of articles for the Judge Dredd Megazine. But the more I delved into my subject, the deeper and more fertile it became. There were 16 articles by the end, and I'd interviewed dozens of people.

I'd been well paid for the articles and felt wearied by my efforts, but there was still an itch there I needed to scratch. I wanted to see the features collected under one cover, to preserve them as a book. I wanted to correct the mistakes I'd made when the articles were appearing monthly, a constant work in progress. And there was so much more I'd discovered too late to include in the original features. It needed, it deserved to be a book.

But finding a publisher proved problematic. I approached Titan Books at a time when the company was pumping fresh 2000 AD books into the marketplace, but they turned it down. I tried big publishers, I tried small publishers, all without success. A major sticking point was the need to lavishly illustrate the book. There's no point publishing a book about a visual artform unless you're going to show some artwork, it kind of misses the point.

I knew THRILL-POWER OVERLOAD would expand from the original 80,000 words worth of articles to something significantly larger [about 120,000 words it proved to be]. Throw in plenty of illustrations, many in colour, and you're talking an expensive tome aimed at a niche market. Happily, 2000 AD's publisher Rebellion had now ventured into book publishing. A deal was struck and I dived back into the project that consumed much of 2002 and 2003.

The finished volume finally came out a year ago to glowing reviews from the comics press and healthy sales of the hardback edition. I'm told only a few copies remain to be sold of that first edition, and there are tentative plans afoot to publish a paperback version once the hardback sells out. All in all, it was a monumental effort and I'm unlikely tackle such a sprawling subject again. But I'm proud to have scratched that particular itch.

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