In 1990, having struggled to make a living as a writer (that hasn’t changed) I wrote an accessible biography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book was published, sold a few and I moved on …. as you do!
Then along came the internet and, yes (don’t judge me) I checked on Google to see how it was doing. I noticed that quite a few academics were recommending it as a good introduction to the life and literature of Dostoyevsky, so I thought maybe I should take another look at it. I queried whether the publisher would republish it, but they were not keen so I got the copyright back and went round again.
This time I went local. Amberley Publishing is my local publisher, specialising in local history, general history and biography. They took a look and asked for an additional thirty-thousand words; the book is quite definitely new and improved. The first version was researched in the British Library Reading Room, the old one (the round one in the British Museum). But the advent of the internet allowed access to greater research material, more time to read through the journals and the new translations, which enabled a more measured approach to this sometimes daunting writer.
In addition, a lot has happened since then. Yes, I know that Dostoyevsky has been dead for well over a hundred years, but his influence and his impact on modern media has become increasingly powerful. There’s plenty in the book about how Crime and Punishment, Notes from the Underground and The Brothers Karamazov have been reinterpreted and re-enacted in modern film and media. Obviously film and TV has dramatised his work, almost from the beginning, including Albert Camus’s staging of The Devils (the story of a terrorist cell, not a supernatural horror story) in 1959, at the cost of 30 million francs (production costs were queried at the time). There are the direct retellings, who can forget John Hurt as Raskolnikov in the BBC’s Crime and Punishment in 1970? Much more recently Jesse Eisenberg has starred in Richard Ayoade’s version of The Double and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2013), a less direct retelling of that story. Other films and media indirectly approach the stories and the characters; a recent independent horror movie It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2014), quotes Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot throughout. The references to Myshkin (the protagonist of The Idiot) are a clue to one of the characters, and the sinister entity that clings to the unfortunate teenagers has the aura of The Double.
Dostoyevsky created characters who wandered the streets of an urban landscape. He dealt with the plight of those who experienced poverty; people who had work but not enough pay and there was a housing crisis in St Petersburg. People shared apartments divided by curtains, or lived in cupboards – sound familiar? Like Dickens and his portraits of London, Dostoyevsky mapped the streets of his beloved St Petersburg and populated it with his characters; some were disturbingly real, others fantastical, some likeable, some redemptive, some dark and unredeemed with a hint of David Brent. I could go on – and I do, in the book. I don’t speak Russian and I have not yet been there, although this year I did get to stand in front of the only portrait painted of Dostoyevsky in his lifetime. The portrait by Vasily Perov, was lent to the National Portrait Gallery for a short time in 2016, by the Tretyakov Gallery, where it is housed. He was accompanied on either side by Tolstoy and Turgenev whose novels of the Russian landscape, were precisely that, epic sagas of the landed gentry, while Dostoyevsky got down and dirty in the chiaroscuro of his own urban noir.
Meanwhile going local is to be recommended. I have done some legwork, introducing myself as a local author to local bookshops and this has been received well. Dostoyevsky: A Life of Contradiction is in the window of my local bookshop!
Independent booksellers appreciate independent publishers, and while Amazon marches on, independent booksellers work through local distribution, or suppliers like Bertram Books. Amberley has been working on my behalf sending out review copies and meanwhile I have set up a Facebook page, a Pinterest page, I have tweeted and I have learned the difference between “Boost Post” and “Create Ad” on Facebook (I went with boost post, hopefully that was the right decision). I even created my own Dostoyevsky meme! I threw my own launch party to celebrate the book’s publication, at local Cafe Bar Meme and, because they were local, some of Amberley’s senior staff paid a visit. Amberley publishes a decent number of books and mine is just one, but a little effort on my part has proved positive for both aspects of marketing – mine and theirs. Our local listing magazine, Good On Paper, boosted my local publicity with an extract on their site, and before Christmas I shall do a little local radio with Corinium Radio; while after Christmas, well, then it will be emails to academic institutions offering lectures and visits.
Marketing is as much the role of the author as is the writing and Dostoyevsky knew that too; for when he and his wife sold copies of The Devils from his apartment door, the maid feared she had become part of some kind of devils’ coven. Local publishing is as alive now as it was then, but local publishers need to survive, and a well marketed author is the life-blood of their work as well as the author’s. Local links do not always need to be the history of local bridges or local heroes, just a good book and local ambition works well for all; and in this day and age access is far beyond local once it’s out there and it is…. Dostoyevsky: A Life of Contradiction, is available in all good bookshops (especially local) and on Amazon …click here!