By Tom Cox
A brand new novel from the author of Ring the Hill and 21st Century Yokel.
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Postcard from the West
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I’m writing a novel. My first. It was twenty years ago this month that I took a pen and a notebook up to a hillside in the south of England and decided I was going to write a novel and that doing so was more important to me than anything else in the whole universe, so I thought it was about time. The novel is called Villager and already feels like the most exciting flood of words I’ve ever put down on paper. It also feels new and at times quite frightening, which I have learned, from my previous experience of writing books, both tend to be positives. I would be extraordinarily grateful if you, dear readers, who have so kindly funded my previous four books, were able to help me transfer this new, exciting, frightening experience into something real that will appear on bookshelves late next year. A bit more grateful than before, even, to tell the truth. Because, for me, this feels like the big one. Not big in the sense of “This book could be big, commercially!” But big in the sense of what I’m trying to do, the challenges and risks it represents, and what an enormous, emotive place it occupies on the map of my own personal and creative history.
Prior to 2017, I’d written and published eight books, of varying themes, substance and reception, all with traditional publishers. I knew the books, overlooking a couple of early stumbles, had improved as I’d gone on, but I also knew there was something limiting about their parameters, something that made me feel a bit like an animal naturally suited to a forest or some cliffs who was still living indoors. Then, at a point when I could barely scrape together the rent payments on my house, I took a risk: I decided - against quite a bit of advice - to write a far less conventional book, almost 100,000 words of it, without any idea of whether it would make it into print, then try to crowdfund it with Unbound. It reached its target in around seven hours - a new record for Unbound - and was, to create and publish, a far more rewarding experience than anything I’d previously known. So I continued on the same route, writing three other unusual books that no conventional publisher’s sales department would have touched with a ten foot tickling stick, if I’d attempted to sum up what they were about. Each swiftly reached its funding target. Each looks (another new experience for me, this, since 2017) exactly how I want it to look. Perhaps most significantly of all, the three of these books that are now out in the world have prompted the most passionate and thoughtful messages from readers that I have ever received. They have definitely not brought me fame (thank fuck) or fortune (mixed feelings on that) but, from what I see every week in my inbox, they have hit a different, deeper spot with the people who’ve enjoyed them than my earlier books did.
I will not pretend there aren’t downsides to crowdfunding books but the freedom it has given me to learn and improve as a writer is invaluable. What I love about it, in addition to that and the beautiful art I now have on and in my books that makes them feel like treasured objects, is that it makes me feel that what a book is allowed to be is dictated by a different, purer force to what it was early in my career: the enthusiasm of readers, rather than a committee of people in an office looking for ways to make the most money possible or looking at other books that have recently been successful and trying to publish another book that is a bit like them. This has given me an extra confidence to write Villager, which is at its core only really like itself, and certainly wouldn’t be anybody’s idea of a zeitgeist-friendly sales pitch (sorry: no pandemic or shouty digital buzztopics here). Ideally, I would have liked to have the confidence to write a book like it when I was much younger. But some kinds of confidence have to be fermented, over many years. There’s no short cut to them, no Youtube tutorial or “life hack”.
What is Villager about? I know very much what it’s about in one extremely innate sense that defies summarisation, and I’m still finding out what it’s about in lots of others, and that’s maybe the most thrilling aspect of all for me. I can say that it’s about a village, in the West Country, and takes place over a period of many many years. I can say that it’s about what’s sitting on top of the earth, the changing face of that, and what’s lurking a few layers beneath it. I can say that it’s about music, and land lore, and plant life, and lost artefacts, and the riddles of time, and I can say that it’s probably much less straight faced than some other books that have covered these topics but also that is has an element of mystery to it. If it’s about many themes at the same time, that’s perhaps because I’ve noticed life tends to be too. I think it’s a book for people like me, who are much more interested in details and sentences and places and people than racing to a final page where they might be a simple answer to it all that packages up the universe and tells you what it is, who is good and who is bad, and that no in-betweens exist. Just a few things that are inspiring me as I press on with the narrative today are The Byrds, driftwood, old walls, FJ McMahon, root balls, Rachel Carson, a thatcher I met on a village green at sunset yesterday, a 50 year-old record released solely in Hungary, EL Doctorow, Anne Briggs and cattle. Tomorrow there will be others. I feel like a dog on a lead held by somebody or something high above the clouds right now and I like it. I can’t begin to express to you how much I am enjoying letting the story take me where it wants to. So… even if you all end up hating it and it sells about six copies when it’s out in the shops, at least there’s been that.
I might have known that it would gush out like this, when I finally allowed it to. Twenty years is a long time, although if I’d written a book called Villager back in summer 2000, or even in 2010, as I actually almost did, it would have been almost unrecognisably different. I sometimes think an accurate summary of my personality is that I am an impatient person who has spent a lot of his life being extremely patient. When I look back at different little phases of my adult life, they can easily be defined by obstructions I found between me and the completion of a novel. In the meantime, I wrote non-fiction, found I could do a lot more with it than I’d initially realised, and even finally dipped my toe into short stories (also courtesy of Unbound and a lot of kind readers, with 2018’s Help The Witch), but fiction, I always felt, was what it was all about. It was what most of my reading consisted of, and I wanted to write the kind of book that I’d like to read. Various people I could have become vanished in my rear view mirror: a published novelist under the age of 30, a 34 year-old novelist who moved to the west coast of Canada for a while after the successful publication of his epic-but-not-overblown third novel about a goose, a published novelist under the age of 40. It definitely wasn’t the script I originally planned, but it all makes a kind of sense now. So when I think about that 25 year-old, on that hillside, with his notebook, and his overindustrious opening paragraph, I try to resist the temptation to be mean to him. He’s got all sort of nonsense plans in his head. He trusts, foolishly, that writing a novel at 25 in the 21st Century will be much like writing and recording a folk or rock or soul or country or funk album was at 25 in 1970 for many of the musicians he loves. He has no idea how little he has listened, how little he has learned, how little he has seen and - even though he already beats himself up for it - how little has read, no conception of how boringly pristine he is. He has no idea of the part error, disappointment and fear necessarily needs to play in it all. It’s a separate point, but I also wish he’d eat a bit more healthily and stop saying yes to so many people and letting it bother him when they mocked his accent. But I can’t ridicule him or write him off too much, because he had a vision, however flimsily formed, and he turned out to be a stubborn, tenacious bugger, and that’s why I’m here today, having the time of my life writing this unusual, multicoloured, slightly feral book, and hoping very much you’ll help it see daylight.
NB The artwork on these pages is NOT what will be on the final cover - we haven't designed that yet!
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Postcard from the West
Tom Cox is the author of thirteen books, including Notebook, Ring the Hill, Help The Witch and 21st Century Yokel, which Robert MacFarlane described as 'just a glorious book - funny and wry and wise, and utterly its own law maker'. It was longlisted for the Wainwright Nature Writing prize. Help the Witch was described by Ben Myers as, ''Often unnerving, frequently funny and always original, the tangled roots of these haunted stories reach into deep, dark places to unearth an alternative England."
But he was not a person entirely devoid of hubris. He had the complacency of many people who arrive in the British countryside from a country populated by bears, coyotes and mountain lions, and the sun massaged that complacency. He was still a newcomer to the moor and even oldcomers to it knew only a fraction of a fraction of what there was to know about it. One of the many things he didn’t yet know about it was that, in late August, in days of heat after heavy rain, on the stretches where it was still most fully permitted to be itself, it breathed and growled as deeply as it did in the height of the harshest winter. Terrain you’d visited always compacted its scale in your mind afterwards and he had begun to learn that but, even so, the route back to the ruined house was surprisingly arduous. The river told him he was going the right way but it seemed further than before and something had happened in the dripping folds of earth above the banks: an angry awakening, a last wet sucking of life into the lungs before autumn’s dry death. Brown flies clung fiercely to his flesh. Huge tufts of grass shoved him from side to side, arguing over their custody of him. Blue and pink and yellow flowers spilled over the damp ground like ornate vomit. An old octopus of a tree reached down a rough tentacle and anointed his cheek with a bloody scratch. In his shoes, the soles of his feet sloshed about and blistered and began their transformation into a sore kind of paste. Every path became a whisper and then a lie. A stiff gate opened but led directly to a shrub of insanity. The song the old man and his wife had sung was in his head again and he hummed the song and then he barked it at the impassable bracken that stretched all the way up the valley walls and then he croaked it at the sky. An area of oxygen finally widened ahead but the ground beneath it drank his feet then low branches formed a roadblock and he crawled under them then lost most of his left leg in a peaty bubbling hole and had to use all his strength to retrieve it. He could not have been more wet if he was in the river itself up to his neck and the burnt moist state of him attracted more and more tiny winged life and he knew then that one day, once again, this would be the the world. Not a car, not a sandwich, not an ambition, not sense, not a cow, not a horse, not love, not a song, not a girl. Just this sucking and gargling and burping thing beneath him. When the dizziness came, and the pain in the head, just before the light clicked off, it was a relief to submit, to just fall into the mouth of everything and not go on fighting any more. And then night fell smoothly in and not thirteen yards away the river, which was not interested, continued to yell as it rushed over the rocks.
These people are helping to fund Villager.