Russell Mardell on Writing the Book you Want to Write

At the time of writing, it is exactly one month since my novel, The Knock-Knock Man, was published by the wonderful team at RedDoor Press, and now it’s out in the world and in readers’ hands, something that it felt may never happen at many points during the past five years. It’s also a month since I was able to see the book displayed on the table of a bookshop, an author milestone, for sure. In my case it was the magnificent Rocketship Bookshop in Salisbury (admittedly, I do work there, but it still counts!).

The novel began back in 2017, a vague idea I had, centered around the desire to find a new slant on the well-trodden path of the haunted house story. I also wanted to write a story around obsession, in this case on the part of a detective – another well-trodden path – but an obsession about finding an answer, a truth, to something that has coloured their life, no matter how crazy it might be. I’d been hugely influenced on that front by the novel The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt. I’ve always felt that horror (or at least the threat of horror) and detective fiction can be fairly cosy bedfellows – one of my favourite novels, Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg is a classic example – and despite having dallied with a genre mash-up novel before with my book, Bleeker Hill, and experiencing the marketing issues that can arise from that, it was the only way the story could be told, and the biggest challenge was finding the balance between the two.

I began the novel whilst studying with Curtis Brown Creative on their six-month online course, and it was a hugely valuable experience in getting the novel in the best shape it could be; objective feedback is essential for any writer. It also began an incredibly frustrating agent submission journey that would last four and a half years – there were narrow misses with enough agents, and some very helpful feedback, to at least convince me that I had something there, and give me just enough fuel to keep submitting. In the end, like one of those cheesy ‘keep going’ posts you often see on social media, I had all but given up, or at least, decided to step back for a while, when RedDoor got in touch and declared their interest. I still expected it not to happen – when the email came in to say they wanted to publish it, I was at work and couldn’t bring myself to open it for three hours as I assumed it would be a rejection, and I couldn’t handle dealing with that at work. But what do I know?

In fact not feeling like I know much has been a bit of a theme these last five years. Far from the course demystifying the publishing industry, in practice I found I was more confused than ever. But then maybe that’s how it should be. When an industry is so centered around subjectivity, can there ever really be any definitive answers? I knew the mash-up of genres with The Knock-Knock Man could potentially cause marketing issues down the line (my previous novel was a romantic comedy, so I seem to have a track record of not being ‘on brand!’) and time will tell whether I’ve got the balancing act of detective fiction and horror right, or whether it leans too heavily in either direction for some readers. Bleeker Hill has been my most divisive novel, I think in large part for that very reason, and maybe The Knock-Knock Man will tread a similar path. But, that said, for me the one thing that both of those novels share is that they are exactly the novels I wanted to write. And I consider that a huge achievement. In a confusing business built on opinions and timing, maybe that is the one constant that makes sense, that old well-worn adage: write the book you want to write.

It all still feels a little surreal. The idea of strangers reading your words – your life for five years – is, despite it being the whole point of the job, something I’ve never quite got used to. A friend of mine, a singer and lyricist, once described what he does as like running down the street screaming your diary at strangers. I can sort of understand that (though substitute running for strolling given my prolificacy) and it is both exhilarating and terrifying, and they are possibly the two reasons why I keep doing it. I just need to learn not to take five years next time!

You can buy a signed copy of The Knock-Knock Man from the Rocketship Bookshop by clicking here.

Leave a comment