Nick Stone was born in Cambridge in 1966. His father is the historian Norman Stone, and his mother descends from one of Haiti’s oldest families, the Aubrys – some of his later relatives actually worked for Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, Haiti’s most notorious dictator.
Nick spent his early years in Haiti, before returning to England in 1971 to finish his schooling. As a teenager, he took up boxing and fought in the National Amateur League, but gave it up when he won a place to read history at Cambridge.
It was during a year spent in Haiti in the mid-nineties that the plot for Mr Clarinet first began to take shape.
He is married and lives in London. He is the author of Mr Clarinet and King of Swords.
Nick Stone on the publishing process through the eyes of the writer.
Parts 1, 2 & 3.
Part one of Nick Stone’s journey to becoming a published author.
The plot for my debut novel, Mr Clarinet didn’t come to me all at once. I got it in two instalments. The first came to me in Haiti in December 1995, where I was visiting my family for the holidays. At the time, I hadn’t seen most of them nor set foot in the country for thirteen years.
I remember the moment lightning struck. It was midday – bright and baking. I was pacing around the courtyard with my late grandfather’s Model 10 Smith & Wesson revolver. I was having a nostalgic moment.
We went back, the gun, the courtyard and me. My first memory – age three - is of playing in the courtyard; my second is of the dog that approached me moments later. It was a stray black German Shepherd. It didn’t snarl or growl or even bark. It didn’t run up to me and pounce. It simply strolled into my life and – my third memory - clamped its jaws around my forearm and pulled me off my feet.
What happened next is a blank, although I’ve long since had the empty spaces filled in for me by people who weren’t there. My grandfather was sitting nearby in the shade, watching over me. This was something he liked to do while he still could. He was dying of cancer and knew he didn’t have long to go.
He shot the dog with the pistol he always kept at his side in case of thieves.
Two weeks later he died in his sleep.
My uncle Jean inherited the pistol. He mounted it in a glass case and used to pass it around at dinner parties, whenever the conversation went stale.
I found the gun quite by accident, still sitting in its display case, on top of a cupboard in the house I was staying in.
Jean told me the weapon’s history and then took it out of the case and handed it to me. It had a dull grey finish and a wooden grip which had turned almost black with time. It was heavier and sturdier than it looked.
The day I took the pistol for a walk in the courtyard – all the while mentally recreating the scene where my grandfather had saved my life - I noticed something about it I hadn’t initially seen, something only the intense sunlight revealed. On one side of the grip, close to the end, three thin straight lines, each about a centimetre long, had been crudely scored into the wood.
I guessed what they stood for.
I wondered how my grandfather had felt; being God three times over, for a split second each. I wondered how he’d lived with himself afterwards.
And that was how and when I got the first idea for my novel.
Simple, really: I’d create a character who’d killed three people. I’d give him bad dreams and a mounting sense of remorse. I’d make him sorry.
Haiti, in case you don’t know, is a Caribbean island, situated roughly between Cuba and Jamaica. It shares a border with the Dominican Republic. You can’t miss it when you fly over it. It’s the colour of rust on rust. Its neighbours are all lush and green, healthy and abundant. Haiti looks like it doesn’t belong there, like it’s floated in from another, sorrier part of the world, a place where it barely rains and nothing ever grows or lasts.
Haiti is apart, unique and alone, as are its people. They’re also exceptionally funny: two hundred plus years of living with almost constant natural and man-made disasters means there’s gallows humour in the DNA.
I returned to live and work there in September 1996. I’d got a marketing job in a now defunct local bank, based in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. I stayed until December 1997.
The place was a disaster zone. Think of some war/famine/drought ravaged African landscape teeming with extreme poverty and disease and you’ll get a picture of what it was like.
You couldn’t – and still can’t - drink the tap water in Haiti. It’s so filthy you’re urged to keep your mouth shut when you’re having a shower. The electricity supply is temperamental. Power cuts can last for days. Everyone who can afford one has a generator. Everyone else lives by candlelight or in complete darkness. There are precious few streetlights in Haiti. It’s not only the poorest country in the Western hemisphere; it’s also the darkest.
A little publicized consequence of the 1994 US military invasion of Haiti was the repatriation of most Haitian criminals from American prisons – hundreds of murderers, rapists, gang members, and drug dealers were flown back to the island and handed over to the country’s authorities. There was a slight problem with this – actually, make that a rather large problem: at that moment in time, Haiti was quite literally a lawless land. Not only was the country without a police force or army (both having been disbanded by order of the UN), all of its prisons had been emptied of convicts and turned into squats, the judiciary had been suspended and all laws annulled pending the drafting of a new constitution. The Haitian “authorities” who took possession of the homecoming convicts were actually nervous airport security staff. They escorted the criminals off the runway and released them. The criminals found their way to Port-Au-Prince and its neighbouring slum, a vast congealed cesspool and home to half a million people, called Cité Soleil. Within months they were running both.
The crime rate rocketed on the island: murders, home invasions, carjackings, rapes, drug trafficking and, very disturbingly, a whole new dark phenomenon - child kidnapping.
Children had always gone missing in Haiti. Most of them had disappeared for good, never to be seen nor heard from again. There were rumours of adoption rackets, black magic ceremonies, child labour and other things I won’t go into here, but kidnapping was a whole new ball game. And for once it wasn’t the poor who were suffering the worst, but the rich. After all, only they could afford to pay the ransoms.
When I heard about this I got the rest of the idea for my book. I’d send my triple murderer to Haiti to look for a missing child. I’d make him a private detective. He’d be haunted by his past - the life he’d lived, the lives he’d taken and the consequences he’d reaped. His name would be Max Mingus, after an old school friend who’d got me reading Kafka, and one of my heroes, the very great Charles Mingus: jazz bassist extraordinaire, band leader, composer, bully, brawler, genius and author of Under the Underdog – the quintessential jazz autobiography, written as lopsided noir.
Now you know.
I wrote the first draft of Mr Clarinet between January 30th 2003 and March 29th 2004.
I wrote every day. Sometimes I wrote a lot, sometimes I wrote three words and a full stop, but I was at my desk every morning for four to six hours.
I’d always been advised to get an agent because publishers rarely - if ever - look at unsolicited manuscripts.
I met my agent, Lesley Thorne, at a book launch in May 2002.
I told her briefly about my book. She was very nice. She asked me how much of it I’d written. When I confessed that I hadn’t written a word of it, she looked at me and said:
“Well, I’m not going to write it”.
It’s been that way ever since. I’m very lucky to have her in my corner.
Once I’d delivered the final manuscript – which was originally 576 pages long - Lesley, one of life’s natural diplomats, told me the draft needed to be shortened by 20,000 – 30,000 words. That really meant about 100 pages.
We set about editing the book down. When I say “we”, it really was a collaborative process. Lesley was almost as immersed in the book as I was. We talked through potential cuts to the manuscript and changes to the story, and then I went off and made the amendments.
Some of the cuts hurt: I had to lose material I was fond of, chapters I’d spent weeks on, but ultimately it made for a much better book.
The finished manuscript was submitted to publishers in early June 2004.
I was in the Old Bailey – working as a legal clerk on a murder trial - when Lesley called to say that Bev Cousins at Penguin had made an offer on my novel. I couldn’t, unfortunately, jump for joy there and then. I was in the foyer, outside the courtrooms where nervous witnesses were waiting to go in and give evidence. Displays of happiness were strictly off-limits.
Depending on how you look at it, I’ve either had a very easy time getting published - a mere twenty months from starting my novel to inking the deal – or, if you factor in all the novels I started writing but abandoned, I’ve had to wait twenty years.
I look at it this way: it’s a happier ending than one I’ll ever put in a book.
Part two. Nick gives another fascinating insight on the publishing process - in particular the rather mechanical procedures we drag our poor authors through to get to the final book: editing, copy-editing and proofreading.
Last summer, after Mr Clarinet was accepted, I got an email from my new editor, Bev Cousins. It was ominously apologetic. While she thought my book was very good in its present form, she felt there was room for improvement. She also added that she hoped I wouldn’t hate her too much for what I was about to receive via courier.
The manuscript arrived the following day. It was, in places, so heavily riddled with editorial glyphs it looked like the score for a particularly wild symphony, something you could easily imagine being played by an orchestra of chainsaws and pneumatic drills.
Also included were Bev’s notes - a seventeen page evisceration of Mr Clarinet.
Initially, I felt somewhat bewildered, like I’d just walked into a new job and been fired as soon as I’d stepped through the door. Rejection slips, by comparison, had been a breeze.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
Up until then I’d thought the books you read were the same as the manuscripts that were turned in, give or take a few corrected typos.
I was wrong. This is rarely ever the case. All books have to go through an editor for fine tuning before they even get near a printer, let alone a bookshop.
Bev and I met up shortly before I started work on editing Mr Clarinet. We went through her notes, which I had, by then, re-read enough times to see that they were really a guide as opposed to an instruction manual: I was free to keep anything she’d suggested I lose, as long as I could justify it with more than a scowl and stamp of the foot.
In the end I agreed with 98% of her changes, not for the sake of an easy life, but because I knew they’d make for a much better book.
The changes I made ranged from minor (typos, missed words, contradictions, continuity errors) to major (rewrites of entire sections). One of these was, ironically, the part of the book I’d worked on the longest.
When I was living in Haiti, I’d heard a story about a town one of Pablo Escobar’s close associates had built somewhere deep inland. It had its own airport and housed a vast cocaine refinery which produced most of the coke snorted in North America. No one knew exactly where it was, nor had anyone ever seen it, let alone visited it, but everyone I spoke to was adamant it existed, this cocaine El Dorado.
My character, Max Mingus, finds it. He tails a suspect to a place resembling a miniature Milton Keynes, albeit with a huge narcotics plant slap bang in the middle, a school, a hospital, a town hall and plenty of houses. Appearing right in the middle of Haiti’s squalor and decrepitude it was meant to be as surreal a sight as it sounds – a drug baron’s answer to a Western industrial town.
The chapters were fun to write, but ultimately they didn’t quite work. They had very little to do with the plot, slowed the pace down and – crucially – upset the narrative’s internal balance, the relationship between the main character and his environment. The Haiti I’ve described - all dark, desolate geography, ruined architecture and relentless poverty - is in part a projection of Max’s own internal devastation. He’d be out of sync in Milton Keynes.
I replaced the section with something completely new and far more appropriate, although the drug town does still feature in the narrative – albeit fleetingly.
Less Bruce Springsteen.
Lastly, I added a few more paragraphs about Haiti’s turbulent and very bloody history, from the relatively recent – the 1994 US invasion – to the eighteenth century slave uprisings, and, especially, its most notorious ruler, the satanic Papa Doc. He was a voodoo Howard Shipman, an arthritic Caligula, a Saddam with sick jokes and terrible eyesight. Although he doesn’t feature that much in the book, his cruel and crippling legacy does.
Editing Mr Clarinet took the best part of five months.
I finished the new draft in January of this year and sent it to Bev, expecting another autopsy report by way of comment.
There were a couple of additional changes to make, but otherwise the book was pronounced as good as done and I could finally type 'The End' and mean it.
The final part of the story
Well, it’s done. Mr Clarinet, my debut novel, will be published January 2006 .
Mr Clarinet is now a proper book. It has a cover, designed by the great Henry Steadman.
Henry is responsible for designing covers for books by Bill Bryson, Jonathan Kellerman, Harlan Coben, Dan Brown and many others. His covers vary greatly from author to author, and - of those I’ve read - they tend to capture the essence of the book rather than specifically reflect its plot.
I was very keen for the cover to carry the symbol Max Mingus sees cropping up on walls all over Haiti during his search for the missing Charlie Carver - a Greek Orthodox-style cross with a broken right arm and a split base, like a cloven hoof, meant to be the mark of Mr Clarinet, the child-abducting spirit of Haitian folklore. It made it.
Henry apparently went to great lengths to get into the spirit of the book. For a start, he went out and bought himself a clarinet. I suspect he might even have attended a voodoo ceremony or two. Either way, the cover’s great.
The next thing was the author mugshot. My editor had briefed Ian Philpott, the photographer, to shoot something “dark and moody”. I briefed him to do something about my lack of hair. He obliged by omitting my fleeing hairline altogether from most shots. As for the dark and moody part, that wasn’t much of a stretch because I was born with a bad tempered mien, while the lighting was of that shadowy, obscuring sort that highlights certain facial features while blotting out others, especially beloved of vain male authors who’ve already passed the first two signposts to middle age. I now look like someone you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley – but one who may or may not have a full head of hair.
In between I had one final round of editing to do. Line editing: things that had got past familiar eyes, had been caught by fresh ones and reeled in for fixing. The changes were mostly minor: typos, repetition, continuity errors, and contradictions.
A few weeks later the final manuscript came in. I made one correction and signed off on it.
Jason Craig is a man possessed. He is currently overseeing, masterminding and running the sales campaign for Mr Clarinet. He also has a full-time job at Penguin.
In September he took me to visit several key bookshops, to meet some of the booksellers. I was somewhat wary, because we were accompanied by a Penguin sales rep of some infamy - he’d once sold a new book in to booksellers in the nude. No, I’m not making that up. I hoped to God he wasn’t going to sacrifice a chicken right there in the vegetarian books section of Foyles.
Going to the shops was an illuminating experience, as I got to find out a little of what actually happens behind the scenes of a bookshop. The feedback from those who’d read Mr Clarinet was very positive, although none of those readers seemed that keen to go to Haiti.
I got to meet Maxim Jakubowski. Maxim runs Murder One, arguably the best crime bookshop in the Western hemisphere. We go back some way, he and I, directly and indirectly. I once sold him a very rare book (there are only two copies known to be in circulation – neither of which are mine; I had eight of the things, but they got destroyed when my flat flooded during a flash storm) and he once very kindly let me into a sold out, over-subscribed James Ellroy reading for free.
I hope you enjoy Mr Clarinet. It’s now yours.