Bill Thompson (Thomas McCarthy)
'Anonymous', Ian Rankin


Thomas McCarthy is a contributor I met on the night of the PEN launch. Time I spoke to him again. Accordingly:

Dear Editors at Serving House, I'd be grateful if you would kindly forward the following email to Thomas McCarthy, author of The Coast of DeathThanks, Duncan McLaren

Dear Thomas,

I've been commissioned to research a book about the subsequent writing lives of those who contributed to PEN New Fiction 2.  

It would be good to hear what your literary aspirations were back in the 80s and how those have changed over the years. I see from your biographical note on Serving House that you've published a couple of short story collections and a couple of novels. How would you characterise your relations with agents and publishers, acceptance and rejection, over the years? What keeps you motivated to write?

I believe we met at the launch of PEN 2 in January, 1987. Can you recall anything about that distant evening? Do you remember what we talked about (I fear I have forgotten) and who else you spoke to?


Back in 1987 I liked William New's ‘Six Heated Tales', but he seems to have been consumed by his own fire. Was there any story or stories in the anthology that you recall having strong feelings about? 

I enjoyed your grim 'A Visit from Al' and would like to read something else of yours. Perhaps we could do a swop. Would you have any interest in my latest book, a sort of biography of Evelyn Waugh? 

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Duncan McLaren

That was sent out on December 8, 2015, and wasn’t replied to. A fortnight later, I came across some old correspondence between Thomas McCarthy and myself.

It seems that after the launch I wrote to him. His reply on the 15
th of April, 1987 congratulated me on my story, saying it had a whimsical Kafkaish tinge to it. He told me he’d be in London to have a look at the Turners at the Tate and hoped we might meet up then. The letter was signed by Bill Thompson, Thomas McCarthy being his pen name.

Now as the address on the 1987 letter was a Peterborough one, and as his biographical note on Serving House website mentioned that Thomas lives in Peterborough, I decided to write to him at this address.

My letter began with what I’d already tried to send by email, then added:

Your letters set up a meeting between us on May 15, 1987, when you planned to be in London to see the Turners at Tate Britain. Not sure what we talked about that day either. My diary says: ‘Saw Bill Thompson. Saw Joanna.’ while the figure ‘7’ by the date tells me I had seven pints. Three with you and four with Joanna? Or vice versa? Only time could tell. And it won’t.

Having enjoyed your story in PEN2, which like mine concentrates on the stressful world of men at work, I tried your story in PEN1. I really enjoyed that too. Walking the streets of Perth in the aftermath of reading it, I could hardly resist the urge to go into one of the more traditional hotels, of which there are many. Indeed, if a Lady Mary or Joanna had been with me that’s exactly what we would have done. And here’s hoping we would have enjoyed ourselves to the full with nobody losing their job in the process.


Please do get in touch. I’m having a lot of fun with this project and would like to find out what you’ve been up to, writing-wise. Writing wise? Not a bad title for a book, though I think I’ll stick with PEN Pals for now

All best, Duncan

Bill quickly replies to this, letting me know that he replied to my first email but sent it to the wrong address. In his new message, he thanks me for my positive comments re ‘Mammy’s Boy’. Apparently the story was singled out for praise by Nicholas Shrimpton in the Sunday Times. Bill jokes that as far as publicity is concerned, it has been downhill ever since.

My fellow contributor goes on to say that he plans to write an account of his post-PEN literary career and send it to me.

Bill lets me know that he would like to read my book about Evelyn Waugh. About ten years ago, when he was stuck in a Bulgarian town for several days on his own, reading Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy came as a huge solace. Bill tells me he has two published books - a collection of short stories and a novel - that he’d be happy to swop with me.

Bill aka Tom has re-read my own story in the anthology and feels it has a Kafkaesque slant to it. Bill’s opinion of my story in 1987 was that it had a Kafkaish tinge. So that’s pretty consistent down the years. Actually, I think Bill’s story in
PEN 2 is Kafka-like, so let’s see whose story is the more so.

In my ‘A Business Meeting’, a mysterious individual, sent by the owner of a castle, attends a meeting at an accountancy firm in London. The senior partner of the firm is deadpan and elusive, while the other workers constantly try to escape from their office responsibilities by going to the pub or hiding in the firm’s toilets. Indeed, one of the young accountants would seem to have metamorphosised into a toilet attendant.
The Castle, tick. The Trial, tick. Metamorphosis, tick.. Beat that Thomas McCarthy!


In Tom-Bill’s ‘A Visit from Al’, an American businessman visits an Irish branch of a company whose headquarters is in the States. The story is told from the point of view of Jim Quirk, one of the Irish workers who have to cope with the ludicrously energetic work ethic of this visitor. Another local is Charlie, who drinks all the time and who Jim privately blames for dropping him in this dreadful situation. It’s eight o’clock on Sunday morning and Al is so keen to talk about the business it hurts. There are hints of The Castle, more so of The Trial. In any case both stories are about the male world of work, with lots of pressure to conform to absurd values, lots of drinking to escape from the futility of it all.

OK, let’s find out if there’s more that we have in common:

Hi Bill,

Eagerly awaiting your experience of the publishing world. In the meantime I want to see if I can prompt your memory of the evening of January 21, 1987. If any specific recollection comes to you, however incidental, do please let me know.

We all got a copy of the book that night, without its dust-jacket. I marked up my copy when I got home. Various names have been underlined in pencil. Meaning I talked to them (and you) that night.

There then follow several paragraphs about the above writers that owes much to what our fellow contributor C.A.R. Hills has told me. Then I add…
I think I went to the party on my own. But I have this clear recollection of a friendly voice asking why I thought a certain individual was there, and then answering his own question by saying he was there with his boyfriend. I was gently bemused by this observation. It seems I had lived a sheltered life. I suspect the observation (from a keen student of human nature) came from yourself, as you and I had been talking for quite a while and had struck up a rapport. Does this ring any bells?


DJ Taylor, who has gone on to be a very visible journalist (and prolific book writer), reviewing everywhere from Private Eye to the Independent, went to another pub with GE Armitage. Perhaps DJ advised GE to get rid of his initials, cos since 1987 the latter has been publishing a book a year under the name of Robert Edric. Taylor regularly reviews Edric's books. So you see, Bill, you would have been far better off going to that other pub with David and Gary than stepping out with me and my chums.

Ah well, you win some and you lose the rest

Looking forward, Duncan

Next day a reply comes. Bill tells me that a neighbour has just brought round Evelyn! and that he loves the cover, which he thinks is a great take on the classic Waugh Penguins of the 70s.

Bill doesn’t remember much of the second PEN party because he was half-cut when he arrived at it. His excuse being that he was nervous.

Bill Thompson came late to being published as Thomas McCarthy. He was nearly 40 when PEN1 accepted his first story. He remembers being very conscious of how badly read he was. He’d always been a voracious reader but back then the reading had been without any direction and often consisted of thrillers. He left school at sixteen and didn’t go to university. He remembers being at a loss at the first PEN party surrounded by what seemed to be almost all Oxbridge graduates. So when his story was accepted for PEN 2 he had a few bracers before he arrived.

So he has only a vague memory of being at the opening. Bill talked to Peter Parker and D J Taylor. He didn’t speak to the mysterious William New, or, if he did, he’s forgotten about it. He does recall meeting me a month or two later and again being painfully conscious of his own literary ignorance.

Bill recalls being paid £100 for each story but having a hard job convincing his bank manager that Thomas McCarthy was a pseudonym of his. Fortunately, he was able to produce a copy of a book of short stories by Thomas McCarthy that included a picture of the author alongside the blurb on the back of the book.


Later, when Bill became involved with Writers in Peterborough he met David Taylor when he came along to give a talk. David was working as a speechwriter for someone in the city back then. Bill did run into David a couple more times when he moved back to Norwich, which is not that far from Peterborough.
Bill promises more literary talk when he sends me his piece, which he has now started. And he promises to send me a copy of his novel, The Coast of Death, and his book of short stories, Finals Day, as soon as he can. Over to me:

Hi Bill,

I was often half-cut when I went to social events in my 20s. Come to think of it, in my 30s, 40s and 50s as well. I seem to have made progress with this in the last year thanks to a month with very little alcohol. Not the slightest dullness today or yesterday or the day before yesterday...

Education is a funny thing. Yes, I went to Cambridge, where I read Geography. But my early teenage reading was unguided (lots of Alastair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Dick Francis, etc). I chanced upon John Steinbeck because my grandfather subscribed to a set of Heron Books (who also published Alastair MacLean and Nevil Shute in ludicrously splendid gold-tooled, hardcovers). From Steinbeck I gradually moved on to other more serious novelists, though my favourite was probably Evelyn Waugh, and some would say he wasn't a serious novelist.

Ah, but it should be you who's telling me about your history. I look forward to reading your piece. And of course to receiving your books: I have a fine PEN reading pile and am delighted that two books of yours will be added to it. 

Best wishes for 2016, Duncan


Bill’s books arrive. The book of short stories looks enticing but it’s The Coast of Death I take with me to the hospital in Perth when I next visit my father.

I’ve been in with Dad for half an hour before I make the suggestion that I read aloud from Bill’s book. Dad is OK with this. He is OK with most things, though the stroke he had two months ago means that he hasn’t been able to swallow safely since. He’s been getting his nutrition via a tube that passes up his nose and down his throat. But that’s not a viable option for feeding outside a hospital environment, and my father
does want to get home. So he’s had a stomach peg inserted and for the last few days has been getting his nutrition directly into his belly. The new regime seems to be working. No complaints from Dad, anyway.

“OK Dad?”

“Fire away.”

‘His head aches and his mouth is dry. It is some while since he has been even slightly hung-over and he doesn’t like the feeling; it takes him so much longer to get over it these days. And that sense of dread that always accompanies a hangover is reinforced by the job ahead of him.’

I look up from the book. Dad is lying on his back with his eyes shut. He will never again experience a hangover.

“OK Dad?”


“Will I carry on?”

He nods.

I carry on reading to the end of the chapter, by which time the character has collapsed and died of what looks to have been a heart attack. I’m guessing that Dad will have been able to identify with the relatively elderly male character. But he rather surprises me by saying he prefers the other book that we’ve been reading together. And he requests that when I come back tomorrow I bring it with me as well as the


He’s talking about Gathering the Water by Robert Edric. So of course that’s what I’ll bring with me tomorrow evening along with the paper. Perhaps with Dad being all too aware of his own physical frailty at the moment, he’s not particularly keen on hearing about someone else’s. Anyway, when I get home I happily plough on with Bill’s book alone.

The action takes place in Ireland and on the northern coast of Spain. A game of cat and mouse that is intelligent, relentless and brutal. Perhaps it’s just as well that Dad opted out of this novel. His own body has taken such a battering over the last while, what with multiple infections, a heart that is on its last legs, a catheter that has caused extreme discomfort and the stomach peg operation.

Finished, I am now in a position to write to Bill about his book, so why don’t I do that.

Dear Bill,

I have devoured
The Coast of Death over a weekend. I'm no longer used to reading thrillers, so perhaps that's partly why I found it particularly exciting. But as well as that, the main characters are very human presences. Does the book owe something to your reading of genre fiction? Does it owe something to interviews with an individual or individuals who have had long term connections with Sinn Fein/IRA?

Although I found it compelling reading, I also found it depressing that adults might have to live their lives on this plane of existence. Having to be very careful what they do or say. Having to accept that certain people have all the power and are able to inflict devastating injuries on the people they have power over. It's a war mentality, and thank goodness I haven't been called upon to have such a mindset. However, it reminds me a bit of being at school when there was a distinct hierarchy amongst the males, and where violence and bravery were the exchange currencies. Luckily, those one-dimensional children tended to mature into better-balanced adults. 

You will know who was my least favourite character. I was left with the impression that he could have been single-handedly responsible for the continuation - post-Peace Agreement - of a climate of fear/mistrust/ bullying. Somebody had to put a bullet in his head. And if not one bullet, three. In most cases, violence breeds violence. Just occasionally, violence breeds serenity.


It's not fair to ask your own views - those are no doubt embedded in the book in a sophisticated way. But if you feel like responding to what I've said here, I look forward to reading it.

All best, Duncan

Bill replies the next day, thanking me for my positive comments re his book. He tells me that his research for the novel included a number of visits to Northern Ireland, which he managed to combine with seeing his family in Cork. He also read widely including an 800-page biography on the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Attached to his email is an essay titled: ‘Many are called, Few are Chosen’. Which I immediately open and read…

Bill came late to writing fiction. He gave up his early attempts to write plays, something that absorbed him from his late teens when he was involved with the local drama group in Mallow, his home town. In his mid-twenties, married with a small child and with his wife pregnant again, he stopped writing and destroyed everything on file. Mainly because he had run out of things to write about, and because he felt it was time to concentrate on his career in the tyre industry.

Said tyre industry absorbed his energies for ten years. But the itch to write came back and could not be ignored.

After the acceptance of both stories by PEN, Bill had a number of stories accepted by small magazines and the Irish Press. It seemed for a while that he only had to submit a story to have it accepted. That is, with the exception of the publication he really wanted to be in, the London Magazine. Everything he sent its editor, Alan Ross, came back with the laconic comment written in pencil, “We did not feel strongly about this”.


Soon it became more difficult for Bill to get his short stories accepted anywhere. By then he was involved with Writers in Peterborough. About this time too, he met a travel writer, Mike Gerrard, and the two became friends. Both were fans of García Marquéz, Vargas Llosa and José Saramago, amongst others. They regretted the lack of short stories and non-fiction available in translation in the UK, and started up a magazine to plug the gap. Passport lasted for nine issues and it was hard work keeping up dealing with all the submissions and the paucity of funding.

During this period Bill acquired an agent who liked his novel, Riding the Tiger. Eventually Blackstaff Press in Belfast made an offer for it. They wanted some minor changes made, and as Bill was considering this, his agent rang to say that Blackstaff had withdrawn their offer. The novel was set in the future in an Ireland controlled by the northern branch of the IRA. However, the signing of the Belfast Peace Agreement in real life scuppered the commercial prospects of such a scenario.

A second novel of Bill’s, A Fine Country, was accepted by Citroen Press. Alas, the firm went bankrupt soon after publication. In 2012, Serving House Books in the US accepted a third novel, The Coast of Death. It did not get reviewed, and sales were low. At present Bill is working on another novel, Black and Round With a Hole in the Middle.

Bill concludes his essay about his post-PEN writing life by recalling what the priests at his public school in Dublin used to say when they talked to their young charges about a possible vocation in the priesthood. ‘Many are called – few are chosen.’

So where have we got to? Here I think:

Hi Bill,

Let me ask you explicitly about 'mission'. The writers in PEN New Fiction 2 that I’ve communicated with so far just love writing for its own sake. Success in terms of publication and sales, where it happens, is just a bonus, albeit an important one.


That certainly applies to me. Nothing gives me more pleasure than the process of writing itself. What about you? When you began to write, did you envisage your writing having an impact on other people? Perhaps leading to a change in the way things are set up, or how people treat each other? You've told me in your essay that you wrote plays when a young man. What motivated you to write them? What were they about?

Once you came back to it after years of working in the tyre industry, did you see writing differently? Perhaps the person you imagined the writing having the most impact on would be yourself. You are from Ireland and much of your writing concerns aspects of life there. Ian Rankin has said that his Rebus books were a way of him getting to know Edinburgh
, and later, Scottishness. Was there a self-educating aspect to your efforts?

DJ Taylor has said that he once met Enoch Powell while travelling on a London tube and engaged him in conversation, not very successfully. At the end of their exchange, Powell asked for his interlocutor’s name and, on being told it, hissed: "Mr Taylor, I wish you
success." As you no doubt know, Enoch Powell was Westminster MP for South Down. I wonder what you might have said to him if you'd ever met on the tube. Do you think anything you've written could have improved the lot of his constituents? You may well do, in which case that probably leads back to the issue of not feeling well enough known, which is the fate of most writers.

Best wishes, Duncan

Alas, I do not think I am going to get a reply to this email. Indeed, I am going to have to come clean about something.

Some readers may have wondered why I paraphrase Bill Thompson’s essay rather than quote it. Ditto his earlier emails. Well, this is because Bill has withdrawn permission for me to use them.

This set-back has taken place months down the line. But it means that in November 2016, which is where I am just for the moment, I’ve had to go through the manuscript and strip out Bill’s actual emails and his essay. When I sent a second draft of the chapter to my fellow contributor, he didn’t like the tone of what I’d written (he didn’t say so about the first draft). Moreover, he told me that he’d assumed I’d just use his essay and not his emails. And he found the inclusion of other writers in the same chapter confusing.


All of which is fair enough: it’s his opinion. And it leads to an important perspective. It would have been unreasonable of me to expect to keep on board every writer I contact about a project like this. My presence in this book as narrator is unavoidable – I insist on being there - and not everyone is going to be comfortable with that.

So, dear reader, whenever the PEN-palling gets one-sided, you’ll know what’s happened. Even if I don’t overtly refer to breakdowns in communication again.

Although Bill Thompson has effectively asked me to withdraw this chapter altogether, I don’t feel I can do that. This is a book about
all the writers that contributed to PEN New Fiction 2, and I think it increases the value of the work if I present the whole picture, so far as I can establish it, as to what has happened to those writers.

And surely it adds further to the value of
PEN Pals if I tell an authentic story of what happens – both positive and negative – when in good faith I try to communicate with my fellow authors.


I think this is the place to outline my correspondence with another contributor. She welcomes me writing about her PEN experience if I give her anonymity, and I feel I can go along with that.

In her first email she tantalized me with this:

‘Writing in some form of another has always been part of my life - of course, off the record, I wish it had been a larger part.’

I replied:

‘I'm hoping to include correspondence from many of the contributors. Everyone writes well, and differently, so to include their actual words rather than to paraphrase them will give the book added variety of voice. Though I’ll have to paraphrase in the case of at least one contributor. Would you mind if I quoted your last email? I mean the bit that you ask to be off the record? Because, of course, that adds authenticity and accuracy to what I can say in my book. Nearly all the contributors would like to have published more, that almost goes without saying. On the other hand, if it's true, it really needs to be said!


Back to Anonymous of PEN New Fiction 2:

‘I resisted the temptation to write at length in reply to your first email about the PEN anthology. My story came out at about the time I had a short story published in another book of short stories. A Professor of English at Oxford University ripped it to shreds in a national paper, and that did the damage. I had no wish to moan about this to you. From this distance I blame my own lack of grit but the regrets are countless.’

I wrote back:

‘Devastating criticism comes with the territory. I remember an editor once enclosing a reader's report about me which said 'He can't write. Can be rejected without further ado.' That was before I'd had anything published so it was a blow to my morale. But I think I'd just decided that I enjoyed the writing process so much (and I'd hated my previous job to such an extent) that I was going to define myself as a writer no matter what anyone else thought. 

When the devastating critique thing happened were others able to provide support? Perhaps not, it can seem like a private hell. Although what does help when you have criticism from one source is to have balancing praise from another.

For sure, the negativity goes on. If you want a laugh, look up my
Looking For Enid book on Amazon and select the 1-star reviews of which there are plenty. Read them one after another and put yourself in my position. How do you feel? Laughing or crying - one of the two!

Looking For Enid was slaughtered in the Sunday Times by Lucy Mangan, who is a clever writer and used to have a funny column in the Saturday Guardian magazine. But she wrote that review like a barrister who has a job to do - lawyer for the persecution. So forget anything that could have been said in my book's defense, just go for the jugular with a machete: chop, chop, chop, chop, chop. I'll never forgive her for that. But what am I saying? I have forgiven her! It helped that there was a very positive review in the Independent. It helped that I think my take on Blyton is original, funny and humane.


In fact I’d forgiven Lucy Mangan by the time I’d got to the end of the letter I wrote to her editor, which began in restrained fury and finished:

Noddy: “Oh, Big Ears, she doesn’t like my book.”
Big-Ears: “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. You know that.”
Noddy: “Oh, but she doesn’t like my book ONE BIT.”
Big-Ears: “I like your book, Noddy, and I’m very nearly as clever as Isaac Newton. But what really matters is what YOU feel about your own book.”
Noddy: “I love it.”
Big-Ears: “Every word?”
Noddy: “Oh, not EVERY word. But especially the word ENID.”

I was hoping that Anonymous might feel a bit better about her own experience if she read about someone else’s humiliation. Perhaps she did. In any case, she wrote back:

I never mentioned the press hatcheting to anyone, and no one referred to it at the time - though it was unmissable. I don't think I even told my husband - he may have been away at the time. I slunk around feeling like a criminal for weeks afterwards. I'm glad you had lots of things on the go and were able to weather the battering you got over Enid (which I think I may have read and been intrigued by).

It wasn't a complete end to writing for me - I had happy years as a journalist much later.

I'm afraid I do not want to be mentioned by name. I hope you understand.

Of course, I understand. I just hope Anonymous understands that she’s still very much part of the Class of 87. Her testimony has been invaluable. She is a true PEN PAL.



When I was first looking at Ian Rankin’s website, I ticked the box asking to be kept up to date with a newsletter. So I’ve already received a round robin email from ‘Ian Rankin’. However, what’s come into my Inbox today is the real thing. Which is a fillip. I think what Rankin has to say will be of great interest in the context of ‘Many are Called, Few are Chosen’.

Thank you for your long e-mail. So filled with questions.

To include so many questions to the busiest of all PEN2 contributors was obviously a mistake. The few are called many, many times by the many.

I'm probably going to keep my reply disappointingly brief. I'm up to my eyes prior to an American tour. And when I get home I need to start work on a new book - so apologies.

American tour! There is no way that this email is going to be a disappointment.

That story in the anthology, The Wall, was written at a time when I wasn't sure what sort of writer I wanted to be. Probably not a crime writer. My first book The Flood, published in 1986, was literary fiction. Allan Massie was a big influence. He was writer in residence at Edinburgh University while I was doing my Muriel Spark PhD. He was judge for The Scotsman short story prize. I came runner up in 1983, I think. Allan also took a story of mine for New Edinburgh Review, a magazine he edited at the time. Maybe it was a natural progression that he would ask me to contribute to New Fiction.

Ah, so Ian Rankin was asked to contribute a story. I didn’t know that. Not that it would have been a formal commission, given what Ian’s already told me about not getting paid. Allan Massie would simply have alerted his star ex-pupil to the fact that he was editing a book of short stories and that it might be a good idea for Ian to submit something.

I think that's fair enough. If I was editing a book of short stories and I knew a great story writer in the making, I would ensure they knew about the opportunity.


The story itself I don't remember at all. Ideas were coming at me from all (and sometimes very odd) angles back then. Language and communication was the theme, yes. And I was trying to be postmodernist by inserting myself into the story.

What Ian’s saying is that the character ‘Ian Rankin’ had evolved into the less self-conscious ‘Rebus’ in the next story he would come to write.

I don't remember the launch party. I was living in London. I think I do remember some unpleasantness (?) about contributors not being paid. But maybe that was another anthology...

I finished writing Knots and Crosses in 1985, but it was intended as a one-off and by 1986 I was probably writing my attempt at a Le Carré/Greene spy novel, Watchman. After which came another highly unsuccessful thriller (Westwind).

This implies that Knots and Crosses featuring Rebus was written before ‘The Wall’ featuring Ian Rankin. Unless that is, the short story had been written even earlier and then submitted when Allan Massie asked for a short story…

In either case, the character ‘Rebus’, which became key to Rankin’s success, came and went to begin with.
Knots and Crosses was a Rebus book, and as I’ve just been told, the following two novels weren’t.

As to what made me a bestseller. Luck, attitude, persistence, learning from mistakes, honing the craft, a bit more luck and more persistence, word of mouth and winning the Gold Dagger eventually. TV appearances and adaptations of the books made no difference, I don't think. I was well established by then. The fact I called myself Ian J Rankin tells me I still had literary pretentions when I wrote the story. That middle initial soon vanished from view...

Cheers, Ian Rankin

It was the Rebus novel, Black and Blue, which won the Gold Dagger. That was the eighth book into the series, published in 1998, ten years post-PEN. According to Rankin, this book took both the writing intensity and the sales onto another level. About a year later, a royalty statement came in to the Rankin household showing earnings of six figures. Rankin and his wife couldn’t quite believe it, but his agent confirmed the figure and so the penny dropped – the Rebus novels had just become popular.


Perhaps I should pass Rankin’s perspective about what made him a bestseller onto a few more of the PEN contributors. Luck is mentioned twice. So is persistence. And if ‘attitude’ can be translated as ‘learning from mistakes’, that is mentioned twice also. Not forgetting to hone the craft and set aside literary pretensions.

But to be honest I think someone like Bill Thompson has got many of these qualities, he just hasn’t had the luck that Ian Rankin has enjoyed. It was bad luck for Thompson when real politics put paid to his first publishing deal. It was bad luck when the publisher of his second novel went bust. Was it bad luck again when the third novel didn’t get publicised? Well, no, books published by small publishers don’t usually get much promotion.

Actually, I can’t really say how Bill Thompson would be judged by such criteria as ‘honing the craft’ and ‘learning from mistakes’. For that I would have to sit down and read
Riding the Tiger, A Fine Country and The Coast of Death, noting the development in the writing, its strengths and sticking points. Which I’m not about to do, especially as things stand. Let’s hope for his sake that Black and Round with a Hole in the Middle takes into account everything that Bill Thompson has ever written. More than that - everything that has ever happened to him. Let’s hope for his sake it’s his Black and Blue.

And I should make clear that I think Ian Rankin’s attitude has been exemplary. Rankin mentions, as Thompson does, the importance of being in touch with other writers on various levels. Allan Massie and Muriel Spark may have been to Ian Rankin what Mike Gerrard and José Saramago have been to Bill Thompson.

Ian Rankin’s deserved any luck that's come his way. It’s just too bad that, as Bill Thompson says, many feel they have been called to the writing vocation, but only a few are actually needed for the blooming thing.


Let’s put some figures on that. Say 1 in a 100 people feel inspired to write a book in any given year, which I think is plausible. With a population of 60 million, that would result in 600.000 books being made available annually. And how many books do we actually need as a society? Quite a few specialist titles and a smaller number of general interest: say 6000 in all. That means that 99 out of 100 books that might be written each year are redundant. Many are called, all right. Few should pay any heed to that call.

Right, I shall get off to the hospital to inform Dad that the much-in-demand Mr Rankin has most generously replied to my email, thus increasing the chances of my own book being noticed when it eventually comes out. Though I can guess what the realist inside my father will say: ‘Many are called, Dunc. Few get the nod.’


Many are called, few are chosen. The distinction being in the number of rejections that the former face. Rejection by publishers. And if not from them, then rejection by reviewers. And if not from them, then rejection by readers.

Time I tried to pull something together. Going with Bill Thompson’s analysis, how many of the PEN PALS I’ve studied so far are chosen?

A reasonable percentage actually. I suspect it would only be a tiny fraction if the pool in question were the 500 writers who submitted work for consideration by the editor of
PEN New Fiction 2. But my study is of the 32 that were already chosen by him.

Of the nine so far studied, who has been chosen and who not, given that the definition of chosen in this context is ‘chosen by society’? In other words, who has been rewarded with a readership, a reputation and an income?

Ian Rankin. He who for many years lived on the same street in Edinburgh as J.K. Rowling and Alexander McCall Smith.


Frances Fyfield, who has been able to buy herself a home on the south coast and a flat in the centre of London with her earnings.

D. J. Taylor, who, through incessant industry, has been able to earn enough money to raise a family of three in his home city of Norwich.

So of the nine writers I’ve looked at so far, those three are the chosen ones. And the six surplus to society’s requirements?

C.A.R. Hills, obviously, lying in a cell in H.M.P Brixton. Notwithstanding that his lifetime’s earnings from writing amounts to £100,000.

William New, just as obviously, though God knows where he lies in a neglected heap.

Anonymous, who stopped writing fiction after seeing her work being demolished in print all those years ago.

Suzi Robinson who has self-published one book in thirty years and has had to support herself through a job in advertising.

Wendy Brandmark who, I'm fairly sure, has sold just a few copies of each of her three books to date and has relied on teaching for an income.

Bill Thompson, though I know from his most recent email that he disagrees with my assessment that he was called but not chosen.

The chosen and the ignored. Is that really the way to present the situation? Well it is one way, but it’s destined to be superseded.

But before I go on with my work, I have to admit that Bill Thompson’s rejection is niggling away at the back of my mind. I remember my own analysis of such rejection scenarios. That it helps to have balancing praise. Accordingly I look up the email I received from Anonymous after she’d read the same draft chapter that Thompson has read. Perhaps it will bring consolation. It says:


Dear Duncan,

Lovely to hear from you. Perfectly happy with everything you wrote about our correspondence - thank you. And delighted to be considered a 'Pen pal'.

All the best with the book. Do let me know when it comes out.

PEN - Version 12

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