The first draft of PEN PALS was written by the end of September 2016. Jeremy Beale, my editor at Harbour, then had the manuscript for a month, at the end of which he told me that he felt it was still a work in progress, and in particular that there was not enough about the various writers’ sense of mission.

Sense of mission?

It took me a while to get my head around this, but once I’d got there I set about contacting many of the writers again and rewriting the chapters in part one and two. I fed these back to Jeremy two or three at a time in an effort to keep him on board, and he seemed to be a lot happier through December of 2016 and January of 2017. He did feel I was getting bogged down in not entirely productive class speculations in Peter Parker’s chapter (JB himself comes from a public school background, if I remember correctly), but it did not strike me that this would be a sticking point.

I sent Jeremy the fully revised book in March 2017 and again had to wait a month for his verdict, which was:

‘I’m sorry Duncan, this still hasn’t come into focus for me, you’ve done such a lot of work, tracking, reading, researching and then writing but I still can’t make sense of the result. Of course the multiplicity of the voices isn’t going to add up to a clear account of the writing life, I understand it’s going to range around, but I’m frustrated, the book I imagined is there somewhere.’


Jeremy asked me what I wanted to do next, and said that in any case he would now pay me the advance of a thousand pounds, which was an honourable gesture as he’d no legal obligation to do so. I told him that I was feeling very good about life, having emerged from the six-months revision process, and that I didn’t want to re-submerge myself in what was in danger of becoming, for me, over-familiar material.

Besides, I’d been thinking through what I’d achieved. Parts one and two give an account of what has happened to each of the writers who contributed to
PEN New Fiction 2, using their own books and correspondence as source material and using the success of Ian Rankin and the troubles of C.A.R Hills as touchstones. Part three is an attempt to move to another and more personal level of engagement. What happens to writers? Well, one writer loses his freedom and another loses his father. I dare say major events happened in several of the other writers’ lives in 2016, but it was the thoughts and feelings of Charles and myself that I had fullest access to. A no-brainer then: I had to structure things so as to bring us together. I wrote to Charles about life in my father’s house post-Dad, and he replied from prison at length. By the climax of part three, Charles has got my name branded onto his neck as surely as I have his on mine. The reader can, I trust, see how the writers use each other's writing to help deal with their respective predicaments.

Charles was sent a copy of the March 2017 version of
PEN PALS at the same time as Jeremy. He’s since written me many emails about the work. His idea of the book’s relative strengths is spookily similar to mine. According to Charles, the book consists of jewel-like chapters and a few where a bit of buffing is still necessary so that the precious stones at the centre shine as brightly as they do elsewhere in the book. But he thinks, as a book about writers for writers, it is not going to appeal greatly to mainstream publishers whose bloodshot eyes are always on the bottom line.

Now that Jeremy has effectively turned down the book he commissioned, Charles thinks I should publish the book myself. He means publish it as a printed book, which is not what I really want to do. I already have a shed full of my previous books. Instead I have gone for the website option, and have had much pleasure working on the design. All those hanging men and women; all those neck-challenged writers: dangling, dancing, dreaming, deranging, or whatever it is they’re up (or down) to.


For now, the website is online for a limited period. My hope is that the writers that I’ve been in touch with in the course of composing
PEN PALS will now be able to see where the project has got to, and how their own writing personas and experience fit into the scheme of things. It’s high time this was done, as it’s now eighteen months since initial contact was made with most of them. Perhaps I’ll get the odd personal recommendation of a publisher or agent out of this process. (I still have faith that it's a book about writers for readers, and there is an infinite number of them.) Perhaps, I will be encouraged to conclude that this website is the form the book should take on a permanent basis. Perhaps I’ll get a rude awakening as some individual takes issue with something I’ve written, now he or she sees what I've done in the round.

If I go for the website option for the long term, I imagine I will return to this project at some stage. I may replace parts three and four of the site with a new ‘conclusion’. Or I may keep faith with parts one to four but add further parts, if a sufficiently engaging scenario crops up or is suggested to me.

A new way to write and publish a book? I don’t know about that. A way to ensure the process of writing (and reading) remains fresh and enjoyable, that’s the idea.

I thank you.

Duncan McLaren
June, 2017