Welcome to Welcome to Normal

Should have posted this yesterday, but I’ve been tied up reading my new book so that I can remember what I did to write it. (One of many great tips from my publicist of the late 90s: read your book before you start the tour. Not much looks worse than an author who blanks out when asked a totally reasonable question about their own book.)

This is not a novel, and it didn’t start in the way novels tend to. It started with me attempting to pull off an act of supreme laziness, and failing.

But it started even before then. Years ago, when I moved from Penguin to Random House, I left a lot of books behind. Over time, as their retail presence faded, it made sense to both Penguin and me for them to no longer hit the reprint button and to give me the rights back. At that time, Random House was interested in picking them up. Then hello GFC and the perfect storm for Australian publishing (consumer belt-tightening, Amazon, ebooks and more – I’m not going to try to do justice to that topic today).

One of my ideas was to take a bunch of the short stories from my 1999 collection Headgames and add them to the stories I’d written for anthologies since then. That was the act of laziness, but I didn’t think it was an unreasonable one. I regularly get people asking about Headgames, and it would be good to put those stories out there, and in a new way.

Once The True Story of Butterfish was published in July 09, I started talking to Random House about where we might go next. I ended up proposing a deal made up of two unwritten novels (The Fix was the first), with the short story compilation in between. They came back saying yes to the novels and could we wait and see on the stories. I checked my birth certificate and, having not been born the day before, decided not to sign up for that. A ‘wait and see’ does not a contract make, and I wanted something solid. What they wanted – and I do get it – was to see if either of the novels could be some kind of hit or if something else might happen to make a book of old stories look vaguely commercially viable.

But I’d noticed something when I looked at the stories. Quite a few of them looked like a good fit with Headgames, but a couple that I liked the most looked like the start of something else. So I cut 18 of the 20 stories and kept just them. And then I got some kind of vision of the kind of book I might write with those two stories in it.

What I liked about them was the subtext. I had a story ticking along on the surface and it looked like normal life but, just like normal life, the real story was often below the surface and showing glimpses of itself from time to time. Those stories had a voice and sometimes they even had subtlety (not something I’ve always been known for, I admit).

At the same time, I got myself a much better broadband connection. I played around on Google Earth. I chased obscure factoids around the webiverse for my own amusement and called it ‘research’. And then I realised it was research. Suddenly I had this powerful tool I hadn’t had before, and I could send my characters down streets I’d never been on and see everything they would see (or might have seen, on the particular day when the Google car passed by). More often that not, I would take them from here, displace them to there and watch their real story take shape beneath the surface of whatever journey I’d sent them on. So, they end up going to Taipei or Spain in some stories, and in others they do no more than cross Brisbane.

But before I’d taken it quite that far, I went back to Random House. I think I had two more new stories then, and maybe 25,000 words or so in total. I told them that I now wanted to sell them two novels and a new book of shorter pieces, and here was 1/3 of it. They bought it. And I went off to find 2/3 of a book.

Along the way, amidst small ideas that I thought had the makings of something and a lot of time cruising around online, I started thinking about titles. I thought there was a town in the US called Normal – and there is – and I liked the sound of Welcome to Normal. I would be writing normal people in the best way I could and in a way I hoped would make their ‘normal’ something a reader would feel a need to watch.

For months ‘welcome to normal’ hung around on a scrap of paper. At one stage I made some notes about a honeymoon couple from Brisbane driving through the US in a convertible. I wondered what I’d find about them that could fit with and defy the title, and would be new ground and worth writing about. I had a character (two in fact) and a situation, which I believe Stephen King says is all you need. But my characters were sketchy and my situation wasn’t really a situation yet.

Then I happened to talk to Kate Miller-Heidke over email. She was touring the US with Ben Folds and they were playing at Indiana University Auditorium. When I saw the name in the email, I could picture the place. I realised I’d been there, in 1990, and I emailed her back and told her about it. I was there with a Brisbane show producer and we’d just put on a show at the world Lions’ convention in St Louis. Brisbane was to host the next one, in 1992, and we were part of the entertainment package aiming to lure US Lions to visit.

I can’t really remember the show we put on, but I can remember my time at a Qantas function taking my turn hunched up in the Qantas koala costume, looking down at a tiny patch of floor through gauze in the koala’s nostrils while a bunch of Ohio Lions patted me on the head and said, ‘Oh, cute, a little bear.’

After St Louis we had a meeting in Chicago, and that called for a roadtrip taking in several places and people of significance to the producer, including Bloomington Indiana, where he’d studied percussion.

I told Kate something of the trip, and she told me to write about it. But I’d already done my person-stuffed-into-creature story with World of Chickens, and I wasn’t sure how to make the producer fictional enough and still get the most out of the story.

Cue light bulb going on over my head. Here was Welcome to Normal. It wasn’t a honeymoon couple at all. Here was a young guy in 1990 on a US roadtrip with his boss. They’d be engineers, mining engineers. They’d be buying equipment. And Caterpillar turned out to be a short drive from Normal, Illinois. This was the couple I’d be sending past the Welcome to Normal sign on the way into town – one to reminisce and one to suffer through it while at the same time driving through a world he’s only seen in movies, and watching it turn out to be made up of things no bigger or grander than home. Watching normal play itself out in Normal.

As I tunnelled into the history of Normal and drove its streets on Google Earth, one of the first things I learned was that it’s part of a conurbation with a different Bloomington (like Springfields, there are plenty of them).

When the story was done, I emailed Kate and told her, and I mentioned that, oddly, another Bloomington had come into the frame. She emailed me back with something odder – a link to Ben Folds’ Effington, which is possibly the only song to namecheck Normal, Illinois.

So, I had my title story, I had the tone and feel and sense of direction I needed, and I had a selection of small ideas I was desperate to go to work on to make the rest of the book. I had an article on Reapers and Predators that I’d torn out of the paper, I had my parents’ trip to Spain and my Dad’s story of the Battle of Teba, I had an idea for a scientist grandfather who hovered on the edges of Big Science in the 50s and whose impact was being felt in the next two generations (though he wouldn’t even be in the country for the story).

I tracked their movements, I accumulated more than the necessary bits and pieces, I worked out what my stories would be and I wrote. Welcome to Normal is the book that came of it, and it’s been at large in Australia and NZ since yesterday. The title story will be out everywhere else as a stand-alone ebook this month, as will the other stories in time (some already are, eg, Grass valley, The Magnificent Amberson).

And that plan involving Headgames and more recent stories may yet become something. I haven’t filed that one away for good either. But, for now, I’ve got the new book that plan lead to and it’s hard to imagine that it might never have been written if times in publishing were easier and Random House had just said Yes to my lazy idea.

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17 Responses to Welcome to Welcome to Normal

  1. Kate says:

    Ooh I’m excited! Well done you for getting a book of shorts signed up in this silly old time where it’s hard to publish anything except volume-selling drivel (at least that’s what it felt like to me). I will have my copy very soon!

    I went to see Kate Miller-Heidke and Ben Folds play last year. I try not to miss Ben Folds when he’s in town. Maybe you and Ben Folds could get together on an album… after all, Nick Hornby’s done it 😉

    • nickearls says:

      Ah, yes, Hornby … think that emoticon’ll save you? Okay, your blog saves you. Maybe Nick Hornby and I should get together on an album? Except it’s possible that if we’re in the same room together it’ll trigger a black hole that sucks up the planet. I read that somewhere once, though I’m not sure of the physics to support it.

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  3. Nick, this is about Ways of Leaving, which still hasn’t got a price on it, so I can’t send anyone over there to buy. Any idea when it will be available in Aust’a?

    • nickearls says:

      Sorry, no clear idea at the moment, which means I’m guessing it won’t be this year. It’ll depend partly on whether or not I can reboot the collection idea as I’m hoping (around ten stories from Headgames plus six others) or end up pursuing ways to release the stories individually here.

      • Nick, I’ve managed to lose what you sent me, including your email address. Don’t ask me how! Would you mind resending again, and I’ll do the review this Sunday. My apologies.

  4. meganbtw says:

    You know, I only started reading your posts a little while ago – and confess – I’ve not read any of your books/novellas/shorts or any other variation. But I have taken small snippets from each of your posts. Lesson for today: you only need 1/3 of an idea to make it happen. The rest will come with research, inspiration, and (probably) a tight deadline to make sure it happens. Thanks 🙂

  5. Tony says:

    Well, I may have compared Earls and Hornby on more than one occasion, but I also namechecked a certain Japanese writer in the review I did of ‘Headgames’ – which might be a first 😉


  6. Congratulations Nick!
    I had been looking forward to attending last night’s book launch at Avid Reader, but a severe case of narcolepsy (or jet lag from a recent holiday) prevented me from attending – I did not want to be ‘that’ person in the audience, and given how much I have enjoyed all of your other titles being a sleep would not have been an accurate reflection of my opinion.
    I look forward to reading ‘Welcome to Normal’…

  7. Gary Montagu says:

    Hi Nick
    This is Gary from Spain your Dad sent me a copy of Welcome to Normal signed by you, many thanks, he came on our Andalucian tour. I’ve tried to email him a thank you but his email address must have changed, can you thank him from me and Great Stories.

    • nickearls says:

      Hi Gary – it’s great to hear from you. Thank you. I’ll pass that on to my father (and point out to him that he should probably have let you know his new email address …). I know my parents had a great time on your tour. Having google-earthed my way around quite a few of the sites I’m pretty jealous that they got to do the real thing, rather than just watch it on a computer screen. Still, I should be glad that it gave me the germ of an idea for a story. It’s one quite a few people have talked about already. I might include a link to your website if that’s all right, since I think a few people would be interested (with all the usual disclaimers about the story and characters being fiction etc …)

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