So, What’s It About? Describing Empires …

The blurb says it’s about a lot:

Alaska, 2018, and Mike is a long way from home, nursing a wrecked knee and an unspoken grief, striking out into real estate and parenting his partner’s son. London, 1978, and Simon is an Australian fish out of water navigating adolescence during the Winter of Discontent, and drawn to an eccentric impresario next door. Washington, DC, 1928, and a retired US senator is interviewed about his time in Russia in 1916, and his mission to save a young heir to an empire. Vienna, 1809, and an Irish teenager on the run from the law takes refuge among composers as Napoleon besieges and shells the city. Hong Kong, 2019, and estranged brothers Mike and Simon reunite in midlife to face the secrets of the past, and reconnect in more ways than one.

Empires rise and fall, human lives play out, encounters, collisions and connections occur more than we can ever know – and yet, the unexpected can still happen.

Endlessly compelling and inventive, Empires is a masterful novel in five parts with boys and men at its heart. Spanning centuries and crossing continents, it explores the empires we build, the way we see ourselves, the narratives we construct and the interconnectedness of all things. This is Nick Earls at his finest.

So, it is about quite a lot, but no novel starts there, with all those pieces already in place.

It’s about as ambitious as I’ve ever been, and that’s given me a book that’s harder to elevator pitch than any of my previous 27. Here’s what I’ve got. It’s not a full elevator pitch, but perhaps the start of one: ‘While empires and empire builders often grab the headlines, it’s human stories that count. That count and add up.’

With my Wisdom Tree novellas, I planned each of the five individually then, at the start of writing, it was my PhD supervisors and publisher who suggested I think about links. Once I realised I could do that without it sucking – with it actually adding something – I went for it. And it occurred to me that those connections aren’t just authorial sleight-of-hand – they’re part of life. They really happen.

So with Empires, I’ve taken it further. I’ve found some moments and some people I really wanted to write about, but this time there’s an overarching story. There are reasons for it being told in pieces, and reasons for those pieces being part of a whole.

I planned each part and I planned the whole and then, when it came time to write, I put myself in the necessary moment and wrote only the piece I was in. Saw only that, heard only that voice. Then, when I was all done, I reviewed it as a whole, and did whatever was needed to make sure it was one. I loved working in the contained world of each piece, with its new voice and a novella’s intensity and, once I had my five pieces, it felt good to step back and see the whole thing and continue to shape it.

So, it’s not just about empires and empire builders, and I’ve taken deliberate action to make each human story count. It’s humans in strange/difficult/interesting times, finding each other and finding a way through. And it’s about actions connecting and having consequences.

Are we there yet? Have I said what it’s about, wrapped it up neatly and succinctly? I don’t think I have.

It’s about two brothers from Brisbane who have gone their separate ways …

It’s about two figurines …

It’s about life on a small planet …

It’s about decency still being something worth writing about, when we so often don’t …

What something’s about isn’t always the easiest thing to define. Some of the books I’ve loved defy elevator pitching, and early on in the process of planning Empires I realised I might be writing one that did just that.

It’s about all of the above – all those people and things and places and times – and it aims to draw them together in a way that’s something as well as the sum of its multiple parts, and aims to be about the immersive experience that books should be.

In the end, what a book is about is the reader’s business as much as the writer’s, and on 3 August it’ll be published and make its move into readers’ territory. What a book is about for its author is one thing. What it’s about for any reader is another thing, the reader’s own thing. Each reader meets each book on their own terms. So, maybe I’ll leave it to anyone who chooses to read it to decide for themselves, and I’ll stop trying for an elevator pitch. Books weren’t designed for elevators anyway.

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