Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author by Paul Ewen

Francis Plug is a writer/gardener. The book follows his attempts to write a guide for aspiring writers, like himself, helping them to plan for the world of public appearances now expected of modern authors. As Billy Bragg says to him in a urinal at Hay, “These authors think they’re flaming rock stars, don’t they?” On his journey to the heady heights of authorial fame, Francis Plug drinks away his home and occupation. In order to fully research his future prize-winning book, he borrows the unread first editions of one of his gardening clients, a banker, takes them to readings and gets them signed to himself.

Each chapter starts with a copy of these signed books with genuine dedications to Francis Plug. The conversations and imagined conversations with the various different prize-winning authors are brilliantly envisaged. I think my favourite is his encounter with Ruth Rendell on the train to the Hay Festival. She actually tells him to Shoo.

I was lucky enough to be at a reading for this book. Paul Ewen read from the end, where Francis Plug has managed to sneak his way into the Booker prize ceremony of 2013. It was very funny. Though much of the book is funny, I know that I would enjoy listening to this novel and would recommend the BBC grab it for serialisation on Radio 4 because as with all good humour, there are serious messages running beneath the laughter with much of the sharp end pointing at the very crowds that sponsor and populate author appearances, awards and performances (and listen to BBC Radio 4). Francis Plug is brilliant at cutting through middle class pretension and pointing out the obvious. To give but two examples:

“As an author, V. S. Naipaul gives me hope. He says some really crazy things, and yet he’s still held up in esteem. Recently he pronounced his belief that no woman writer was his equal, not even Jane Austen. This, he thinks, is because of a woman’s ‘sentimentality’ and ‘narrow view of the world’. I sometimes say some mad things myself, in the pub. With any luck, I’ll be tolerated and laughed off too.” (p192-3)

“Despite the odd exception, the only way to live comfortably as a writer, it seems, is to be rich already.” (p229)

As I’ve already written, I’m not usually drawn to overtly comic books, but Paul Ewen is a master of the absurd. Even when writing alcohol-fuelled hallucinations of giant squids or ghostly fusions of the actual Ruth Rendell with the library scene in Ghostbusters, his prose has an understated elegance that never fails to amuse. If you like books and you like to laugh (even at yourself), you will enjoy How To Be A Public Author.

Next week I’m reading Mockstars by Christopher Russell.