Author Notes for An Other Place
I had the idea for An Other Place on 8th February 1998. I began writing the first draft on 27th April 1998. I did my final edit of it more than 18 years later, and it eventually went on sale on 1st December 2016.
This is my diary entry from the 8th of February 1998:
"Had an idea for a new - VERY strange - book, provisionally called "The Land Of Dallas, Texas." There's a lot of it I have yet to work out, but it's an exciting and unusual project, a challenge the type of which I haven't met before. I got the idea for it while watching "Solaris"..."
Solaris is a Russian sci-fi movie that was remade in the USA years later. I'd forgotten that it provided the spark for An Other Place, and to be honest, I can't quite remember how it happened, except that it's a slow-moving movie that affords viewers plenty of time for introspection, and I guess a few of the ideas for the book started to sprout in my brain while I was filling in that time.
The dreadful working title didn't last very long -- by the end of February I was already referring to the book as An Other Place. I always tell budding writers not to worry too much about details like a novel's title or the opening line. You'll have plenty of time to fix those as work on the novel trickles on. The most important thing is to grab your central ideas and start writing. Get the bones of your story down on paper -- then you can fiddle with it and re-shape it as many times and in as many ways as you wish.
1998 saw me firing like a shooting star on the writing front. Regardless of the quality of whatever I was writing (I like to think that most of it was pretty good, but that's of course a subjective view), I was writing a LOT. By the time I started An Other Place on April 27th, I had written a couple of hundred pages of Midsummer's Bottom to finish it off, written three complete novels (including the first draft of Tunnels Of Blood), and edited a couple as well -- all since the start of January of that year. Ideas were flowing, I was writing fast, and I was taking on every sort of story imaginable, a mix of books for adults and children, and which covered all kinds of different genres. I hadn't published a book yet. There were no market expectations of me. I was free to experiment and try anything I liked. I had no money -- I was living with my parents, and getting £25 per week on unemployment benefits -- but I'd sold Ayuamarca (my first published novel, which would come out in 1999) and was in the process of selling Cirque Du Freak, so I had hope for the future, and creatively it was a glorious, unbelievably productive time.
An Other Place was maybe the apotheosis of my creative freedom. I'd done some weird, ambitious books before, and I'd do some strange, even more ambitious books after, but probably nothing quite this surreal, cerebral and utterly uncommercial. I didn't think there was an audience for this kind of story, but I didn't care. It intrigued me, and I wanted to see where it would lead, so I sat down and wrote it.
The first draft was something of a slog -- I didn't use quotation marks in the original draft, and there was a lot of descriptive passages and little action -- but on the 8th of May I noted in my diary: "I'm enjoying this more than I thought I would. It can be tough going at times, but there's a tongue-in-cheek flavour I hadn't anticipated that helps, and it's flowing quite nicely by and large."
I finished the first draft on the 4th of June 1998, just five weeks or so after I commenced work on it -- like I said already, I was a shooting star back in those days! But it then sat idle for jut over 18 years, until I began a second draft on the 20th of June 2016. I edited it three more times in quick succession after that, releasing it under the Darren Dash banner before the end of 2016.
Why the long break? Well, as I've explained in notes for my other adult books, my YA career took off big time, and with a crazy release rate (which was always of my choosing -- sometimes I had to pretty much force my publishers to release my books as swiftly as I wanted them to) and a massive amount of related touring, I had to prioritise, and my adult novels took a back seat for a while.
But I was also very unsure of what sort of a reception An Other Place might meet with. I never showed it to my agent, and over the years I'd chuckle to myself whenever I contemplated returning to the book and taking it to a publisher -- "Nobody in their right mind is ever going to publish THAT!" I confidently predicted to myself. (To my surprise, when I did finally publish, the book met with rave reviews, and has attracted a growing cult following.)
Then the ground shifted. By self-publishing my adult books under a different name, I put myself in a position where I didn't have to worry about trying to win over a publisher. Absolute freedom was mine again, and although An Other Place was the third Darren Dash book that I published, it loomed heavy in my thoughts when I was first making the decision to go down the self-publishing route. One of the things that made up my mind for me when I was considering self-publishing The Evil And The Pure was the knowledge that, if I started releasing books myself, there would be nothing to stop me putting out An Other Place, and by that stage I was REALLY curious to see what sort of a reaction it would receive -- not just from the buying public, but from myself, as I hadn't even looked at it in almost a decade and a half.
To my surprise and pleasure, the novel was in pretty good shape, and I didn't have to do TOO much work to get it ready for publication. Some fine-tuning, adding a little bit more action, working on some of the more problematic scenes... and it was good to go.
The biggest change I made was the ending. In the first draft, Newman didn't become the Alchemist. He simply got swallowed up by the sky at the end, in a deliberately vague finale that would have left readers in even more confusion than the rewritten ending. But that didn't work for me when I revisited the novel. While it remained an experimental, elusive piece of fiction, I felt like I needed to leave readers with SOME kind of a concrete conclusion -- not answers to all the questions that the book throws up (this was always a story where the questions were more important than the answers), but something to give Newman's story at least a semblance to a traditional narrative arc.
Although, in the first draft, Newman wasn't actually called Newman -- his name back then was Nurt Riplan, the Nurt short for Nurture. (His parents were hippies.) That didn't feel right when I came back to it. While considering alternatives, the name of Newman from the Seinfeld TV show (which I'd only recently watched for the first time) popped into my head, and it felt right -- the pun of New Man tickled me -- so I went with it.
His wasn't the only name-change. His best friends in Amsterdam were Chas and Dave in the first draft (after a pair of famous Cockney musicians) -- I changed them to Hughie and Battles after a couple of friends of mine. Nurt's girlfriend was called Crayleen -- Newman's girlfriend became Cheryl, after another friend of mine. There were minor characters with names like Tyrus, Plaim and Yermi, all named to add to the tripiness of the story, but in retrospect I decided things would play better if I gave the cast more normal names, so pretty much all of those got changed.
As weird and surreal as An Other Place is, it's also in many ways one of my most personal novels -- indeed, it's largely a form of self-therapy. As I've already established, I was writing up a storm in 1998. Everything was rosy on the creative front. But creativity was almost ALL of my life at that time. I'd watch two of three films every single day, along with a few episodes of various TV shows. I'd do some reading. And I'd do an awful lot of writing and editing. And that was pretty much that. I had almost no social life. I felt alone and lonely. Part of that was financial -- I couldn't afford to go out drinking, or off on holidays -- but a larger part was simply ME.
I've always been a touch OCD, and in the mid-to-late 90s that side of my personality was in the ascendancy. I had very carefully defined routines, and I would follow them obsessively. I had a few friends, but they had to slot in around everything else -- if I was going on a rare night out, it had to be carefully planned. There was little spontaneity or social variety in my life. I was having a wonderful time as a writer -- but I wasn't overly happy, or really enjoying my life as a human being.
In many ways I wrote An Other Place to try and change the course of my life. For all its weirdness and unfathomable angles, it's a very reflective book. I challenged myself with it, held up a mirror and made myself stare into it long and hard. The reason there's no glass in the book? That's because I didn't want any barriers between Newman (Nurt) and the outside world -- I had cut myself off in many ways from the world beyond, and this was my way of removing some of those barriers in the hope that my real world would be influence by the world of the book. Newman makes his living as a teller of tales in the book, and while he does it very well, he still feels isolated from everyone around him, cut off, adrift in a place that makes no sense to him -- that was where I was in life too, and I was saying to myself that it wasn't enough to be an aloof story-teller, I needed to start engaging more with the world around me, otherwise I would end up as lost as Newman.
An Other Place is a book about madness and loneliness, and it was a very conscious attempt on my part to pull back from my own madness and loneliness, to try and force myself to become a bit more "normal" and balanced. I think it worked, or at least played a part in helping me push myself more into a world that has always felt somewhat alien to me. I'm better at friendships these days, at socializing, at being able to chat and interact with my fellow human beings -- I even have a wife and children, and so far I haven't eaten any of them!
In truth, I think I'll always be "passing for normal" at best, an outsider like Newman doing what he can to slot in with the strange (to him) beings around him with their rules and ways of living that are at odds with his own. But "passing for normal" can be enough. It's certainly, in my experience, better than isolation and loneliness, regardless of how creatively glorious that can be. Everyone's different, of course. Some people can no doubt embrace their more anti-social aspects and thoroughly thrive in their own little worlds, but I need an anchor to normality -- otherwise I fear the darkness of the universe would swallow me whole, as it did to Nurt at the end of the first draft of the book.
One final word, about the "self-pleasuring" scenes when a naked Newman roams the city giving life to a whole menagerie of creatures. To me it's the wildest, most crazily enjoyable part of the book. I had the idea for that element years earlier -- initially I was going to write a short story (or a short comic story to be illustrated) called "Z is for Onanism." I never got round to writing that, but the idea stuck with me, and I returned to it later in An Other Place.
As ludicrous and amusing as those scenes are, they were also an important part of my self-reflection. As someone who was finding relationships hard, confusing work, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about people rather than trying to connect with him, viewing women as objects for my fantasies, where I could easily control them and make them do as I wanted, the way I was learning to control words and make them do what I wanted. But I knew I was really doing that because of fear -- fear of intimacy, fear of opening up to other people, fear of being rejected. This part of the book was me telling myself it was time to stop being afraid, to start talking with people rather than just observing them, to take chances on messy, complicated human relationships, rather than play it safe and confine myself to worlds of my own imaginative making.
In short, those scenes were me giving myself a big kick up the bum and telling myself to put the fantasies on hold for a while and go out in search of a real-life girlfriend!