Initially I approached this task of pimping Jim Webster’s story ‘A Bad Penny’ with considerable enthusiasm. After all how difficult could it be?
But I soon realised that even though I was resolute and unwavering I needed inspiration. Who should I look to?
Now it transpires that some years ago Halan Gran, the greatest literary mind of his day, had written on this very topic. He had apparently analysed the whole issue and had put his thoughts down for the benefit of future generations. And so I immediately sought out his book.
I went without delay to a second hand bookshop maintained by one Alen Gaetz. On entering the shop I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer number of books that were jammed into far more shelving that could be sensibly fitted into the space available. There were shelves packed with books, with piles of books balanced precariously on top of the highest shelf. There were other shelves that rested on crates which were, in turn, filled with books. There were books on the tables, there were books stacked under the tables, and there were even books stacked on the chairs around the tables.
Rather than root aimlessly through this wealth of literature I asked Alen if he had a copy of Gran’s book, pithily called, “Everything a successful writer like myself can tell you about writing and selling lots of books and becoming unfeasibly rich.”
He gestured to a far corner. “You’ll find it in that alcove.”
I headed for the alcove which was perhaps the least frequented part of the shop. I had to blow dust off the spines before I could read them. Slowly I made my way across the shelves. This was obviously the area dedicated to those who wrote about promoting their books. I began to feel that I might be in luck.
Twenty minutes later I realised I had found a wall of books with titles that might be loosely paraphrased as ‘Buy me and grow rich.’ I pulled each book from the shelf, flicked through it and compared it with the others I had previously examined. Hours passed.
Finally I came to the conclusion that the works could be divided into ‘trite’, derivative, or merely honest. One author seemed to have an instinctive feel for his fellow scribblers. He started his work, “Ignore the rest, they’ve just copied each other. Buy my book because I’ve copied the most useful bits from them all!”
Another fact that slowly dawned on me as I went through the books was just who had owned these books. I first noticed that name on the book plate in one book was the same as was written on the spine on another. This intrigued me and I checked further, and discovered we had a community of writers writing books about how to sell books that were bought largely by other people who were interested in writing books about selling books. But strangely, when I saw the names of the authors, I could never call to mind anything else they had written.
In my searching I did find Gran’s book. His was different, he had written other stuff. Still his book was largely indistinguishable from the others, although the binding was probably better. I flicked through it but to put it bluntly, by that point I had realised that I was wasting my time.
I meticulously put the books back onto their shelves, dusted myself off and walked back to the desk. Alen Gaetz was sitting totting up a column of figures in a ledger. He looked up as I approached. “Did you find a copy?”
I didn’t need to reply; he could read the answer on my face. He put his ledger down.
“After a period of time trying to sell his book Gran wrote a second edition. I’ve got one of the few copies left.”
There was something in his tone that attracted my attention. “I never saw it on the shelves.”
He just smiled mysteriously. “It’s not for sale, but you can have a look at it if you want.”
In all candour I just wanted to go home, but I felt it would be silly not to look at one more book. “Yes if I can.”
He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a slim volume which he passed to me. It was beautifully bound; the marbling on the boards was exquisite. On the front cover, in gold leaf were the words, ‘“Everything a successful writer like myself can tell you about writing and selling lots of books and becoming unfeasibly rich. The second edition.’
I opened it and the first page was blank. I turned the pages, faster and faster, but all were blank. I looked at Alen Gaetz who sat smiling at my discomfiture.
“Yes Tallis, it’s blank. The day it was published Gran walked out of his house with just the clothes on his back and headed east into the Aphices Mountains. He was seen by one shepherd passing through the high pastures, whilst another claimed to have seen him on a peak, staring forever eastward. Needless to say nobody has heard or seen anything of him from that day.”
Needless to say I am not despondent. I will make a success of this project. Indeed so full of confidence am I that below I will reveal, for the first time, the front cover of the story, A Bad Penny.