Unfinished Business is to the publishing industry what The Player is to the movie business: an entertaining novel about life, love and revenge by an industry insider.
‘Like Martin Amis at his funniest’ Amanda Craig
We are delighted to publish Unfinished Business by Conrad Williams, which explores the passions and travails of literary agent Mike de Vere, whose love of great literature and elegant women leads him to the brink of ruin.
Content in his role at a prestigious literary agency, Mike must defend his high standards against the young and conniving Colin, who values pound signs above all else. When his best client sacks him and his hopes of marriage are dashed, Mike begins to fall apart. Emotionally reeling, he seeks respite in the beautiful wilderness of the Black Mountains, only to discover that his old flame, Madelin, and her husband Vince, now live there too.
‘Williams writes with easy grace and an evocative turn of phrase…he is exceptionally perceptive’ Independent
Vince, an infamous yet overrated writer, is struggling to live up to his name, and Mike can’t help but get involved in both his writing and his flailing marriage. Drawn into the midst of their marital crisis, Mike’s humiliation is perfected as the superfluous middle man.
But when a top agent suggests a plot to restore his fortunes, Mike begins to come alive again. It looks like love and achievement might be his at last – if he is prepared to do the wrong thing, and do it ruthlessly.
‘Williams goes to the heart of the creative condition’ Sunday Telegraph
Conrad answered some questions on being an agent, an author, and writing about both in his fiction:
You’ve written a novel about a concert pianist, and now a literary agent. Your first book was about a documentary producer. Do you have a particular interest in working lives?
I’m interested in the existential predicament of a job. How it boxes you in, moulds you, tests your character. And I’m interested in how the individual reconciles his own values with the commercial world. What intrigues me about the literary agent is that he has one foot in the slipper of culture – all that we hold deep and meaningful – and the other in the boot of commerce. There are ironies in using your sensibility for a living, and there is edge to a line of work that puts what you love through the commodification process. Everybody with a job in the arts experiences this to some extent: how to balance passion with pragmatism? My character’s problem is that he is too wholehearted, and the market makes a fool of him. He tries to be ‘cynical’ but the novel is finally about characters breaking the bounds of irony, and nailing some kind of personal truth to the post. Except that you never quite can. Experience obliges a tolerance of ambiguity and irony.
The book is also about a novelist?
Though an agent myself, I look at the agent character through the eyes of a novelist. With the author character, I observe through the knowing eyes of an agent. Of course I know from inside what writers go through. They go through a lot of drizzle and bird shit, but nobody ever feels sorry for them. Only the author can pity himself, and my agent character is on hand to watch this close up – with Schadenfreude. Readers obviously have a respectful view of novelists. Their work is important to us. But there remains the issue of the author as person, and sometimes the noble bard is a bit of a shit, arrogant but insecure, sensitive but selfish – more in love with his last sentence than anything else in the world. When you bring this cocktail of foibles toe to toe with the agent, who has the tools and engine grease to manoeuvre a writer’s talent around the booby trap of his ego, the interaction can get interesting. The combination of ambivalence and dependency between these two opens out a rich seam.
The Black Mountains are a great feature of this novel. Landscape seems a big element in your fiction: the Amalfi Coast in Sex & Genius, Herefordshire in The Concert Pianist.
I adore trees and landscape and wish I had been a painter, but have no talent in that direction. The Black Mountains are my promised land and I love them to death. They are the perfect antidote to the urban round and it was always part of the plan to juxtapose the stewing crises of my characters with this soaring landscape. It’s one of my rules to balance the more critical impulses with strong positives. The picture is truer if you can combine what you love with what you are writing against. Landscape is a kind of analogue or symbol for joy, elation, love, wonder, freedom, etc. My central trio of characters have a strong relationship with it.
You do some interesting things with first person narration and the use of tense.
Mike’s first person narrative slips into third person here and there. Mike can tell himself in the first person, in his own voice, up to a point. But there are times when he doesn’t have the words, episodes of intense feeling, and then it switches to third person. The problem with first person narration is monotony. A person’s tone of voice captures all kinds of character traits. But there is more to people than their tone. Any writer knows the gulf between how we come across socially and what distils under the pen in solitude. My switches pick up this discrepancy, and I think the result is a richer picture. Regarding the tense shifts, the reader experiences the historic present and the perfect tense in a narrative as almost akin, but they write differently, and the difference is expressive.
Do you like being a film TV agent and an author?
The years lost to the more routine aspects of the job are painful to contemplate. But I’m temperamentally suited to the cut and thrust, the skip and swashbuckle of agenting. I love doing deals, sending in chunky invoices and having long ‘creative’ lunches with my clients. Agenting has brought me into the world and grounded me. One doesn’t want to be too grounded, of course. Commonality is a dangerous thing for a writer. The mainstream will subsume you if you are not careful. I’m lucky in having colleagues who support my writing and clients who appreciate having a kindred spirit on their case. I’m not a book agent, of course. That would have been more difficult.
Read more at: www.conradwilliams.co.uk