The Story So Far
A photo of the three-legged greyhound that makes a cameo appearence in the novel.
It took a while before I eventually ended up with a novel I believed in
I would never have had either the stamina or focus to write a high-concept literary novel such as this if I'd not been broken in gently. The fictional religion, KUUism - which is both the book's backbone and its omnipresent catalyst - was around for several years before it found its natural - and it now seems inevitable - place as the stoned ramblings of a fading rock star desperate for a slice of some real adulation.
Originally KUUism was conceived of as part joke and part elaborate piece of conceptual art. The idea was to create a viable semi-sensible alternative religion which would get most of its credibility from being the exact opposite of all that had gone before it. So therefore faith, dictatorial moral instruction, praying, and fear of death were out, and doubt, laughter, and entertaining the possibility were in.
The other key ingredient of KUUism is the idea that remarkable coincidences are cosmic nudges from the Knowing Unknowable Uiniverse (The KUU). I've always been plagued by more than my fair share of unlikely coincidences - for example, the three legged greyhound (photo above) chain of events you can read about here. We've all had those occasions when we've bumped into a friend in a foreign country and marvelled at the mind-bogglingly unlikeliness of the encounter. But because we belong to a culture which has hardwired us to seek a logical explanation for such things, we tend to just enjoy the frisson of excitement for a moment and then move swiftly on.
KUUism was an attempt to place such events in a psuedo-theological/scientific framework. Because such experiences are universal - and our susceptibility to being thrilled by them when they occur is not unusual - coincidences ended up at the core of my super-solipsistic non-faith. Such chains of coincidence got called KUU-incidences and my hypothetical KUUists in the novel were encouraged to believe that these 'events' were Cosmic Nudges from The Knowing Unknowable Universe designed to amuse and amaze while simultaneously hinting at the existence of a world beyond everyday reality.
The scientific explanation for coincidences is that they are inevitable and banal - only gaining apparent significance through our subjective experience of them. So the main challenge in the novel was to come up with arguments that contradicted such a blinkered, killjoy perspective. Do I believe in all these arguments? No, but I do entertain the possibility.
First Novel Blues
I had no expectations that The KUU Hypothesis would find a publisher, so once I'd had some fun making semi-converts of friends and acquaintances, I put it aside. Then in 2007, the illustrator David Severn emailed to ask if I'd like to write a story for serialisation in The Asari Weekly - an English language newspaper he worked for in Tokyo. I hadn't attempted to write fiction since I was at school, but I need the money, so I agreed to have a go.
Part of the brief was to write it in the kind of plain English a twelve-year-old would understand (it was for English-speaking Japanese readers of various levels.) So I opted for a straight-forward murder mystery set in London during the 1970s. I peopled my story with a bunch of predictable two-dimensional archetypes: an arrogant rock star and his jealous wife, greedy manager, drug dealer, keyboard player wanting a bigger slice of the cake, and of course an obsessed fan.
Two of the 25 illustrations done by David Severn for the Asari Weekly story
But then my two-dimensional characters wouldn't leave me alone...
I'd enjoyed my time with them. I'd not had as much fun since I used to write music. So once I came up with the idea of giving my rock star, Zachary B, my bespoke religion, I became almost too excited to write. But six months later I had a novel of sorts. But was it the kind of novel I would be interested in reading myself? I called this novel Zachary B. and after a half-hearted attempt to find an agent or publisher for it, I metaphorically tucked it away in a drawer. The answer I had to admit was an emphatic no. I disliked rock novels intensely and yet I'd just written one. How did that happen?
Then I read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and it reminded me of how the novel could be both experimental and accessible. So I scrapped half of Zachary B and set about trying to imagine a parallel present day in which Zachary's KUUism was an established fact of 21st- century life.
One story strand would still be a murder mystery set in 1970s London. But the other would deal with the repercussions of Zachary B's murder and the alternative religion he left behind. My only guiding principle would be to make the novel as credible as I could despite some of its larger-than-life elements and archyptypal characters. I agree with Milan Kundera in regards to the curse of verisimilitude that has reduced the concerns of most contemporary novelists to the microscopically domestic. So I wanted to paint in broader strokes with higher ambitions. I didn't see the point in spending years on a project just to end up with something not dissimilar from tens of thousands of novels that had already been written. I also wanted to write the kind of novel that could only be fully appreciated on a second reading; once the reader knows how things pan out.
The Next Step
One I'd written a first draft, I had twenty copies printed at Lulu.com with the aim of getting some feedback to see if there were ways of improving it. But rather than ask family or friends (a pat on the back is no use to anyone) I approach other writers, critics - in fact anyone who even showed a glimmer of interest in the book - to give me their brutally honest opinions. The first cover I designed for the novel (see below) actually features a reproduction of the Ethiopian altarpiece painting that I make Zachary Bekele the owner of (with one slight alteration you may be able to spot).
To my relief and surprise most of the feedback was unreservedly positive. But I pressed people for any reservations they had, and was told by a few that the alternative religion sections were too long. One writer I particulary respected informed me I had "adjective-itus" while another informed me of my weakness for compound sentences. It was time to swallow my pride and get pruning. The first draft of Etc Etc Amen was over 150,000 words long. Two years and several drafts later - following the self-imposed rule that I could subtract but never add - the final published novel has a lean, mean 110,000 words.
After a year of ploughing through The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, and failing to get anything but form-letter replies largely on the strength of a synopsis alone, I decided to publish the novel myself in order to try to raise its profile. In relation to Etc Etc Amen, a friend of mine recently said, "I have faith in word of mouth." To which I replied, "I'd like to join you in your faith, but for the moment I can only be at best an agnostic optimist." So if you buy it and enjoy it please do spread the word.