Writer works the fineprint
Four years ago, Robert Glancy was an unpublished writer working in PR. He and his wife had had two children in quick succession and Glancy, then in his mid-30s, began to wonder if the window for him to publish a novel was inching shut.
"I did this competition where I gave away a computer game and I stole some terms and conditions [the fine print that propagates so many legal documents] because I couldn't afford a lawyer, and they were so funny," says Glancy, in a cafe near his Devonport, Auckland home. "Whoever had authored those terms and conditions had basically tried to trap every eventuality of life - ‘if you win the game and cut somebody's eye with it you can't litigate us', that sort of thing - and I thought, ‘this is gold'."
He was right. The book that arose from that idea, Terms & Conditions, led to him being signed by UK agent Mark Stanton, who subsequently brokered a two-book, six-figure deal with UK publishers Bloomsbury last year. Robert Glancy suddenly found his name mentioned in the same breathless breath as Eleanor Catton as examples of New Zealand writers barnstorming the international literary scene.
"I had stopped telling people that I was a writer years ago because I was embarrassed that I hadn't got anywhere with it," he says. "I hadn't sent anything out because I realised it wasn't up to snuff."
It was his wife, Jemma, who read an early draft and told him "this isn't bad". It was, he says, "the highest praise my wife has ever given anything, ever," and gave Glancy the confidence to test it out. He sent 10,000 words "at random" to three UK agents, including Stanton, who, days later, sent an email that said only: "I'M HOOKED. SEND THE REST."
Glancy replied, asking him if he was kidding. Stanton emailed back: "I can assure you, I'm completely serious" and now, less than a year since that email, the book is being published globally, including in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.
Bloomsbury's editorial director, Helen Garnons-Williams, describes it as "a story about freedom and about the things that really matter and how we can all too easily let them become footnotes to our lives".
Ah, the footnotes. The novel is, depending on your viewpoint, either artfully peppered or just plain riddled with them. Each page of the very short chapters (often only a page themselves) contains at least one, often several footnotes or terms and conditions. And, as in real life, the seminal parts of the novel are often buried in them.
"It's why I like the conceit of Terms & Conditions," says Glancy, "because at one level it's about punchline jokes with the footnotes but at another level it's about the inexorable rush in our life, and how we rarely have time. Frank has a moment in his life where he slows everything down to say ‘what is my relationship to you?"'
Frank is a lawyer who specialises in fine print, or terms and conditions, and the reason he finds himself with time on his hands is because he has amnesia, the result of a car crash. He discovers he's married to a career-driven woman he may just hate and has a boorish older brother, who is also his boss.
"He's an extreme example because of his amnesia, and he wakes up and he's like ‘oh my god, my wife's a bitch and I work for this awful man' but I think a lot of people have gotten to 30-something and woken up at their desks and thought ‘oh this is strange, how did this come about?"'
The amnesia is a clever device, and an original one, in that it lets Glancy build the characters gradually, because as he says, "no one knows Frank, including himself".
It also gave Glancy, in some of the book's most vivid passages, an opportunity to bestow upon Frank a particular type of amnesia, synesthesia. In layman's terms it's when your senses are mixed up, as in Frank's case: "I saw green and tasted fish, heard screaming and saw blue, smelt cheese and heard music."
It's a confusing and baffling state, says Glancy, "so when I knew he was going to wake up in this state, being a writer, I thought of one sentence: ‘That's just your brain trying to find pathways back to old memories'. I didn't want it to just be a blank sort of amnesia; I wanted all these doors to open as the book opened."
As Frank's memory returns, he is forced to decide what kind of life he wants to lead, coming to the gradual conclusion that the life he had before - and by default, the kind of person he was - is anathema to his values. Pared back, it's a novel about choosing happiness.
"I think happiness is absolutely worth striving for. I've spent way too much of my life being pessimistic. I lived in England for a while and it stained me," he says, only half-joking.
He's lived just about everywhere. Born in Zambia and raised in Malawi, Glancy is the son of a Scottish father and Irish mother who were aid workers for many years.
"My parents were dirt poor, they were volunteers, but it was Africa, so we went to school and finished at noon, we went to the lake, we swam . . . it wasn't dissimilar to a Kiwi lifestyle, and I was a really happy, sunny kid."
Then, when he was 15, Glancy and his family moved to Edinburgh and he found himself out of place as a day boarder at an all-boys' school. "I had to adapt very quickly, so I layered myself up with a bit of cynicism."
A degree in history at Cambridge followed, and then almost a decade in London before a relationship with a New Zealander whose visa had run out saw him wash up at her parent's bach on Onetangi beach, Waiheke Island.
It took Glancy less than a week to apply for citizenship. London towards the end had been a struggle, he says. "I was used to six-hour delays on the tube because someone had killed themselves. The first time I got on the ferry [from Waiheke] there was an announcement saying ‘It's Rebecca's birthday today, and she's 12!', and everybody clapped! I sent a text to a mate in London saying, ‘you're not going to believe what just happened . . . "'
The relationship (and Waiheke bach) didn't last, but living in Auckland allowed him to begin writing again. "I guess when I came here, I almost returned a little bit to what I had in Malawi as a boy. I realised I could be happy again."
When the book deal was signed, he knew the window was well and truly flung open.
"When your reality outstrips your dreams, it's very hard to countenance it. It was kind of beyond belief for me."
TERMS & CONDITIONS
Sunday Star Times