Bruno Maddox's first novel was sold to a publisher on sight of a five-page fax proposal. 'My Little Blue Dress' is the memoir of a hundred year old woman, or is it? On page 77, it becomes clear that someone else is writing the book: a young man who is trying to finish a fictional memoir in one overnight stint. Now the question is why? The book is published in Ireland on 10 May. Here, the author talks to ACE about working as a PA to a mafia boss, delivering celebrity invitations, editing the English language section of a Moscow magazine that had no English language content, and putting Spy Magazine out of business.
Bruno Maddox: I spent 2 days being a personal assistant to a mafia boss in New York when I first moved there. His name was Fat Sam [not real name] and his leg was in a cast. I was new in town, I was frantically making friends and inevitably I made a few of the wrong ones. One of them was Fat Sam. I wasn't quite sure how high up in the organisation he was but for a few days in the middle of a Manhattan August, he needed a young man to run around the city doing his errands for him because for some mysterious reason his leg was in a cast. I was told he'd been kneecapped but I was also told that he'd fallen down some stairs, which was actually a lot more plausible. I had to turn up at this guy's apartment wearing a suit in hundred-degree weather and the first day I had to serve divorce papers on his wife, which I wasn't looking forward to. But it turned out to be utterly painless, she was I think very pleased to be getting rid of him - she grabbed them from me.
The worst bit of it was he had to keep writing down instructions for me, everything had an address I had to go to, and he kept losing his pen in the folds of his flab. He wasn't one of those extremely thin men who gets an ironic nickname, he was a large man. He'd always ask me "have you seen my pen?" and I'd say "eh, yes, I'm afraid I have." There were envelopes, mysterious ones, that I had to pick up from some jewellery store. I assumed the pay would be good, I was expecting a sack of cash at the end of the day, maybe in one of those special briefcases I had to handcuff to my wrist in order to get out, but no, I was paid $20 for a hot day's work.
My first job in New York was a great one: hand delivering celebrity invitations to parties. It was me and a bunch of other English people without jobs, being paid not very much to go to celebrities' homes and hand them big, thick invitations to fancy parties. That was literally my first week in New York and it was a great introduction to the city. I walked all over the city and got to hang out with Lauren Hutton and Walter Kronkite, people like that. Matthew Modine's wife was very kind. It was just a great vision of the city: all these people at two in the afternoon sitting on a couch in a cool apartment being a celebrity just waiting for me to come and give them an invitation. It was great, I loved that job, but it hadn't any prospects.
After that I spent quite a few years in my own overheated smelly apartment in Chinatown, New York writing book reviews for various American publications, which paid me about the same amount of money. I was living off rice with egg fried into it. It was bad. I had some lean years and I am sure I will again.
Before I went to New York, I got one of those jobs that people have after they come out of college - it was a token job. I was the English language editor of a Russian magazine. I sounded like a great thing to do but everyone there spoke Russian and I spoke English and there was absolutely no way to bridge the gap. I was supposed to be there for a few months, but my first morning I turned up and we sat down and had tea and it became clear that we had no way of communicating. We were meant to be working with text together and I couldn't even ask for the sugar. So I spent the next few weeks just being paid a salary and spending it all in the nightclubs of Moscow, which was a great place to be in the summer of '92. I had a good time. I did absolutely nothing, and that paid quite well. I remember it as three months, but as I consult my passport I see it was actually closer to about three weeks.
In 1995, after years of semi employment and living on the edge I had an epiphany in a flotation tank in London and decided I would never again be unemployed. I immediately went back to New York and got a job in an IT company, which was a good time to do it. Not that I made any money or anything, but at least morale was high. I did that for a year and a half and then talked my way into Spy Magazine, which was a sort of American Private Eye.
I eventually became editor and eventually drove it out of business. When the thing went under no one was unhappy. It was a very difficult job. Magazines have a natural life cycle and this one had really reached the end of its relevance and everyone knew it. I wasn't a very good editor and we didn't have a vision of what we wanted to be doing; we were going through the motions and we were losing lots of money. It was meant to be a general interest magazine about culture - we tried to spot trends in culture and be satirical about them. Most of the trends we spotted weren't actually trends and when we did actually nail a trend, so did everybody else. There wasn't any space for it and I wasn't particularly inspired to create one. Everyone involved gets on much better now that the thing's gone under.
I'd been thinking of this novel, but there was no way I could have actually gotten around to it, I was very busy being a magazine editor. But when the thing went under I thought, "Great, I'll just go away and write my novel." I knew I wanted to do a young man trying to write an old woman's autobiography, but I hadn't figured out any of the mechanics of it or what the point of the thing would be in the end. I hooked up with an agent who gave me some fatherly advice and then I got this frantic call from him a few days later to say that this publisher was coming in to his office and could I whip off a quick proposal, which I did. I faxed him five pages and the next thing I knew I was a published German novelist to be - they sold the German rights first.
It was a pretty terrifying experience, suddenly having a legal obligation to write an extremely difficult post-modern novel having never written anything before and also, stupidly, I told him I could do it in six months, which was just a conversational thing until it turned up in black and white in my contract. The six months came and went and my reputation in publishing at the moment is a reflection of the two and a half years I spent writing it longer than I should have done. The Dutch cancelled when the Millennium came and went, they decided it was a millennial book, but weirdly they would have accepted it in November of 1999, for a few days of millennial reading, they failed to see that it is obviously a twenty-first century book.
I don’t like to think in terms of careers, I want to move from project to project and it just so happens that my next project is another novel. I think like anything, it's good to keep changing. I just want to live with integrity.
Bruno Maddox was in conversation with Cristín Leach.
'My Little Blue Dress' is published by Little, Brown and Company on 10 May 2001. Price: £12.99stg, hardback.