No, we're not related [I thought I'd start with that as I've been asked it a fair few times now]. Now, today is the publication day of my fabulous agent Charlie Campbell's fab book 'Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People.' It's very very good. I loved it. Miles stole it off me and read it too and is totally a fanboy [slightly embarrassing]; whilst reading it he kept on stopping to read parts aloud to me across the table, even though, y'know, I'd already read it. Anyway, it's a rather good book like that.
Now, I did tell Charlie that if he didn't give me a biography I would put it as:
Charlie Campbell is a graduate of the University of Awesome. He has a black belt in karate, twelve illegitimate children and lives in a cupboard in Camden. On Sundays he plays in a rock bank called The Fashion Goats.
and guess what? He forgot to send me a biography. So perhaps he really does do/have all of these things... I have to admit I've never been to his house, so you never know...
Anyway- on with the interview!
Charlie! Take a seat. Make yourself at home, etc etc. Pitch your book to the masses.
Well, it’s a history of scapegoats, of people who have been blamed over the years for things they didn’t do. It takes in whipping boys, sin-eaters, medieval animal trials, and quite a lot more.
Give us a quote from the book.
The one I like the most is the one used on the jacket – ‘In the beginning there was blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and we’ve been hard at it ever since.’ It was pretty much the first sentence of the book that I wrote.
You said on The Monocle podcast [here [24 minutes in]] that you couldn't remember what sparked the idea for Scapegoat, but I'm afraid that's just not good enough. Make up a story for us. If it's helpful, you can include the following: Simon Cowell, a chihuahua, an electric violin, the Yorkshire dales, the Weapons of Mass Destruction, and The Queen Mother.
I’d been thinking about conspiracy theories (which fascinate me – though I am pretty sceptical about them) and I started wondering about whose fault everything actually was. And that got me onto scapegoats.
I love short general histories – Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is one of my favourites; and Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity is an extraordinary book. But I never thought I’d write one myself, until the idea of Scapegoat came to me. [Jen: I'm distinctly unimpressed with the lack of chihuahuas in that answer, but I'll accept it.]
The amount of research you had to do for this book is phenomenal. How did you go about it?
In a completely unsystematic way. I’d be reading one book, it would mention others, and my pile of reading just grew and grew. And the internet is an astonishing resource for writers – then it would be off to the British Library for the heavy lifting. I’m still thinking of things that I should put in the book and it’s 6am on publication day. There’s a lovely quote of Hilary Mantel’s, along the lines of ‘I never finish a book, it just gets taken away from me.’ I would agree.
There were also a few people who were extremely helpful with their ideas, for which I’m very grateful. And sometimes ideas would come from the most unexpected place. I remember reading a thriller which mentioned how many special forces missions failed because the soldiers were discovered by a small boy and his herd of goats. He kept cropping up again and again.
Which part of the book was the most enjoyable to study/write?
The chapter about the animal trials probably. E.P. Evans’s book The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (which was the main source for this section) never ceases to amaze me.
What's the funniest/most ridiculous 'blame story' you've heard in real life [not in your book]?
We all come up with them. And there are endless examples. Off the top of my head, I remember playing table football with someone at university. After he lost, he apologised, telling me that he’d just split up with his girlfriend. I did wonder what explanation he would make to himself when things really went wrong. Anyway, hopefully he’s found someone nice now, and wins constantly at table football.
How has being a literary agent helped you understand the writing process? Is it weird to have your own agent when you're used to being on their side of the desk?
Well it hopefully makes me a little more sympathetic to the writer, knowing what it’s like to invest so much into a book. When you’re involved in the publishing or bookselling industry, you see just how many other books are out there, and you revise your ambitions accordingly. Hopefully. And I don’t find it odd having an agent. I would say this, but they do a lot of unseen work.
What has been the most exciting part of the publishing process for you?
The first review was by Francis Wheen, and it was just lovely. I don’t know him, but have read (and loved) his books over the years. So it was very pleasing to find that he liked what I’d done. And my publishers, Duckworth, produced a really beautiful book. Getting the first copy was very exciting.
You used to be a fellow bookseller, in Paris no less [I'm not jealous, not jealous at all]. Tell us about your bookselling days.
I ran into someone last night who used to work at Shakespeare & Co. There are a lot of us clearly. It’s an extraordinary place – charming, romantic and chaotic. You would open a drawer and could find anything from the owner George Whitman’s half-eaten lunch to yesterday’s takings that he had mislaid, or a first edition of Ulysses (ok, there was only one, but I don’t think anyone ever quite knew where it was). The daily challenges involved people lighting fires at the back of the shop and then trying to steal the till; dealing with endless American tourists looking for a copy of A Moveable Feast (perversely, George didn’t tend to stock it), which they wanted with the shop stamp; and I once had cheese soufflé spat all over me in the course of my duties. I’m still not sure why.
On the subject of blame: out of interest, who/what do you blame for the number of bookshops declining? And, from your experience as a bookseller, agent and writer, where do you think the book/publishing industry is headed?
The demise of the Net Book Agreement was the real killer. But our government and legislators are to blame too. Unlike in many other countries, we have no protection for the independent bookseller. Supermarkets, chains and online retailers are able to secure much better terms from publishers, and that is entirely wrong in my view. The market isn’t always right, as the financial crisis has shown us.
But I’m actually pretty optimistic. I think electronic publishing is, on the whole, a wonderful development. There have been so many times when I have finished a book with a pang that it’s over. The idea of being able to buy another book by that author and have it right away… We’re quite a gloomy industry by nature, and this isn’t the first time the death of the book has been announced.
What are you up to when you're not agenting/writing?
What most people do, and playing cricket badly. A friend and I are starting a team of writers and I would love to get a book out of it – each player contributing a chapter. What it will be about beyond that, I don’t know. But cricketing writers, get in touch!
On my Book Forum we have The Book Tree, where members choose their favourite book and post it round to the other members. Everyone writes comments in the books as they read them. What book would you choose to send round the Book Tree, and why?
Catch-22. It’s the best argument that a book can be both serious and amusing.
Finally, what projects are you working on at the moment?
I am planning to write a short history of nepotism
In the beginning there was blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we've been hard at it ever since. We may have come a long way from the days when a goat was saddled with all the iniquities of the children of Israel and driven into the wilderness, but is our desperate need to find some organisation, person or other to pin the blame on and absolve ourselves of responsibility really any more advanced? Charlie Campbell's book highlights the plight of all those others who have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, illustrating how God needs the Devil, as surely as Sherlock Holmes needs Professor Moriarty, or James Bond needs Blofeld. Every person and society needs someone to oppose. Scapegoat ranges from serious contemplation of Jesus and contemporary issues of Government blame-shifting to conspiracy theories like David Icke's that the Duke of Edinburgh is one of many giant shape-shifting extraterrestrial lizards who secretly run the world. Scapegoat is a tale of human foolishness, that exposes the anger and irrationality of blame-mongering while reminding the reader of their own capacity for it. Moving from the Bible to the modern Royal Family, from medieval Witch burning to reality TV, from the whipping boys of the Renaissance court to Blairite politics, this is a brilliantly relevant and timely look at social history that uncovers, in an accessible and entertaining way, countless stories of obsession, mania, persecution and injustice from the highest echelons of society to the lowliest outcast.
You can buy Scapegoat over on Amazon
Also, I'll be selling signed copies at Ripping Yarns. They'll be here soon; they are winging their way across London as I type. So, if you'd like to buy a copy then do drop by. Or, if you're further afield [wherever in the world], drop me an email and you can pay the shop through paypal, and I'll post a copy out to you. [£12.99 plus shipping]
You can also follow Charlie on Twitter.