Crime writer Derek Farrell on refusing to tone down his 'too gay' detective Danny Bird
Years ago, I got talking to a person who asked what I was writing. I’d just finished a contemporary crime novel set in South London, which centred around a reluctant amateur detective who was trying to rediscover his place in the world after disasters ruined both his professional and personal lives. The novel was inspired by my fondness for Golden Age crime, the world-weary humour of the American Gumshoe tradition, and my love for London in all its diversity.
The person I was chatting with disclosed that they were a literary agent, that they loved the idea of the novel I’d just accidentally pitched, and wanted to see the full manuscript.
So I sent it to them.
I’d heard the stories about the writers who had waited decades only, as they gasped their last, surrounded by sobbing friends and family, to receive a curt, ‘Not for us, thank you,’ rejection slip. Better, I figured, to get on with writing the next book than sit around waiting for a response that might never come.
But still. I let myself fantasise what would happen when the book sold for seven figures in a three-way auction, and what I’d wear to the inevitable movie premiere. I mean, I didn’t dream of this all the time. Just when I was awake.
A month later, the response arrived. They loved the plot and enjoyed the characterisations. They thought they could sell this.
There were just a couple of things that they wanted me to think about. 'It’s too gay for the mainstream market, they said. 'Could you tone down the camp a little? Also, does the protagonist have to be the gay guy who runs the pub? Couldn’t you tell the story through the eyes of his straight female best friend, and have him as the sidekick? I think that would sell a lot easier.'
I’d deliberately written a book that focused on a smart, slightly anxious, not particularly straight-acting man whose sexuality is really not a source for the drama at all, and I’d used his voice – slightly world-weary and run through with references from current and historical pop culture – to not only tell the story I wanted to tell, but to tell it in the way I wanted it to be told.
And now, it seemed, the only way I would see the book published was by telling the same story in a way that, effectively, de-gayed it (because I knew what the term ‘tone down the camp’ meant).
I’m not one of those precious writers who believes every word they produce is sacrosanct. I wanted to write (and sell) genre fiction. I always knew that part of the process would require, if not killing my babies, at least leaving them on a midden heap and walking away from them. So it should have been a no-brainer, right? Tone down the camp. Relegate Danny Bird, the character I’d sort of fallen in love with, to being the standard limp-wristed gay best friend. Sell the book. Launch my career.
Except I couldn’t.
I thanked the agent for their suggestions, and moved on.
And less than a year later, Death of a Diva, the book that introduced Danny Bird to the world, found a publisher who not only loved the tone of the book but demanded more.
That novel has sold steadily, been the springboard for three more featuring the same characters and, this month, will be joined by the fifth Danny Bird Mystery, Death at Dukes Halt. As I’ve written the books I’ve become a more mature, more accomplished, more nuanced and – I think – better writer. And it’s not just me: I was ordered to include the ‘more mature, more accomplished, more nuanced’ bit above by Neil Broadfoot, a writer who’s read me since day one and loves how the books have grown while still retaining their original heart. Monty Python’s Eric Idle has described the books as 'Quite Good,' (which I’m told is the equivalent of getting 'decent tune' from Paul Mc Cartney), and the reviews have been almost universally positive.
The people who like them really like them.
I’ve had other work published since – stories that don’t feature any openly LGBTQ characters, and which have straight protagonists (if you can call a dead gangster, a deviant hitman and a young woman who poisons drug dealers for fun and profit straight), and the five-way auction, million-dollar advance and movie deal have yet to come my way, but the fact remains: Danny Bird, that character who I was advised to sideline, to minimise, to reduce, has given me a career, a readership, and introduced me to my tribe of fellow writers. I feel, after a lifetime of not really being able to articulate what was missing in my life, as though I’ve come home, and the fellowship of other authors at all stages in their careers is the most wonderful feeling.
Who knows what might have happened if I had accepted those suggestions and rewritten the first book?
And, frankly, who cares?
In a world where homogeny is the easy option, my plea to anyone starting on the road to publication would be: Know what you’re willing to give up to get published. And know what you are not willing to give up. And never, ever, allow yourself to be vanished. It might seem like the only opportunity you’ll ever get, but I promise that a life lived true to yourself will be more enriched, more joyful and more creatively rewarding than you could possibly imagine. And who knows: The Netflix deal may yet arrive.
My top tips
1. Find your Tribe. Spend time with people who will challenge you to make better and better work, who will be honest with you when the work is not good enough, and who will celebrate and commiserate and sing drunken karaoke with you.
2. Don’t be too precious: Be open to receiving and acting on constructive criticism. Listen to the comments and suggestions of your friends, agents, editors but never forget point number three.
3. Draw your red lines: What will you do / not do for your career? Know your values. Stand by them. You’ll be happier for it.
4. Read outside of your chosen genre. Working on a gritty noir novel? Spend a week or two reading nothing but classic romances. Writing a literary exploration of modern isolation? Soak yourself in some cowboy adventures. The subconscious loves taking what we read and transforming it into something new, and your writing – whatever it is – will benefit from putting new sorts of fuel into the furnace.
The 2021 Pride edition of Derek Farrell's novella Death of a Sinner is available now and is a fundraiser for LGBTQ+ charities.
Read why inclusive representation in literature is essential, by bestselling YA author Marieke Nijcamp.