Socialite Elizaveta Stackenschneider was a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky, a frequenter of her Peterburg salon, but in her diary after his death she called him “a petit bourgeois … the most profound thinker and a writer of genius … he will always regard 6,000 rubles as a vast amount of money.” At the time 6,000 rubles was enough to buy a year of decent living in Peterburg.
Based on what it bought for me, the most money I ever earned from writing was the £100 advance I earned on the British edition of Aubade, less 10% agent’s commission. Five years later I earned more for a few days’ part-time work on the pieces I wrote for the London Sunday Times Magazine, and it was never enough. But everything in my life followed from, depended on, that first £90. Without it I would probably have gone mad.
I once mentioned to a university lecturer friend how that first advance had bought me sanity. He didn’t approve of the way my writing had evolved or of the superficial man he judged I’d become, and thought my contribution to literature would have been greater if I’d stayed in Northern Ireland. (I doubt if misery and lack of insight would have been an easy sell.) “I can see nothing of Aubade in you,” he sniffed. I told him I’d take sanity any day.
I can see why an 18-year-old equated success with money: with, for example, enough to eat. And I can see now why I had no hope of achieving the modest financial success of British authors who managed on a book club sale here, a BBC adaptation there, once in a blue moon maybe even (a house!) film rights! The best bet was a staff job on a newspaper with novel writing on the side. Nobody spelled out to me the basis for my limited financial prospects, why I wasn’t going to sell book club or film or foreign rights in Catholic countries: I’d written a book about a subject that was too disgusting for the mass public to even mention, that described a relationship that was illegal, feelings you should be ashamed of even if you admitted to yourself that you had them. And how could anyone get their head around the book being written by a 16-year-old boy? What were the publishers thinking?
Very few of my readers were primarily seeking literary fiction (even those a small group then as now). My readers were closeted queer men desperate to have their feelings and identity validated or their existence at least acknowledged. I heard from only a handful who dared to write me carefully worded letters. The sad thing to me now is that I wasn’t able to think this through, to feel validated myself because I’d given a gift that meant a lot to strangers. I was too busy scraping a living.

Tattoos and consequences

One of the reasons I have eleven tattoos is my need to remind myself that behavior can have irreversible consequences. It was a time when I seemed headed for serious trouble. The first tattoos were an attempt to right myself; the others reminders that I wasn’t out of the woods.
A few months after Aubade was first published in 1957 I received a letter in an airmail envelope forwarded from my publisher’s office, addressed to “Kenneth Martin, Author of Summer Holiday.” The enclosed letter from a U.S. fan, though it didn’t mention a book title again, was about Aubade, months before the U.S. edition was published. It seemed the British edition was being sold under a different title, probably under plain cover by mail or in big city dirty bookstores. (I once asked the proprietress of one of these London holes in the wall in the Charing Cross Road, where Aubade was displayed prominently along with heterosexual porn, how it was selling. She was wary about my motives, so I plucked up the gall to tell her I’d written it. “How could you write a book like that?” she asked, eyes bulging righteously.)
I showed the letter to my agent Julian Jebb, and he pointed out that it didn’t mention “Summer Holiday.” “Would you like to see the envelope?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. I admitted that I’d thrown away the envelope. I’m not sure he believed me, though he told my publisher, who said I must be the first author to be pirated across the Atlantic since Dickens. (The firm had been Dickens’s first publishers.)
I’m not sure Julian believed much of what I told him, including the story of my secret adoption which I’d just uncovered. “Kenneth, is this true?” I remember him asking more than once. Maybe he thought I wanted attention. The publicity over Aubade in England had died down, and I’d realized how little impact my book, or a half-page newspaper feature about my split personality, accompanied by a double exposure photo, had on the memory or even initial attention of the great British public. (Even though I gave good copy.)
I should have kept the envelope, documentary evidence that I wasn’t lying. Why didn’t I? I’ve always had a blithely indifferent disregard for cause and effect, consequences. And “You don’t care what people think” I still hear time and time again. Well, I think I do, but apparently not as much as most people. Perhaps because there have been plenty of times when I couldn‘t afford to care what people thought. Evidence has built up that my luck is terrible, that time after time a chain of unlikely coincidences will ensure that I’ll be found out in every evasion or lie. But I never learned. Which is why, at an advanced age, and even when the stakes are great, I need help reminding myself that behavior has consequences.