Not a Man is the first of my books that I considered good enough to be published. But there are so few agents and publishers in Australia, and of those there are, there are even fewer who admit to looking at unsolicited manuscripts. While I tried them, one by one, each taking months to reply, I wrote a second book in the series, and then a third. Three full-length books – big books.
My family were never interested in my writing, so it was only after I joined the writers’ site run by Harper Collins, Authonomy, that other people read what I had written. To begin with, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, comments such as ‘Elegant and touchingly surreal,’ ‘Absolutely fabulous writing and story,’ ‘writing of the finest quality,’ and ‘Absolutely compelling, utterly original.’
But then it was attacked, viciously, as pornography. The comment had me feeling ill and considering taking it down, never to see the light of day again. There were more like that in the next days. There was even one person who reported it to Harper Collins as ‘abuse.’
My story is set in a slum city of a Arabia. It is about a child of the slums, taken to be a bed-boy, and castrated in order that he would ‘stay beautiful.’ Shuki leaves that life at the age of fifteen, but for the early part of the book, sex with his master is a part of his life, the inevitable background to his life. I only found out about that complaint by accident, as Harper Collins looked at it and dismissed it.
But there were also those readers who enjoyed Not a Man sufficient that they read it through, then the second and the third story. People fall in love with Shuki. He is an unusual hero - a person courageous, intelligent and compassionate.
In due course, ‘Not a Man’ gained its position on the Editor’s Desk, winning itself a review. By that time, there were nearly 400 comments. While the Harper Collins review made suggestions for improvement, it was more positive than not. This is an excerpt:
Not a Man is an ambitious and insightful novel; it tells the story of Shuki, a young boy from the slums of Elbarada, a fictional area of Arabia, who is castrated against his will at the age of 10. Shuki’s journey is one of great trial but also incredible strength, courage, and determination, and as a hero, he is fantastic, evoking not only sympathy, but aspiration and reverence. I loved the fact that the operation which is supposed to prevent him from reaching manhood is the very thing that makes him strong and mature. The novel is written in a pared down manner; the narrative reminded me of the prose styling of Paulo Coelho: unaffected and matter-of-fact.
The whole review can still be seen on Authonomy.
By the time of the Harper Collins review, I had an offer from a UK publisher, which I was happy to accept. Not a Man was published late last year. The sequel, The King’s Favourite followed in June, 2012, and I hope that the third in the series will be ready for publication by June 2013.
The Shuki books have not so far been big sellers, yet, each week, there seem to be a few more sales. So far, the reviews have been overwhelmingly 5-stars, with comments such as this: ‘Outstanding for its originality and depth, M.A. McRae’s Not a Man is an amazing work that will transport you to a foreign world. It will let you experience a lifestyle and culture that is most likely vastly different from any with which you are familiar’ and ‘Shuki's story and the stories of the characters whose lives touch his are still clear in my mind a year later. That's quite a book!’
Does it contain too much sex? Sex is a part of life, and sometimes, for whatever reason, it is needed as a part of the story. Not a Man is not close to pornography – the Harper Collins editor reviewed it as Literary Fiction, but all the same, when I started a different book, I put the sex firmly off-screen.
The Penwinnard Stories: Two of my Penwinnard stories have been published so far – Angel No More and You Gotta Have Manners. These stories are set in a Boys’ Home, one that its manager claims to be the best institution of its type in the UK and possibly the world. Its residents are welfare kids, orphans or victims of poor parenting, but the stories are not of faceless victims - they are of Jay and Bob and Sid and Gerry – lively boys full of personality, sometimes of mischief. The stories are much lighter in nature than the Shuki series, shorter, each less than 100,000 words, and the sex is firmly placed behind a veil.
Which is my best book? Not a Man is my best book, without question. I made no compromise with Not a Man. It is an emotional journey, not easy to forget.