THE central character of Andrew Davidson's debut novel The Gargoyle is transformed in a car accident into a grotesque mosaic of burned flesh and scar tissue, enjoys a love affair which straddles the centuries and journeys through his own personal hell after becoming addicted to morphine. It's a heady cocktail. Not surprisingly, the novelist is rather annoyed that all anyone wants to ask him about is how much it all cost.
The Canadian author's agent reportedly turned down a publisher's offer of $1m. The figure has since been reported as being as much as $2m. It's all great publicity, but Davidson doesn't want to get into it. "I never expected anything like the interest it's had," he says. "When I finished it I realised that it was better than anything else I'd written so I decided I would try to get it published."
The Gargoyle starts with a bang; its unnamed narrator, high on bourbon and cocaine, crashes his car. It explodes, leaving his beautiful face and flawless body burned beyond recognition. Davidson describes in unstinting detail the brutal burns treatment the victim endures, while nurses cut slices off his dead skin and slap on layers from cadavers. As the narrator's body builds up scar tissue we slowly learn about his past as a porn star with few friends and no redeeming qualities. He secretly plots an elaborate suicide for when he gets out of hospital.
But his attitude changes when a mysterious sculptor of gargoyles, Marianne Engel, appears at his bedside from the psychiatric ward and begins telling him evocative tales that span the globe and history. She insists they were lovers in medieval Germany, when she was a scribe at a convent, and he was a mercenary fleeing his army.
Though the book succeeds in getting us to believe in the fantastical and invites comparison to everything from Dante's Inferno to Life Of Pi and Beauty And The Beast, at heart it is a richly told love story.
It began in Davidson's mind when he had a vision of the character of Marianne Engel and couldn't get her out of his mind. "It was very unusual for me," he recalls. "Normally it takes me years to figure out the characters, their motivations. Marianne Engel just came to me and insisted that I started writing about her."
By chance Davidson happened to be reading about burn victims and the treatment they receive. "I must have read something in the newspaper or online. As I read I thought, 'That would be such an interesting thing to happen to a character. What happens to burns victims is more interesting than anything I could make up.'"
The author was also struck by the symbolic possibilities of burns, fire and rebirth. While the narrator begins as a thoroughly unlovable character, he undergoes a major transformation in the flames after being robbed of his physical beauty.
Like his narrator, Davidson admits to having an obsessive interest in obscure facts. The author is currently ploughing through countless biographies and books on Native Americans. He also admits to having developed a fascination with the OJ Simpson murder trial three years after the fact. "I have a strange and wonderful head full of completely useless facts except when it comes to winning prizes at general knowledge quizzes," he admits.
Though historical accuracy is important, he took some liberties. So, while all the characters who appear in the Engelthal convent are real historical figures, he has invented their personalities and physical appearances. And Marianne tells the narrator four stories set in Japan, Iceland, Italy and England, which come entirely from Davidson's imagination.
"When I was writing The Gargoyle, I was an English teacher in Japan, writing in a little room at night to entertain myself. No one in the world knew who I was except my family, friends and students. Now it's different; there is this expectation of a second book and there are more people watching."v
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson is published by Canongate on September 25. He appears at the Wigtown Book Festival, October 4, 13.30pm, with Shona MacLean