After convincing unsuspecting readers that his short story collection, London Pub Reviews, was actually a rundown of the city's best public houses, expat New Zealander Paul Ewen has pulled off another literary sleight-of-hand with his debut novel. Praised by Sunday Times critic Christopher Hart as "the funniest book I have read in years", Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author purports to be the work of its central character, whose increasingly bizarre encounters with many of the winners of the Man Booker Prize invariably end in disaster.
"I really like that balance between fact and fiction," says Ewen. "When the Pub book came out, a lot of bookshops were selling it in both the fiction and the London section and someone at Foyles told me most people were buying it for the wrong reason, because they thought it was an actual pub guide. This book is more fictional but the events and the people are very real. Like the Pub book, this one is just a twist on actual things through someone's distorted viewpoint."
Having self-published London Pub Reviews in 2007, the Blenheim-born author spent a painstaking seven years on Francis Plug before selling it to Norwich-based Galley Beggar Press.
"A lot of that time was spent doing the actual research, because all the events in it are real," says Ewen. "You can't get all the Booker winners in one room overnight, so it took a long time."
Composed of a series of short chapters detailing Francis' meetings with the particular writers in question, How To Be A Public Author closely resembles London Pub Reviews, which chronicled its unnamed protagonist's exploits in some of the English capital's oldest and most distinctive drinking establishments.
"In a lot of ways, it was almost written like a collection of stories because they were all self-contained events," says Ewen. "But I always wanted it to be a novel right from the start and it wasn't that easy to write. I was finding my way and the Pub book was quite a good grounding to get myself into a good place. Francis Plug evolved from that in a way but he's got more of a life - not much more but you do get a sense of it."
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "New Zealand's Most Northern Pub: The Houhora Tavern" when I meet him at a backstreet King's Cross bar, the 42-year-old initially appears to have much in common with the misanthropic Francis, not least his intimate knowledge of London's more out-of-the-way watering holes.
"I'd like to be that mad but I'm not, quite frankly," he says. "People expect me to behave like him at times but he's very much his own person. There's also a real sense of being an outsider to him and I don't feel that as much, although I do share that sense - being a New Zealander in London - of being outside the whole literary world, which I was writing about."
Admitting that the one close link between himself and Francis is that they both "like a drink", Ewen believes that the demon drink allows the latter to shrug off his inhibitions. "He's in that bad, bad world," he says. "The alcohol is interesting in the book as I've kind of used it to enter a fantasy world, which is something that being drunk allows you to do. There's a mention in the book about how bankers nowadays seem to be living in fantasy worlds more than other people and I wanted to contrast that with these authors of fiction, who find themselves in very real situations with people firing very real questions at them."
Revealing that he has twice as many books signed by authors "to Francis Plug", Ewen initially spread his net much more widely before opting to concentrate specifically on those who had been recipients of the Man Booker award.
"Focusing on Booker winners was a really good discipline because I could tick them off a list," says Ewen, who would seek out authors at signings, talks and literary festivals. "Apart from Nadine Gordimer, the only one I didn't get was Keri Hulme, who is almost Francis' ultimate author. She is the model he'd ideally like to follow, writing a book that wins the Booker and then keeping away from the public glare. Interestingly, my grandparents lived in Runanga on the West Coast, which wasn't far from where Keri Hulme used to live in Okarito. We visited them a couple of times so I got a sense of where she lived and it was very appealing."
Fittingly, the book climaxes with Francis meeting Eleanor Catton outside the Guildhall just before The Luminaries scooped the award last year.
"He meets her at the Booker ceremony itself, which I didn't actually attend," says Ewen. "I met her at the Booker shortlist event and she was the only author I asked to sign a book to Francis Plug because I was so sure she was going to win, which, of course, she did because she's a Kiwi."
But while they have both contributed to Auckland University Press' upcoming Tell You What non-fiction anthology, Ewen is unsure what Catton makes of her appearance in his novel. "Fergus Barrowman at Victoria University Press was a bit of a fan of the Pub book, so maybe he's passed a copy on," says Ewen, who has yet to receive any feedback from many of the other authors. "I know that Margaret Atwood has read a section of her chapter, which she thought was very funny. My hope is that they'll enjoy it as it's more sending up the world that they're forced to work in rather than the writers themselves, so it'll be interesting to see how they find it."
Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (Text Publishing $37) is out now.