x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'I always wanted to tell stories'

Saloon The long-running literary aspirations of Peter Vegas -­ unpublished author and one-man novelty industry.

"I'm not a productive person," says Peter Vegas, pictured in his Abu Dhabi home.
"I'm not a productive person," says Peter Vegas, pictured in his Abu Dhabi home.

In the world of children's literature, few authors can say that their books have been rated above those of JK Rowling. Peter Vegas has earned this distinction not once, but twice - a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that none of his novels have ever been published. Still, among a small but enthusiastic audience in his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, Vegas is huge. "My sister teaches primary school there," Vegas explained last week, sitting in a cramped office in an Abu Dhabi villa. "She brought one of my books into class - the second, I think - and the kids voted it their favourite two years running. My book beat Harry Potter two years in a row."

Vegas, 41, is the creative director at the Abu Dhabi branch of Impact BBDO. He has been in advertising for 20 years, two of those in the UAE, and is well thought of in the industry. This hasn't stopped him from pursuing an alternative career as a writer of fantasy fiction. "I've been attempting to write novels for 10 years," he said. "I've just finished my fourth." He produced a manuscript from under his desk and flipped it open to page one. The first sentence read: "The human thighbone was the wrong tool."

While his fan base might be limited at present, Vegas is reasonably confident that his new book, titled Pyramid Hunters, will expand his readership. "I think I got it wrong at first," he said. "Like any creative endeavour, to do this well you've got to be doing it for yourself. Before, I was writing with the thought of book launches and fame." And now? "Well, all the time, hopefully, I'm getting better at what I do, or getting, I don't know, something-"

Vegas took his first stab at literary stardom in 2001, back in New Zealand, with a book called Pyramid Diary (pyramids are a recurring theme in his work). The plot featured a boy who goes in search of his missing Egyptologist uncle and stumbles across a pyramid in the hills. "I banged that out over a few weeks and a lady wanted to publish it," he said. "I thought, 'Oh, man, writing's easy!'" When the publisher's interest cooled, which it did fairly quickly, Vegas started on his second book.

The Freaks, which Vegas completed in 2002, was "sillier" than his first effort. "It's about a family of children with mutant abilities," he explained. "Like the Partridge Family, but with deformities and no singing skills." This book, too, failed to find a publisher, or indeed anyone willing to read it beyond the first few pages - barring, that is, his sister's fifth-grade class. "Yeah," Vegas said, "they loved it."

Having also failed to get his third novel into print (The Unders, 2005), Vegas decided to seek professional help with his fourth. A few months ago, he sent Pyramid Hunters to agents who focus on the youth market, rather than going directly to publishers. "The rejections came in thick and fast," he said. "You get to the point where you're relieved when they don't say something bad." He recalled getting a note that read: "You're obviously a good writer, but this isn't for us." "I stuck that on my desktop," he said, adding, "Just the first part."

There is a bright side to all this. While Vegas has failed to make his mark as a novelist, his other sideline - as a kind of mad cartoonist - has brought him more joy. Random House has published three collections of his Stickmen cartoons ("They're about stick men who say bad things to each other"). He also has a book out called Badly Drawn Planet (example: a crime-scene outline of an obese man with the caption: "Murdered fat people use more chalk and the cops pass those costs on to you"). Last year, he published Printmen, which is a bit like Stickmen but with thumbprints instead of sticks.

There is also an entrepreneurial side to Vegas, which has led him to create a set of novelty fishing lures, a range of items to tie in to 2012 (the year some people believe will mark the end of the world) and the prototype for a new kind of insect repellent, called Ankle Biters, which uses sticking plasters infused with citronella oil. When asked how he finds the time to do his day job, Vegas shrugged. "Well," he said, "we're not finding a cure for cancer here."

Vegas - who has a bulky frame and a liberal coating of tattoos - doesn't come across as a man with especially large reserves of energy. "I'm not productive at all," he said, slumping in his chair. "I'd like to think I am, but I'm not." He does, he added, have a very short attention span, which can easily be confused with creative vigour. "This is why I love advertising: you do something and move on." He allowed that his stop-start approach to creativity hasn't aided his efforts to make it as a novelist, but said he would never stop trying.

"When I was a kid, working out what I want to do when I left school, I thought to myself, 'What if the government announced tomorrow that everyone would get paid anyway, that you don't have to go to work? what would I do?'" he said. "I remember thinking that I'd probably sit around and write stories." About two weeks ago, Vegas moved to within touching distance of that ambition. "This agent in America wrote to me and said she'd read the book and she loved it. She wants to represent me," he said, sounding more anxious than pleased. On the desk before him, the manuscript for Pyramid Hunters lay open. Its protagonist, who is trying to dig a tunnel with a human thigh bone, spends the opening page lamenting his choice of tools. "What he should have brought was something thinner," the narrator observes. "There had been a whole skeleton to choose from."

* Chris Wright