The following was, for a long time, the opening paragraph to my fifth novel. I clung on to it for dear life but it simply refused to fit with the tone of the book. I had to scrap it – along with the next 9830 words. Ouch! The thing is, I still like the point it has to make.
Write about what you know. It’s the most patently obvious piece of advice budding authors get presented with, more often enough by non-writers. Sage advice it is, too, up to a point. It’s like recommending that an art student draw only what they can see and best start with something that keeps relatively still – how about a nice bowl of fruit? I really shouldn’t pass judgment on anyone who feels moved to toss any beginner a scrap or two of encouragement; advice is free which is why it’s so easy to turn ones nose up at it and that is the voice of experience talking here, believe you me. That said, being without a single solitary artistic bone in my body, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have no practical counsel whatsoever to lay before any aspiring artist, but I do have an alternative topic for the novice writer to consider: write about what you want to know – you may find that you already know more than you think.
When I look back on my many years of writing there have been precious few instances where I have attempted simply to record something for posterity. When I did, it was never my best work. Everything I’ve tackled has basically been investigative, trying to find the point to the piece, a reason to keep writing.
In my first book, my point turned out to be that, by the time we learn the important things in life there's precious little time left to benefit from that knowledge; in the sequel comes the rider that ignorance, although not automatically blissful, is often a better state of mind than being confronted with a truth we're not ready to face; Milligan and Murphy have to come to terms with the realisation that “there are no reasons for unreasonable things” and, in The More Things Change, it's the big question: Where do all the characters go when the book is over?
The problem I'm having with the new novel is that I started with the intention of exploring something I thought I understood, the nature of loss. What I've been forced to accept is how little I know. When each of my parents died, I recorded the event by way of a poem (this is not the time to share them) but I can't say I dealt with their deaths. The practical details were attended to, property disposed of, creditors paid, money divvied up and that kept me at arm's length from the emotion of the situation; I went through things without fully experiencing them. And now, after all these years, I feel a bit daft trying to grieve.
The new book is about a daughter who travels home to wind up her late father's estate. She has been living down south for years and they'd grown apart. Each of their lives has been uneventful, unremarkable – this is especially important – they've not had any spectacular falling out. Now, she wanders around his flat trying to connect with the man, but she can't. Rather she winds up taking stock of her own life and feeling guilty for not feeling the loss of her father more deeply. I had never considered the term "midlife crisis" as applying particularly to a woman – very sexist of me – and yet this is precisely what the daughter finds herself going through and yet nothing in me is remotely willing to consider changing the gender of my protagonist.
I've mined my life for ideas before. I once wrote: "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research." Quite true. A part of me would love to escape the past rather than wallow in it but that's a problem, my past is the sum of me. What do I expect then of the future – to compensate me in some way for an unspectacular life lived so far? And the same question is being asked by my character.
I don't have a single line yet that summarises the theme of this book, but I suspect it will be Nietzsche's, "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." There was nothing further from my mind when I started and we'll have to see where it all ends up. Probably in tears.