I’m finished. Nearly finished, if I can misquote Beckett, but I imagine he’s used to that. Anyway I’m finished. I finished my fifth novel, Left, at six minutes past three on 20th January 2011. The oldest copy of the text I can find on my machine is dated 19th August 2006. That was the second version of the book and the one that formed the basis of the text I’ve just finished. There was, however, another original version before that – about 10,000 words – which I completely abandoned. It’ll be kicking around somewhere. Suffice to say it’s taken me five years to finish this novel. That’s a while.
I started writing my first novel in about August 1993. Eighteen years, five novels, just over three years a novel, but if you deduct the two years in the middle of the third novel and the three years in the middle of the fifth then that’s thirteen years so that’s not too bad. When I first got the idea to write Left I was expecting it would take me three years and had I not fallen ill that would have been a realistic figure. And if I ever write another book (although at the moment nothing could be further from my mind) that’s the amount of time I would be looking at. It’s like a prison sentence isn’t it?
Of course being in prison changes you. I’m not talking about a weekend’s lie over for being drunk and disorderly. I’m talking about a proper sentence like three years and even then I’m talking about three years after time off for good behaviour. On the surface imprisonment isn’t such a bad punishment. It beats being stoned to death hands down. Although I suppose much depends on who you’re dubbed up with. After spending three years with the cellmate-from-hell you might wish you’d been stoned or hung or something. And it changes you. It can change you.
Because that’s where I’ve been for the past five years, locked up inside my own head with little chance of parole. If I’m making novel writing sound unpleasant then good, because it is in many ways. Then why do it? It’s not a matter of choice. I never set out to write that first novel. I got an idea, or rather it got a grip of me, and once I’d managed to shake it off I’d written two books actually. And with surprising ease. So when it came to attempting a third I hoped it might be another piece of cake. Only it wasn’t. But once you’ve let an idea in it’s not so easy to dismiss it, especially if it’s a good idea.
If people ask me what I am these days I tell them I’m a writer. Really in my heart of hearts I’m a poet who happens to do other stuff and none of the other stuff matters as much as the poetry. If I never wrote another book I could die happy but if I never wrote another poem between now and then it would be a miserable life getting there and as far as I’m concerned you can just shoot me now. I still find calling myself a novelist difficult, uncomfortable, a bad fit.
I read blogs all the time listening to other writers talking about how they write. One of the words they use has always puzzled me: ‘draft’. It’s a word I steer clear of normally because I don’t write drafts, at least I don’t think of them as drafts. I start a book, I write until I get to the end and I try to get to the end as quickly as possible. I think of it as the ‘thin version’ of the novel, its skeleton. While I’m doing that I start ‘grafting in’ bits, fleshing out the text. Usually I do this by writing things that interest me and then seeing where they might fit into the book. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or a short paragraph. After a few of these are inserted I’ll go back and begin reading from the start and ‘smooth out’ the wrinkles as I come across them. This often means nothing more than tidying up sentence structure but it also involves expanding bits that are unclear. And I continue until I reach the end of the text and I’ll write a bit more. Then we go back to the grafting in and smoothing out and we keep doing that until the book flows like one long sentence from beginning to end. At least that’s the plan.
I remember being at a book event where Jeanette Winterson was reading and answering questions and I asked her about her process. It’s very different to mine. She starts out with a huge amount of material and chips away at it until she reveals the book within. So we’re talking sculpture. I also sculpt but I relate more to clay rather than stone. I slap on bits and shape them, cut other bits out, move them around, take them back off if I don’t like the look of them. At the heart is a wire frame, the ‘skeleton’ of the piece. This last book has been a bit different to the others in that I completely scrapped my first attempt at it. All I retained was the concept. Later, after about 23,000 words, I completely rewrote the piece changing the tense from third person to first. For me these are major changes. I still shy away from the word ‘draft’ because I’ve always felt I was working on the finished product, just not the complete finished product, if that makes sense.
The file I saved on 20th January is named Left v5.58.doc. On the 7th of May 2010 I saved Left v5.01.doc. So between those two dates I saved 58 different files on two different computers plus a copy online. The version number is not a draft. It simply indicates that a substantial amount of time separates the last v4 file, about a year. It was in May that I felt well enough to do some serious work on the book again and over that time period I’ve written about 20,000 words bringing the total length to about 53,000 which is about par for the course for me. Only one novel is longer, the mammoth (for me) The More Things Change which clocks in at 90,000 words – I still can’t believe I managed to write that many.
So where did the idea come from for the book?
In The More Things Change I wrote this line – “Writers don’t have real lives, they have ongoing research.” Basically what I mean by that is that everything is fodder. I might not use an idea today or tomorrow but they all get chucked into the mix and tried out every now and then. It’s like colour matching only with ideas. But the core idea for the book occurred to me after I read The Body Artist by Don DeLillo:
The body artist of the title is Lauren Hartke, who does conceptual performance art pieces in which she systematically transforms her body on stage in various ways. She's suddenly lost her husband, a self-invented Spanish film director named Rey Robles. In a short, lovely opening set piece, DeLillo presents us with a moment-by-moment account of their final morning together: She can't stop sniffing the box of soy granules, trying to figure out what they smell like, as he half-answers her questions and they share the newspaper and turn the radio on and off.
We soon learn of Rey's death by reading his obituary, and the rest of the novel scrutinizes Lauren's inner world during the first few months of her grief. She discovers that a mysterious, childlike, half-insane homeless man has been living in the ramshackle seaside house the couple has been renting, and he freaks her out by repeating snatches of her conversations with Rey over the past months. As she holes up in the house, avoiding answering the phone and trying to figure out how to relate to the strange little man, it's almost, but of course not really, as if Rey is still there with her. – Maria Russo, ‘The Body Artist by Don DeLillo’, The Salon, 21st February 2001
This book captivated me. I’ve read it three times now. The publisher included part of a quote on the cover from The Observer, which reads: 'A novel that is both slight and profound, a distilled meditation on perception and loss, and a poised, individual ghost story for the twenty-first century.'
What struck me about the situation Lauren finds herself in is that she has been afforded an extension, access to a part of her husband after his death. When people die one of the things so many of us say is that we wished we had had more time or that we wished our last conversation had gone better. What the homeless man, whom she calls Mr Tuttle, provides is an opportunity but she’s not exactly sure what this is an opportunity for.
I’ve not written much about the death of my parents, a handful of poems and that’s it. I have wondered about my concept of grief for a long time. I remember a funeral I went to once, and watching the people there, members of the same congregation, some of whom were in quite a state and this puzzled me. I was well aware of 1st Thessalonians 4:13 which says, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [in death], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope,” and I couldn’t understand why these people who must also have known this scripture (it may well have been quoted during the service even) were acting so. Death was not the end, only an end. Anyway I’ve always felt a little guilty for not grieving “like the rest of men” since I no longer have the “hope” the scripture talks of, the hope that I will see my parents again. I decided it was time I explored the nature of loss and indeed my initial concept was intended to be a fairly serious bit of philosophy masquerading as a novel.
I started off with a female protagonist. From the very start this felt right. I think I wanted to make her female to distance myself from her but also, perhaps, because I have a daughter and I have to wonder how she might react to my death. So I had a thirty-year-old daughter and a fifty-year-old father. Have any of you ever seen a show called Raines? It was a short-lived TV series starring Jeff Goldblum:
Los Angeles. Present day. Michael Raines, an eccentric but brilliant cop, solves murders in a very unusual way – he turns the victims into his partners. These visions are figments of Raines' imagination, and he knows it, but when he can't make the dead disappear, he works with them to find the killer. Through his discussions, along with the evidence, Raines' image of the victim changes until he has a clear picture of what really happened. Only when the case is closed do the visions end. Other detectives question Raines' sanity, and occasionally so does he. However, as long as his unique methods are helping catch criminals, Raines imagines he'll be just fine. – plot summary, IMDB
This show went out in 2007 and so I saw it after I’d already abandoned my first attempt at the book but the concept is the same, the daughter in my book returned home to clear out her father’s flat and while she is doing so she has an ongoing conversation not with his ghost but with an imaginary dad who, of course, cannot tell her any more that what she already knows which is the problem Raines encounters and I’m rather sorry that the show was cancelled but don’t get me started on all the great shows that bite the dust.
The problem I found was that because I had made the daughter the same age as my own daughter I started writing her as if she was my daughter and I was the dead dad and this began to take me into areas I didn’t want to go. I’m perfectly happy to discuss my relationship with my daughter with her, both its strengths and its weaknesses, but I wasn’t keen to make it the basis for a novel. So I decided to start afresh and base both characters, the father and the daughter, on me, the me-I-am-just-now and the me-I-might-have-become by the time I drop dead on a No.9 bus when I’m seventy. Of course there are things that my daughter will be able to relate to – we don’t see each other nearly as much as we used to do ever since she started doing her Open University degree (not because she’s moved to Liverpool) – and I did retain that from the first draft not because it’s a big issue for me but because I needed a daughter who did not know her father well and having her in another country helped.
Since I decided to abandon the father-in-her-head trope I had to figure out to whom to give the voice. The solution was to create a third character, someone who knew the father but not the daughter, someone the daughter did not even know existed until after her father’s death. The idea from this came from a film I saw years ago about a woman who discovers her husband had been having an affair and after his death she and the other woman comfort each other since they are all that is left of the man they both loved. The two actually become lovers. I can’t find the name of the film – it’s probably quite an old one, maybe even a TV movie – but we have a similar situation in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue where a widow develops a friendship with a woman who is pregnant with her husband’s child. The important thing was to explore how we extract comfort from whatever sources are available.
Neither of my parents could be called a materialist; in fact when my mother died (my father passed away first) she had already pretty much emptied the house of everything bar the essentials for living handing most of the stuff into charity shops to which she was addicted. I was struck by how little of them was left in the house. All that was left was us three kids and what we don’t know now we’ll never know. And since my siblings and I are estranged what they know that I don’t is now lost to me. I should have asked my questions the last time I saw them because it seems unlikely now I’ll have another chance.
The first half of the book focuses on the daughter arriving to clear out her dad’s house. The story is told in the past tense by her and she addresses this to a third party in fact the whole book is a letter addressed to that party but I don’t reveal who this is until halfway through the book. This idea came late in the day and I have to thank Antonio Tabucchi for giving me this idea. In his novel Pereira Maintains the whole book is read by someone on behalf of Pereira; it’s not a letter but it is a written statement.
The final key to the puzzle I owe to Ruth Dugdall. Her novel The Woman Before Me is effectively a mystery but the difference is not working out who is guilty but whether the guilty party is remorseful and deserving of parole when she maintains that she is innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted; the whole notion of what a mystery is gets turned on its head and it was reading that book that made me realise that what I had been writing was a mystery novel, albeit a most unconventional one. Having that in place, all that remained was to fill in the blanks.
and I initially intended the book opening with the daughter arriving at Glasgow Airport and imagined ending with her there too after her encounter with whatever exactly she was going to encounter. I even took Koestler’s open line, “Here we go,” and made it my opening line. Only I added “again” to it. I intended to do the same with the Departure section of the book. That all got dropped but the basic concept was retained: a woman arrives, faces certain truths, is affected by them and leaves a new woman. So rather than the book being about the father the focus became more and more about the daughter.
I had a discussion online recently about the need for change in novels. It was suggested to me that it’s an essential but I’m not entirely convinced. A catalyst causes a chemical reaction but it itself is unchanged. In my novel The More Things Change the whole point is the fact that things change but the protagonist doesn’t, not fundamentally; he undergoes experiences but who is in his life and where he is in it do not change. I think much the same is true for the protagonist in this new novel. She becomes more aware of herself and is provided with opportunities to . . . revel is as good a word as any . . . to revel in herself but I don’t think she changes. We’ll have to see what Carrie thinks when she’s finished it.
There is a point in every book, at least every book I have written so far, where I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’m going to finish it. This even goes for the first two because even through I had the basic stories written in a matter of a few short weeks they weren’t really novels for a long time after that and I wondered more than once whether I was kidding myself thinking I could make them into more than just a couple of funny stories. The third book was really my ‘difficult second album’ and it was. The thing I’ve learned is that, for me, the gestation process cannot be rushed. This has meant that everything I’ve written has morphed as it’s been written and has taken on a life of its own. Left is not the book I set out to write. I can tell you that here and now. The real question that needs answering is: Is the book I ended up writing worth the effort? That’s a hard one because, and I’ve said this about my poetry, the novel is what gets discarded at the end of the process. The writing of the novel is what was important to me and that was what it was. No one else will experience my novel that way and there is more of the book in my head than ever ended up on the page.
So is it really finished? No. Carrie will read it, give me her impression, answer my questions and add some of her own, and that will either mean a bit of editing or some clarification. Or curling up in a ball and sobbing. Just now I’m wondering if I specifically mentioned my protagonist putting the phone back on the hook. She leaves the phone off the hook so as not to be disturbed at one point but does she even put the receiver back in its cradle? Is that an issue? There’s a lot I don’t mention. So why is that bothering me? Don’t know. At the very least there will be a lot of proofreading to be done but that requires other skills and will probably not even be attempted for a few months until I can approach the book from a distance. And maybe then I’ll be looking for a volunteer to read the thing but don’t all rush at once. That’ll be a while yet.
But for now I’m finished, done in, knackered and with a ton of reading to catch up on.