Wednesday, May 30, 2007

72,068 Words

Every time I come up here and sit down to write, I begin with the ritual of a cup of strong, black coffee in my armchair and the pages of the Guardian Review section from the previous Saturday's paper. I usually only read two or three articles in a sitting, just to get myself focussed and in the right frame of mind to work. Occasionally I find real inspiration in somebody's comments about another piece of work or discover some truth about my own work that I had (up until then) been hiding from. To whit: I've just read a review of The Post-Birthday World (Lionel Shriver again), that said the author appeared to have sacrificed drama because her story was so autobiographical. This little snippet hit me like a sledgehammer. I am also guilty. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say: I am also cowardly.

There is a fair amount of drama in my book. There is also a fair amount of people saying that these events are awful, terrible, heartbreaking, etc. while at the same time I have shied away from the more extreme things that could have happened to them - I have been letting my characters off easy (for example: the murdered girl wasn't raped, the father wasn't the killer, the detective had already split with his girlfriend when he met his new love-interest, the asian constable is generally well-treated...). Each time I rejected one of these avenues, I told myself that it was for the sake of realism: if too much bad stuff happens to a small set of people, it will become ridiculous. However, I ought to have remembered its corrollary: if too little happens to a set of people, it will become boring.

Some of the characters in my book are very loosely based on real people. They are not portraits, however. It's more like I took a photo, or maybe even just a silhouette, of people I have known and used that static, empty thing as a template upon which to build a fictional character. They are like people-shaped blank canvasses. For example, I am Caroline, but Caroline's mother is not my own mother, she is lifted from the aged aunt of a friend whom I once met for less than an hour. I have imagined her personality and I have knocked twenty years off her age and, hey presto! one fictional mother. They are all a bit like that, however, I find it hard to let some things happen to the characters because of who they used to be. I must try to free myself of this self-defeating inhibition.

I'm also midful that my parents (and their long-established book group) will want to read it. Even my Nana has asked for a copy of the manuscript, although it is somewhat of a perverse relief that she can only manage talking books and the occasional magazine nowadays, as she can neither hold a heavy book for long, nor raise her head sufficiently to look at one.
Gautam Malkani was asked what his parents thought of his book and whether the idea of their reactions had held him back at all, particularly in the areas of sex and swearing - he seemed genuinely surprised at the question!

P.S. Of course this means that if anyone who believes that they know me, thinks they recognise a version of themselves in my book, don't take it personally if bad things happen to 'you' or if I cause 'you' to do bad things to others. It isn't you at all! I have heard it said many times over that the reason a second novel is so hard is because a writer puts their whole life (up to that point) into the first book and the next one has to be pure imagination. (I think the same goes for debut albums.) There must, therefore, be people all over the world who don't realise that some mutated form of themselves exists on paper: copyrighted, sold and distributed to the masses. I might even already be in a book myself. You might.



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