Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A brick in the face

How many books do you think you have to write before you get published?

It's not a hypothetical question. I say this, because I've been locked away in a net-less house for the last week, trying to finish my first novel. And - having read it over - I'm almost entirely convinced that it'll never see the light of day, and will be limited to a special wheeling-out every year on birthdays and Christmases when I can't afford to buy presents ('is this another copy of that bloody manuscript? I've got four now. No, I don't care that the front covers are all different colours: it's the same manuscript, Holly. I'd prefer bath salts, frankly.')

The problem is: everybody knows that an award winning, critically acclaimed book is - above all else - subtle. It suggests, it winks, it hints. It creates a knowingness between reader and author. And, above all, it makes the reader feel clever. Even if, sometimes, it goes straight over their heads (Life of Pi, I'm talking to you).

Which is all very well and good, and absolutely right and correct. I sat down to right the most subtle of all novels, I can tell you. So subtle, that people would put it down and walk around for days thinking 'what the hell was that all about?' and yet saying 'intriguing, very intriguing'. But I couldn't do it. One day I might be able to, but right now? If my poor little monster of a book ever gets pushed out into the garden, it won't have so much as a Richard and Judy sticker slapped on it.

My book, in short, is as subtle as a brick in the face.

I blame Shakespeare. If in doubt, always blame him: most things are his fault anyway. The problem is, that after 27 years of loving him, reading him, watching him, studying him (for those who don't know me personally, I have an MA in it), some of him has seeped into me. None of the brilliance, obviously.  None of the genius, none of the talent. But some of the drama has emptied itself into the middle of me, and then I write and: WHAM. There it is. My characters aren't even vaguely Pinter-like. They scream, they shout, they laugh, they make terrible, terrible jokes, they cry (by God do they cry), they die continuously, and every so often they try and be funny at exactly the wrong moment. And I can't do the blindest bit about it.

'Behave,' I tell them as fiercely as I can. 'Can you try and do something a little bit low-key? Maybe a paragraph or two where you just, you know, stare at a wall or something?'
'No,' they say. 'That sounds terribly dull. We'll do what we like, thanks very much.' 
Which is all I can expect, really, from characters that I created. They're little bits of me whether I like it or not, and they will not do what they're told.

The thing is: the book you want to write and the book you end up writing are two very, very different creatures. The book I had in mind was subtle, light: hued like a rainbow. Sober, but in a very gorgeous, spirit-lifting kind of way. The book I've ended up writing is a big emotional casserole: part tragedy, part comedy, part domestic battle, part Greek-pathos-roller coaster, with a few carrots floating here and there even though nobody sensible likes carrots. 

But there's nothing I can do. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how - after a certain amount of time - the true self will out (and then I made a bad joke about Will Self and a possible title for his next novel). If that goes for reality-show-type-programmes, then it certainly goes for writing a book. Because you're not just doing it for a few weeks: you're doing it for months and months and months. Worse, you're emptying yourself and your imagination out into it, and there is nowhere you can hide. I am not a subtle person: my book is therefore not subtle in the slightest.

When I'm about to panic, though, I remember that subtlety is lovely, but the reason that literature sticks straight into the middle of me like a flag pole is because it can move. The books that I carry round in my head and dip in to now and then on long journeys (and when boring people are talking to me) are not the clever, obtuse ones. No: it's the ones that make me cry. The ones that make me laugh. The ones that engage my heart, and not my head. King Lear, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights. If you're going to be subtle, be so subtle that it feels like a perfectly white room with a red butterfly in the middle, like Waiting for Godot. If not: show us what you're made of.

So, yes: my little book may never see anything but the insides of cupboards belonging to various members of my direct family. And it'll certainly never win any prizes. But you know what? I read it yesterday, and it made me laugh. It made me cry. And it's everything I'm made of. As for subtlety: I'll leave that to the people who can do it properly. 

If I can't do a white room with a red butterfly, I'll do a red room with a white one. And the white butterfly will be singing its heart out.