FROM THE EMERGENCY:
an interview with Sunil Badami
This is the nightmare. You write your first novel. You pour everything you have into it, from raw talent to wild hope. You finish this novel and a publisher expresses interest. You come home one night and someone has stolen your computer and the novel is gone. There’s barely a trace of it left. Of course, this is not a nightmare—this happened.
You’ve spent the last few years rewriting this stolen novel. I was wondering whether you could speak about the writing of that first book, the nightmare experience, and the process of rewriting.
Well, even getting to the point where I’d gotten close to finishing it – I’d done ten drafts of the completed manuscript before it was stolen (not to mention all the drafts and wrong turns along the way) – was a nightmare in itself as well! I mean, I’d started writing the novel when I was 19 and lost it when I was 33, so I’d been writing it in fits and starts for 14 years. And despite not writing it every day – at least up until the year it was stolen – it was with me all the time, so I spent a large part of my 20s – at least those years of them I wasn’t hung-over or heartbroken – feeling terribly guilty about not writing the novel.
I originally started writing the novel when I was in hospital for six months. I’d broken both knees on consecutive nights and then tripped over the day they got me to walk after the operation. So I set myself the project of reading every Booker Prize winner from Midnight’s Children to The English Patient. When I got to the passage that read “and the shadow fell upon his face like a pool of crushed grapes,” I knew two things: one, I wasn’t going to read any more; and two, I’d write something myself.
I didn’t think I was better than a Booker prize-winning author! But I guess like most writers, I started writing because I wanted to read a story I hadn’t read. So I started writing a story about a doctor telling his children stories of all the weird and wonderful case histories he’s encountered: the Siamese twins in love with the same lass, the face-blind family, the woman who spoke in foreign accents without ever having left the District, and the man who became allergic to the love of his life.
What started out as a long short story to while away the time in hospital between operations somehow became 60 000 words in eight weeks. I was astounded – it looked like the beginnings of a novel, even if I’d never imagined I, of all people, could ever write one.
But at that moment, all I wanted to do was finish it. I made the big mistake of showing friends and family. Something I’d never do now. Perhaps I was trying to impress them that I’d managed to write so much, but I think part of it was also just confirming that I’d actually done it, you know, written as much as I had. But I learnt after the umpteenth raised-eyebrowed “And how’s the (ahem) novel going?” to shut my mouth.
I can’t say how I got the idea, exactly. Probably being in hospital, surrounded by the ill and afflicted. I’d always been fascinated by circus freaks – being one of only four or five non-white, non-footy playing kids in a school of 1500… well, you can work out why I had such an affinity. The original idea was about a man with heart cancer, although it doesn’t really exist, and even then I knew it was too obvious and too heavy handed (I was cleaning up my attic the other day and found the original beginnings of that story, sketched out when I was about 18, a few months before I went into hospital, in that cramped, light blue, diffident hand I always felt embarrassed by. But the story was there, timorous and fragile, like the ultrasound of what it would become).
What really interested me about the man who was allergic to the love of his life was something I once said around that time, that ‘you often don’t get what you really want until you don’t really want it anymore.’ At the time, I just thought it was a nicely turned phrase, but as I’ve gotten older…
It occurred to me, even then, that what we often want is what we don’t have, what we can’t have, and I wondered if perhaps we didn’t really want it once we got it? Or if we only got it when we stopped desiring it so much? Often, achieving that goal or attaining that prize is anticlimactic: we’re more often relieved or drained by the end.
So what would happen if a man who could get anything he wanted, and as a result, didn’t really want anything at all (or want for anything), suddenly discovered that he couldn’t have the one thing he really wanted more than anything else?
There’s an allergy called marital allergy where women are allergic to the protein in their husbands’ semen, which leaves them in great pain after sex. When I have asked people what they’d do if the love of their life had marital allergy, they reply that they’d use a condom. But what if you were latex intolerant? Oh, they say, we’d just break up. Really? You’d just break up with the one person you wanted to be with, the one person who wanted to be with you, the person who made you laugh, who made you happy, who completed you, who finished your sentences, who understood you, who made you feel safe and loved? I mean, people stay with people who do none of that, so why would it be so easy to just walk away?
Love is a free energy – like happiness, it’s one of the few commodities in the world that increases by sharing. And yet humanity has invented all these impediments to the free movement and sharing of love: class, caste, race, gender, religion, whatever. There are so many challenges to love, and yet it’s the one thing that makes us alive, that makes us appreciate the meaning of living.
It’s also something that I, like many self-obsessed young men in my twenties was more in love with the idea of, than really understanding it myself; and in addition to the same bad relationship ten times over before I met my wife, the book I guess was my way of working out what love meant. As I grew and got older, the book grew and changed as well, though how it did before it was lost, I can’t say now.
Anyway, I’d write in fits and starts over the years, mainly case histories, squirreling away bits and pieces of information and data, strange facts, quotes, whatever, adding bits and pieces with an idea of what would happen in the end, but never sure how it would come together. It is interesting how thinking about a novel is almost the same as writing it; plot holes were patched up and new lines of narrative opened up, and the book changed a lot over the years.
I had a lot of problems working out the narrative voice at first. It was meant to be one indeterminate narrative voice like the unnamed, unreliable narrator in Oscar and Lucinda, but I found it too hard to sustain over two or three different storylines. Like most young writers, I wanted to say everything about everything, so the story would often run away from me, and I had lots and lots of loose ends, all bursting out of the gate but fizzling into nothing.
(While cleaning the attic, I actually found an old, old, first draft. I was asked to submit it to a publisher for a reader’s report about ten years ago, and flicking through it, I was surprised at how good parts of it were. I couldn’t believe a 19 year old had that command of language, or that fearlessness, but I suppose most writers would say that when they first start writing, they just go with it: everything’s a first draft, everything seems to come out fully formed, all they do is go back and change some words here or there.)
Of course, as you keep writing, it gets harder, and I think the difference between people who write, and Writers, is working through those difficult years when you just can’t seem to get anything right. For a number of years I found it very hard to write anything, least of all the novel, distracted by the rush and thrum of my messy twenty-something life. Of course it’s easy when it’s fun and you find you’ve written 60 000 words without quite knowing how you did it; it’s trying to write anything at all and not know how you’ll do it that determines whether you’re a writer or not, whether you love what you do, even when it’s hard, or it’s just something to keep you amused as you wait for the specialist to drop by your hospital bed.
Anyway, whatever I did, even if I wasn’t writing, I knew I just wanted to be a writer. And after a few lost years, in which I traveled, got heartbroken, read voraciously but wrote little, I returned to university and completed my honours degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but when I was lucky enough to get a first with a story that was very well received, I was inspired to start the novel again.
An editor friend asked me what I was planning to do with the first. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he told me about the MA in Creative Writing at East Anglia, then considered the best in the world. Why didn’t I apply?
I applied for scholarships to universities in the UK and USA. Although I did get interviewed for East Anglia and was shortlisted for a number of scholarships, including the Fulbright, I missed out on them – perhaps because in the interview for the latter, so overwhelmed with excitement, when asked whom I admired most, I replied “Che Guevara. Um, not because I advocate armed revolution or anything…”
I ended up going to Goldsmiths at the University of London. At the time, I asked a very well-known writer who I knew and whose work I admired if they could write me a reference. They obliged, but admonished me too. ‘Why do you need a creative writing degree? All you need to be a writer is to observe acutely, listen carefully, live enthusiastically, read voraciously and write, write, write every day!’ And you know what, after two creative writing courses, here and in the UK, I’d have to say she’s absolutely right.
The truth of that wise writer’s admonishment is that despite what many creative writing courses suggest, you can’t be taught how to write – least of being taught talent. Writing is a process of learning – from story to story, from book to book – and just as teaching implies an easy answer, learning demands hard work.
The funny thing is that although there’s so much pressure on writers and writing students to write the perfect book, especially given that we don’t often have more than one shot in the locker (rather than the three or four book apprenticeship the legendary Andre Deutsch editor Diana Athill once spoke of), the moment you wrote the “perfect book,” the one that said everything you wanted to say, exactly as you imagined it, you probably wouldn’t write another thing, would you, Harper Lee? I remember a much wiser writer telling me after the bar had closed that the reason most writers are alcoholics is because they’re either terrified they can’t write, or worse, that they can’t write as they once did. I’d much rather be a good writer with a shelf full of good books and one great one, than a genius with only one great book to my name. But I suppose, being an unpublished writer, I can afford the luxury of such fantasies!
Actually, I applied for an overseas course for a number of reasons, mainly because they could provide me with the greatest possible opportunity to potentially meet US or UK publishers and agents. Also, it offered a wonderful opportunity for my wife and I to spend a year or two away alone together, to do the traveling she hadn’t had an opportunity to do before, and to live in and explore a foreign city together.
Going to the UK was great because it only involved a one year absence, my wife could work there, Europe was close, and there was the possibility of staying on.
In those regards, going overseas was perfect, both personally and creatively. Being away from home made me imagine and envision home with all the clarity of remove – as Joyce or Gogol wrote about their homelands from far away.
Goldsmiths was especially wonderful. I’d really admired the work of the British writer Blake Morrison, who’d helped create creative non-fiction with his beautiful memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? Blake’s parents were both doctors, like mine, and I’d used the memoir as a model for part of my novel, so the opportunity to work with him closely was amazing. Blake is one of the UK’s top writers and critics – he was chair of the Booker Prize judging panel that awarded the prize to Oscar and Lucinda, another major influence on my novel – and he knew nearly every great British writer.
It was just mind-blowing to go to our afternoon seminar and sit a couple of feet away from the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, Tobias Hill, Aminatta Forna, Nick Hornby, Bernardine Esposito and others just talking about their work and the writing life. Hearing them talking candidly and encouragingly about writing was inspiring.
Unlike creative writing courses I’ve experienced in Australia, Goldsmiths was rigorous, with a four hour morning workshop which involved workshopping two people’s work for two hours, a seminar on a book from the prescribed reading list presented by students, and an hour of writing exercises and discussion. After lunch, you might have a one-on-one session with either of your two tutors (my other tutor was the prize-winning poet Lavinia Greenlaw, who now teaches at UEA), to which you were expected to bring a 5000 word extract for feedback; or you might have a student-led workshop, where you’d workshop someone else’s work. Then the afternoon seminar with the great writers; then the best part of the day, sitting in the pub afterwards, just talking about writing.
I’m very wary of discussing writing too much though. I think it can lend itself to the kind of wanky pretentiousness you encounter at lots of writers’ festivals and literary events, where non-writers (or, as I used to be, an occasional writer who talked more about writing than actually writing) invest writing with a kind of mystical formula that only those on the “inside” can ever know: that if you have the right passion or the right set of rules or the right pen or the right course, you’ll write a best seller. As if anything tangible was an ingredient for art, or talent, or even genius.
But that chatter, just talking and talking and talking about what we read or wrote or wanted to do, finding out about each other, sounding off and against each other, feeling each other and our work out, was invaluable. A lot of drunken nonsense was spouted, but a lot of interesting ideas emerged too. And it reminded me that you don’t have to endure the long distance runner’s isolation: that if you can find a good group of writer friends who share your aesthetics and ideals, you can get through the difficult solitude of actually writing.
Anyway, a big part of the assessment schedule involved regular submission – you had to provide four extracts of 5000 a semester – two for your workshops and two for your tutorials. You had to deliver two seminars and a 5000 word paper on texts from the prescribed reading list, plus a final portfolio of 20 000 words of creative writing and a 10 000 word exegesis. There was a lot of work to do in the six days between workshop days, and my 20 other classmates were among the most creative, driven and passionate people I’d ever encountered.
Despite an Australian creative writing academic once telling me they were happy “catering to the bottom end of the market” the most important component of any creative writing course, in addition to the teaching staff and the writers they attract, is your other classmates. If they are of a high standard and work ethic, you’ll soon find if you want to keep up you have to be too.
So that was a very big incentive to write every day. But more importantly, to support us, my wife had taken a very junior position at a publisher’s, and while she liked the people she worked with, she didn’t much enjoy the job. Because I’d missed out on a scholarship, we’d used the house deposit to go. And part of the whole “you quit your job and come to London while I pursue my dreams” pitch was that we’d try for our first baby before we returned, hoping that the child could be born in the UK and get a British passport.
So it was imperative that I finished the novel and got an agent and/or publisher before we left. Although in the past, I’d always written at night, when everything was still and I was half-dreaming, I couldn’t not spend time with my wife in the evenings, especially as we didn’t know many people in London.
So the first thing I had to do, apart from settling into my new writing space (a crawl space under the loft bed) was “change my stroke,” so to speak – learning how to write in the day rather than the night.
Every morning, I’d get up with my wife and see her off to work, then start writing from 9am until about 3 or 4pm. I have to say pure guilt drove me on – how could I laze about doing nothing while she slaved away? I’d do errands in the afternoon and then spend the evening with her.
Unfortunately, changing my work habits as I got used to a new educational system and settled in took over six months – no matter how hard I tried, everything I wrote was terrible. I became very despondent, thinking about “The Golden Year” about five years before, in which I’d written a poem every day, had really worked on the novel and had written a number of short stories which had gotten published. But the harder I tried, the harder it got.
One of the stories I delivered that first fruitless semester was a short story which had come to me in a nightmare. I dreamt that I was still living at my mother’s house in the outer western suburbs of Sydney and struggling with one of the first versions of the book. A strange man came to the house and asked to see my mother. It turned out that he was me from 20 years in the future, offering me the completed book because it had taken so long to write and taken so much out of him that he’d run out of energy and inspiration to write any more. But the completed book came with strict instructions not to change it in any way – which of course I did. The story ended with me trying to remember the original book and realizing it might take 20 years to rewrite.
Anyway, by the second half of the academic year, my writing had hit its stride. I was writing every day, hitting 1500 words a day on the novel, writing 500 to 1000 words on a blog and writing a short story every two weeks. It felt as if I was on this amazing magical pony which I could barely control: I was too afraid to stop in case I lost the ride, so I kept holding on for dear life, wherever it took me. And it took me to pretty much to the end of the novel, with over 130 000 words (of which I hoped to cut about 20 000). And the novel I was writing was a complete rewrite of the original novel from scratch. Perhaps I should have read my story more closely.
But that output and creative energy was a wonderful confluence of everything that makes a creative writing course worthwhile, and that’s reflected too in the number of successfully published graduates of the course, which, when I was there, had only been going a few years (among them, Evie Wyld, the author of the acclaimed After the Fire, A Still Small Voice).
I gave myself ample time to prepare my final submission – over two months, as I already had more than enough work I could submit. I spent the final two months writing the exegesis, and two days before it was due to go to the printer (and a week before I was due to submit and then take my father in law on his first ever trip around the UK and France) my computer died as I pressed print. The entire draft was lost, and I only had another rough copy I’d printed out to check for subs to go by. I had to retype the entire 10 000 word exegesis, bibliography and footnotes, as well as reformat the entire document in the remaining two days and nights. I barely made it to the printers but luckily managed to submit on time.
Then we went away, my wife, my father in law and I, for a wonderful holiday – to celebrate his 60th birthday and first ever visit to Europe; me completing the degree and almost finishing the novel; and, best of all, the impending birth of our first child.
I always backed up my files, especially the novel, to a portable external hard drive, though I left the drive attached to the computer. And I did just that, along with the photos from my father in law’s trip, while we went to the British Library down the road to look at some of the beautiful and rare manuscripts, among them Shakespeare’s Folios and what was left of Mozart’s Requiem (his impoverished widow forced to sell pages to collectors).
I suppose you’d consider it ironic, my father in law and I wandering those ancient tomes which had survived so many wars and dark ages, as my computer was being stolen not ten minutes’ walk away.
When we got home, I noticed something awry. The door was shut, but a heart shaped box we used to keep change in was on the floor, and the change missing. It didn’t immediately strike me that anything was amiss, and I didn’t even notice the computer was gone. But when I did –
Now, a lot of people at this point say: That must have been devastating. Yes, you could say that, although I don’t know if even devastation is the right word. I’d experienced great physical pain before, having been twice hit by a car, but this went beyond that. I’d experience great emotional distress before too, having once had my heart broken beyond even my romantic notions of it, but this too went beyond that.
When I’d experienced both the physical and emotional pain I’d had, at the moment of impact, everything seemed at once very slow and unbelievably fast: I could see each moment of it unfolding (the car collecting me under the fender, seeing the driver’s face; the moment she told me she didn’t love me) and yet before I knew it, it had already become a horrible unforgettable memory.
Even now, thinking of all these events – the first car accident, that break up, losing the novel – I’m at once overwhelmed by that first terrible moment, and also the memory of everything that followed after its first impact had receded. It’s a fizzy, bitter swirl of fear and horror and sheer, unutterable helplessness: it’s happened without you even suspecting it was coming, and now it’s gone.
I ran out into the street, yammering My novel! My fucken novel! I’ve lost my fucken novel! Over and over and over again. I ran to the end of it, hoping perhaps the thieves had only just done it and I might catch them, or that someone had seen them (though being taciturn old London, how I expected anyone to bother telling me, or what I’d do if I did run into the thieves is beyond me now).
Then calling the police, finding out what was taken (£100 in coins, the iPod, clothes) and spending the night filling out forms. That stopped me thinking too much about it, I suppose – the same triplicate mechanics you must do when someone dies – but when my father in law asked if I’d backed up –
Now, as someone who has lost pretty much everything they wrote for 13 years in one fell swoop as a result of not having backed up, may I offer the following suggestion to those who may find themselves in the same situation as my father in law that evening.
Do not ask someone who has just lost everything they’ve ever written if they backed up, and when hearing their blubbering response, reply “Well, you should have.”
That long night, I pulled a bottle of 15 year whisky we’d bought in the Highlands and drank the whole thing. I remember Baudelaire saying “brandy makes the thoughts stop” and though I don’t buy into the whole “writer’s life” fantasy that many aspiring writers hold on to – that being a writer gives you permission to act badly or drink too much – I am ashamed to admit that when I’m writing, in that half-life between the real and imagined, I often do drink a bit more than I should, just to stop the thrum and barrage of thoughts, half-sentences, chapters, story arcs ahead and just past, tangling themselves into a confusing stew, swirling and twirling around into my dreams.
But I’m sure most people would agree the best solution – at least immediately, in the face of such loss – is paralyticism and oblivion, even for one night.
The next morning, aching and hungover, regret like ashes in my mouth, I looked at the empty place on my desk where the computer had been. And to my surprise and relief, I discovered the backup drive. The thieves had left the drive and power cord to the computer, so there was still some hope. I was elated, and made sure my father in law knew about it.
I went to a computer store to check the files, and there I discovered that as the drive had been pulled out in the middle of a backup, all the files had been corrupted: all the writing, and just as devastatingly, the photos. All the pictures we’d taken in the last few months had been lost. Luckily, I’d kept copies of the photos on DVD, but not the novel.
With our imminent return to Australia – all the packing and winding up – I didn’t have any further opportunity to think much about the novel, let alone start writing again. The whole tumult had been too exhausting and dispiriting. With a new baby due in three months, I really didn’t think I’d ever write again, much less start the novel again. I’d always promised myself that I could never deny my children a decent life for the sake of my great unfinished novel. I had to put aside my dreams and ambitions and realize I’d had my chance, and it had been lost.
People have said “Losing your novel must have been like losing a child.” Well, as the father of two beautiful children, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined or possibly hoped for, I have to say that despite the obvious devastation of losing any novel – let alone one you’ve been writing nearly your entire adult life – it’s not. You can always rewrite a novel, you can always reimagine it. In fact, every novel is a kind of revision of the ones before it – whether the ones a writer’s written, or the ones they’ve read. And you cannot rewrite or reimagine a child. If you gave me the choice between writing a bestselling novel and my children, it wouldn’t even be a contest. But I say this now, not then, when my firstborn wasn’t even an idea, much less one I could appreciate or grasp: when my wife told me the foetus was the size of a paperclip, I could only imagine a paperclip in her uterus.
(because of the horrendous amount of paperwork involved in staying in the UK, and with no guarantee of citizenship for the baby, we decided to go home – and as anyone who’s had to grapple with a newborn baby would know, having family and friends around in those fraught, fragile, sleepless first few months is a necessity beyond words)
So, back in my mother’s house in the empty Western Suburbs, looking for a house, a job, a doctor for the baby and more, although the heartbreak over the novel’s loss remained – perhaps because I hadn’t really thought about it properly. Even after that disastrous heartbreak, it occurred to me that we grieve not so much what we had, but what we hoped to have, what we imagined we might if we’d just held on that little bit longer. True for an infatuation or too-brief affair, and especially so for a lost unpublished novel. The characters kept talking to me, but I was too tired by our relocation and the excitement about the baby to try to write anything down. I felt very very sorry for myself and my dashed hopes.
Then, a week before the baby was due, something as unexpected as the novel. A London agent, seeing the last three surviving chapters, approached me. And that same week, so did an Australian agent. I didn’t know what to do – my baby was due, and I couldn’t think about it until after the birth.
And when our daughter Leela was finally born after a terrible, arduous, 27 hour labour, I felt something I’d only felt once before on my wedding day: a brilliant, beautiful, energizing, invigorating rush of egolessness, a relief and reprieve from my worries, my anxieties, my obsessive repetitious thoughts, myself. I couldn’t think of myself or my lost novel, only this tender, raw, fragile, trembling little thing, still smelling of her mother’s womb, squalling and shivering, totally helpless – for whom I was now totally responsible. It struck me then that while I could be a failed novelist, an ex-boyfriend, a former orthopaedic patient, I would always be this child’s father. And nothing else mattered a whit then – and, to be honest, nothing else does.
I got in touch with the agents, and told them my situation. They asked when I could resubmit the manuscript. “Easy,” I said, echoing the blithe “me” of my story – “it’s all in my head, so how about six months?”
Ah, reader! Who was it that said a pram in the hallway is the loss of a book? In addition to teaching English as a Foreign Language in a two-bit visa factory in the city, struggling with the four hour commute and helping with the baby, I could barely think, let alone write. But I started, something tentative, writing as much as I could between naps in the evening.
It was hard work. But with the baby not sleeping, my wife at her wits’ end, having to find freelance ghostwriting jobs and teaching positions, what I did write wasn’t much, and wasn’t much good. Not having written anything since I’d lost the novel, my writing muscles were weak and flaccid. I hated everything I wrote, and I was convinced I’d never recapture that new “Golden Year” the year before. But I wrote every day, every chance I got, so I could at least present the agents with a decent, saleable 15 000 word extract.
I think I ended up with 15 000 words in three or four months, but of that, I could only really use about 5 000. And I kept going over it, re-writing, filling in plot holes, re-writing characters, editing heavily, so every step forward demanded two or three back.
It was as if the original, lost book was standing over my shoulder, snickering and whispering as I wrote about how it would have done that better, or differently, or funnier. I was paralysed by the ghost of the original book, and the new book only seemed a pale, empty golem of it. But I kept writing, though with diminishing pleasure and confidence.
Then, a week after we moved into our new home after six months of searching, something wonderful happened and we came into some money – enough not only to end our worries, but to give me the chance to write again.
The money was enough to put the agents off – after all, I didn’t need an advance any longer, so as I made it clear, while before I was willing to write something, anything to get what was left out there so I could start on the next book in my head, I now had the opportunity to write the book I always wanted to write, the book that had been plaguing my dreams for the last fourteen years. So unless any advance they could negotiate could match the sum of money we’d come into, I’d take my own sweet time – after all, it had taken me 14 years so far, so what was another year or two?
When people, eyebrows arched, asked me how the book was going and when I was going to finish it and offering me lots of advice to do it (usually along the lines of “you just have to get on and finish it”) I always replied that if I had the money and the time to do it, I would. And I’d always assumed that having all the time and money to write, I’d dash off great masterpieces in the morning, before enjoying long, literary lunches. Don’t we all?
Now I did have all the time and money I needed, you know what? It made the writing even harder. With the money to pay for research, with no other demands on my time, I hardly wrote a thing. I’d write something, then discover a new fact or error, and have to rewrite again. I’d write the same scene over and over, trying to make it perfect, or I’d get distracted by the new responsibilities that money brought – insurance, dealing with lots of people who I’d never had to before, such as accountants and financial planners, or just enjoying it: eating out, traveling, lazing, living.
And it occurred to me then that Peter Gabriel (of all people) was right: artists are mischievous creatures, and we need constraint. You give an artist everything they think they need to make the art, and you’ll end up with nothing. Which is pretty much what I had now I didn’t have any excuse not to write. Whether it’s time or money or form, the art emerges from those constraints: from the emergency, so to speak, of finding a way of escape.
Then one morning in January 2008, my wife asked me when I was planning on finishing the novel. End of the year, I assured her. “Well,” she said, “perhaps you should bring the deadline forward to September.” I didn’t understand at first, and then it dawned on me. We were pregnant again. Knowing how hard it was to write with one baby in the house, I started writing furiously in a panic: I had to finish the book before the second baby, which I knew would ramp up the exhaustion and stress even further. And I didn’t want to not be as involved in my second child’s life as I had been in my first child’s.
It was a terrible, terrible year for my writing. I started writing at night, after my wife and baby had gone to bed, trying to snatch a few hours’ writing before Leela woke up for her midnight feed, then writing a bit more until I drank and drank to stop the thoughts whirring in my head. I’d write from 9.30pm until 1.30am, feed and settle the baby, then write again until 3.30am, finally stumbling into bed at 4.30am, before waking at 6.30am to help out.
More than this, I kept thinking about finishing the book – the whole book, all of it, even though I had no idea how to do it. The looming weight of the whole entire book was unbearable. I was exhausted, and I had to stop – not just because I was drinking more than I wanted to to keep the doubts and thoughts at bay, but because the exhaustion was turning me into the arsehole writer I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be. I was too tired to imagine, too tired to write properly, too tired to live properly either. Although I got a lot of writing done, it wasn’t great, and I fell into a deep, paralyzing depression for three months, unable to write, to read, to do anything more than sleep and feel ashamed and defeated.
As it turned out, in addition to the exhaustion, I was suffering a severe Vitamin D deficiency, and so after diagnosis and treatment, I felt a lot better, and ready to climb the mountain of my novel again. What I needed to do was to find something that offered my days some structure, something that took time away from my writing time, so that I was more focused in that time.
Freud spoke of the eroticism of transgression, and for me, despite whatever privileged, tenured literary theory academics might suggest, writing and reading have always been slightly transgressive acts. In some countries, they’re acts of rebellion; for me, the best books were those I wasn’t meant to be reading that late at night, under the cover of the torch – let alone reading at all; and writing, that utterly necessary frivolity, had lost its dangerous excitement and become a chore, an obligation.
So, despite my misgivings, I enrolled in a creative writing PhD at the invitation of an old mentor who said he needed good candidates for the course he’d just been appointed to head. The tawdry, disappointing story of those wasted years is too long and boring to recount here, but all I’ll say is this: it’s a measure of the disconnect of the academy from reality when none of the academics who run the course have ever written, much less published, any creative writing; when academic publication in obscure online journals is ranked higher than any creative writing published in prominent literary journals, newspapers or magazines; and when no novel, poetry collection or any writing of any kind or any worth is produced by such courses. Can you recall a major, popular or critically acclaimed novel produced by an Australian creative writing course in the last ten years? When a creative writing academic says that the course does not and cannot assess creative writing, but that you must understand critical theory to write a novel, because without theory, you cannot avoid cliché – and can say this with a straight face, never having actually written a novel, much less a theory-inspired one, you know there’s a serious problem.
However, after a number of run-ins with the academics, I found my passion again. At first, I thought great art had to be inspired by anger: j’accuse, motherfuckers! But as Jung once observed, art exists because the world is not perfect. And I realized I wrote not because I was angry – after all, relentlessly angry writing is as monotonously boring as interminably happy writing – but because I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the world, with all the terrible books I’d read, with the rules, with the powers that be, with being told how to think or what to say – or worse, how to feel and live.
Out of the pointless, needless distractions of academia – all installed, I suspect, only to give the academics something to do – I found my dissatisfaction, my passion, my reason to keep writing. Because my novel couldn’t be assessed for the degree, I could write what I wanted. And I did. Where before I’d worried what the old novel thought, or what readers might think, or how the agents might or might not like it, I just wrote, with no thought about anything or anyone else but my characters and their stories.
I wrote and wrote and wrote, and most importantly, I wrote and wrote and wrote every day. Where before I’d written when the inspiration struck me, now I wrote when I was unsure, when I was bored, when I was tired, hungover, depressed, busy, elated, distracted. Every day, no matter what, no matter how long it took me to get going, I’d write, and slowly, ever so slowly, the novel started to emerge again. Not the novel I’d written once, so long ago, but the novel I was writing, the novel I’m writing now.
I’ve heard some young writers talking about how much they love writing – I heard one say how he loved “connecting with himself” as he wrote. I love editing – I can do it all day – but I hate first drafting. I creep to the desk with trepidation, resignation, a horrible nausea in my gut, knowing that the brilliant image or idea I had last night, just as I fell asleep and repeated like a mantra to ensure I remembered it in the morning, is only provisional: whatever I manage to type is only an approximation, and even then, it may not last – I’ll write it and seeing it on the page, realize it doesn’t work at all.
But it’s that nervousness, that fear, that makes the writing real sometimes. When I’ve nearly killed myself to get the words right, the story right, the character right, when I’ve ended up in places I hadn’t expected, when the writing takes a turn I couldn’t predict, or a character says or does something I couldn’t imagine, then all that drudge – and it is a lot of drudge, just typing and typing until something emerges, then cutting and cutting to give it room to breath and hopefully shine – is worth it. So despite all the wasted years, I found I was now in love with the book in a way that I hadn’t been for years, even in the Golden Years.
I remember another writing student, one who hadn’t published anything and had only been writing since they were awarded the PhD place, telling me that if you love something it has to make you happy. Having been married longer than my wife would care to remember, I had to laugh. I mean, my wife loves me and I don’t make her happy all the time. Love isn’t about the better, when it’s easy and fun and not hard work; love is when it’s worse, when you don’t know if you can go on, when you’re not having fun, when it is hard work. And writing – and the love of it – is the same. I don’t write well every day; I don’t feel like writing every day; I don’t hit my word or chapter targets every day. Some days are much harder than others, and there are far fewer good days than bad.
But as you keep going, as you keep perservering, as you keep connecting to your work and your characters, you get a few more good days, and they keep you going. There are lots of points in the lives of my novel where I wanted to give up; and I regret nothing more than not sticking at it when I was younger and had so much more energy and time than I have now. But I could not have written the book I am writing now then. Yes, the language (from what I found from that ancient manuscript) is more daring; and I had an innate imagination I couldn’t even dream of now; but it lacks the wisdom, the experience, the heartbreak, the maturity I hope what I write now has.
After four years of patience, my UK agent asked for an extract. I’d never shown anyone anything yet, and I was terrified. What if she didn’t like it? Would she drop me? Then where would I be? But publishing is a form of courageous, foolish self-mortification: you publish and run the risk of being damned. But without risk, what’s the writing worth?
Fuck it, I thought: I believe in this novel. I have to. I may have doubts about my ability to serve it and its characters the way I hope they should be, I may have concerns about passages that should be edited further, I may have doubts and fears, but not about the story I want to tell. In fact, I’ve always felt as if my talents as a writer haven’t quite been up to the task of giving the idea I was so lucky to have what it deserved. But if I don’t believe in it, how will I ever get you to?
The hardest thing about writing, as in life, is knowing when to take advice and when to disregard it. In the creative writing workshop, it can mean that what you show – often for students, a hastily written first draft – can end up as a camel: that is, a horse by committee. I have no illusions that publishing is a collaborative process, working closely with your agent, your publisher, your editor, your publicist. But writing – that first draft, and the moment you hit “send” on the email – is an intensely singular, lonely experience. There should be no-one else in the room then: not the previous draft, not your imaginary readers, not even yourself.
And perhaps it’s then, in that egoless moment when you’ve forgotten how to write, and just write; when you don’t think about anything else except what’s happening to that character on the page in front of you, when all you see is one sentence becoming a paragraph, that para becoming a page, those pages becoming a chapter: always focused, in the moment you’re in – that you may achieve something of the transcendent joy we all hope for in life, let alone writing.
My lovely, supportive agent got back to me the next day. She loved it. We had to discuss completion. I agreed to a rigorous submission schedule, sending in each narrative strand (of which there are four) every three months. Could I do it? After spending nearly 18 years trying to write it, how would I know?
Yet that pressure – to send in chunks in easily measurable timeframes – has proven wonderful. I write every day because I have to. And though some days aren’t great, there’s a great satisfaction in knowing that however I felt, however little I wanted to write, whatever else I had to do that day, I still managed something. Out of those sentences, those paras, those pages, those chapters, I finally discovered something resembling a novel, and like that paperclip foetus, it’s now starting to take on features I could never have imagined, and a life of its own.
What’s been wonderful these past few productive months is how connected everything seems, from research to writing. An example: a character is afraid of the sea, despite being born with a caul, the lucky talisman that’s reputed to save sailors from drowning. I started seeing all the connections: he’s raised by the Sisters of Mercy (mer-sea) and unbeknownst to me when I started writing, his caul is shared by Nicholas Nickleby – which though I haven’t read it, is the same kind of bildungsroman I’m writing. I remembered a great line from Eliot about the mermaids singing each to each, and in trying to find the name for a dubious clairvoyant, I happened to remember an old Robert Klippel sculpture, Madame Sophie Sosostris. The sculpture itself was inspired by Eliot’s other great poem, The Wasteland, and the Madame Sosostris in the poem predicts “death by water.” Although I don’t strive to insert the symbols and metaphors as obviously and painfully as so many “Big L” literary writers seem to nowadays, I love how the idea, the inspiration, runs through the text, without being obstrusive or obstructive (as it might in a theory-inspired novel, I suspect).
It reminds me that love is, at its heart, always a kind of idea: we fall in love with the idea of love, much as we do with the idea of writing, or the idea of the novel itself, and it’s in making that idea real (even through the rubric of make believe) that brings us those ineffable moments of happiness. We see our love refracted in the newspaper, in every song on the radio, in seemingly random chance encounters, in everything. And though I sometimes fear the chasm between the real and imagined lives is a shadowy world of half-existence, one in which I’m always distracted, eating badly, never really engaged, I am: I am engaged with my novel, in a way I haven’t been for years, and it’s this engagement, this daily meeting, that writes it. I just hold on for the ride.
But as I’ve found, no matter how good the idea, in the end, it’s the work that matters: not just the finished article, but everything that goes into it.
Roland Barthes once said that the finished book is the death mask of the work, and though I’m loathe to quote French theorists (other than derogatorily, for everything they and their opportunistic, unimaginative disciples have done to the apprehension, and more importantly, the enjoyment of literature) he’s right. When the book is written and edited and published, it’s done: I’ll feel that same trepidation sending it out, but once it’s out, it’s on its own, in the care of the people who read it. I can hardly remember much of what I’ve written, and I don’t think about it once it’s gone. And, like the mother goose, I’ll thinking of my next brood.
What happens to the novel once it’s done and ready to be shopped? Who knows? It might sell, it might not. It might be popular when it’s published, it might not. That’s too far away, beyond the end of the novel itself, and I haven’t even gotten to the end of the novel yet, so (as I’ve learnt) it’s pointless wondering about what happens after that. No advance would ever pay back what I’ve already spent of our windfall in writing it – or trying to write it – these past few years, so it’s gone beyond the money alone.
But isn’t that what art does? Going beyond not just the form, but the price attached to it, whether commercial or personal? Isn’t that disregard what makes art priceless?
Of course I hope the book does well, should it ever be published, but only so I can write another, and another, and another. And all of these will only be revisions, rewritings, reimaginings of all the books before it. Just as life itself and our living and remembering of it, is always a constant revision. I want whatever I write to be like life itself – not necessarily accurate, but believable. For it’s belief that changes worlds and lives, and I can’t imagine the kind of person who’d die for Derrida. I want my novel to be messy, contradictory, variable; to shout and whisper; to laugh and cry; to offer moments of clarity and occasions of doubt; to be, as close as I can get it in a form as restricted (and simultaneously limitless) as the novel to the mess and press and diversity of life itself.
And just as life isn’t perfect, no book is either – how can it be when it itself is only an imperfect approximation of life? The moment I write the perfect one, I’ll stop – but I hope that day is a long way away.
For me, at least today as I write this, it’s the imagining, the feeling, the writing that’s most important. And it’s that: the imagining, the feeling, the writing, that gives a part of my life the meaning it needs to keep going, to keep trying, to keep striving, even when I can’t or don’t want to (my family gives me all the meaning I need for the rest of my life, and if there is anyone I really write for, it’s them – whether financially, or personally; whether to provide for them, or offer them something they’ll enjoy).
The rest – in publishing and in life – just allows the imagining and feeling and writing to happen, whether disastrous or superlative; and what makes it happen is you, working, working, working every single day.
And of all of these – idea, book, reader or me – I’m the least important.
P.S. And now I have two online back up services, four external hard drives, a Time Machine backup, backup over the network to my wife’s computer, two zip drives and I email every day’s work back to myself.