Friday, 1 September 2017

Thinking Up Novels in the Bath

Mozart got his ideas while playing billiards, Lawrence Sterne while shaving.Luis Buñuel liked to sit on his own in a quiet bar sipping a dry martini. I seem to get mine in the bath. This is probably related to the fact that baths invariably send me to sleep, which is why I prefer showers on working days. On mornings when I have nothing pressing to do, I get in the bath, fall asleep, come round as the water becomes lukewarm and, lying there in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking, usually come up with another idea for a novel.

I have published two novels, twenty-five years apart and very different from each other. WHOM (1989) is a satirical romp about a womanizing US President who may or may not bring about an apocalyptic nuclear war by interfering in the politics of a fictitious Mediterranean island. Like so many first novels, it's a mish-mash of influences: Thomas Pynchon, Mikhail Bulgakov and Evelyn Waugh are the main ones I detect in it now. I still think it's quite funny - there's an extract from it here. The Book of the Needle (2014) is a more mature piece of work, a historical novel based on the story of the real-life 17th-century Welsh prophet and tailor Arise Evans; I researched it thoroughly and learned a lot about both history and fiction from the process, though I hoped, as with the earlier novel, to write something people would find funny and entertaining. Both novels could reasonably be said to have sunk without trace, and the process of writing a novel (two years for the first, four and a half for the second) is something I've found deeply disillusioning.

Yet I still dream of writing a novel. I read fiction constantly (whereas my poetry reading tends to be in bursts), and my love of narrative finds an outlet in many of my poems and poetic sequences. I have the poet's weakness of obsessing over phrases and details, and I find plots very difficult, which is why much of my recent work, in both poetry and fiction, has involved retelling existing stories. Otherwise, I think I have the makings of a novelist: I can write good prose and dialogue, invent characters, handle complex structures, and so on. The difficulty, as always, is to commit oneself to such a big project with no guarantee of finding a readership, or even a publisher, at the end of it. And the market has changed so much, and become so relentlessly commercial, over the past few years, that it seems harder than ever, especially for someone whose inclinations are towards the unfashionable modes of literary and (mildly) experimental fiction.

So I dream in the bath of a novel that I would enjoy enough to stick at it through all the uncertainties of the writing process, and might be able to sell at the end. Some of these ideas are old friends, which have surfaced many times before, only to be rejected for some difficulty or other, or because another one has come along which temporarily seems more exciting. Some are even things I have written already in a different genre, but which might be worth expanding into novel form. Some are obviously absurd, and yet, maybe with a little twist...

Here are some of them:

   An adaptation of my poetic sequence Mandeville, about the medieval traveller Sir John Mandeville.

   The autobiographical novel Starling City, about a breakdown I had in my early mid-twenties when I was living in 1980s Brighton. Perhaps combined with an old idea about a detective mystery in which the detective is a post-modernist who doesn't believe in truth.

   A historical novel about the early modern scientist Robert Hooke, about whom I have already written some poems.

   A novel based on the life of the food writer Elizabeth David, which I would fictionalize, combining her story with that of several other women of the time who had similarly adventurous lives.

   A historical thriller in which the protagonist is Christopher Marlowe, who narrates it in a voice borrowed from his namesake Philip Marlowe.

   A fantasy set in the world of pastoral in which everyone is either a shepherd or shepherdess, or pretends to be.

   A novel about the building of the great Welsh reservoirs.

   A novel based loosely on the life of W.S. Graham.

   A novel about a seventeenth-century astrologer and the cases he investigates.

   A ghost story with M.R.James as its protagonist.

   A alternative history novel in which the chess match between Fischer and Karpov, which was scheduled for 1975 but never took place, actually happens, in Cambridge where I was living at the time.

I think several of these ideas are plausible. But every time I contemplate putting in the work I remember my agent asking, of The Book of the Needle: "How are you going to sell this book?" And,not being able to think of an answer, I go back to writing poems, which I do at least have a publisher for.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

August Blues / Wheel of Books

Every year I get the August blues. August is the time when I have most freedom, and I always hope to use that to get some writing done. Instead, a state of lethargy sets in, which gradually begins to dissolve as autumn approaches, with dark evenings, a bit of chill in the air and the prospect of another university term. That hasn't quite happened yet. It's plum season; the sweet-sharp taste of plums is something I associate with guilty and melancholy feelings at the thought of another summer I haven't done quite enough with.

As a matter of fact I finished a new collection of poems at the beginning of the month, so things haven't been as bad as all that - it's just that I haven't been able to get going properly on the projects that ought to come next. To cheer myself up, I am posting this wheel of books: the ten I have published in the course of my life, together with the manuscript of what I hope will be number eleven. The ten are as follows:

   WHOM, novel, published by Bloomsbury in 1989.

   Blizzard, poems, Faber and Faber, 1996.

   Dragons, poems, Faber, 2001.

   Where the People Are: Language and Community in the Poetry of W.S. Graham, critical book, Salt, 2004.

   Whereabouts, poems, rufus books, 2005.

   Mandeville, poems, Faber, 2008.

   Singing a Man to Death, short stories, Cinnamon, 2012.

   Muscovy, poems, Faber, 2013.

   The Book of the Needle, novel, Cinnamon, 2014.

   The Mabinogi, poems, Faber, 2017.

The eleventh book is called Wing (I have a fondness for one-word titles, as the above suggests), and I plan to send it to my editor at Faber on 1 September, after which I will have an anxious wait to see if it's accepted.

Meanwhile, I have reopened this blog, White Threshold. This has its origins in another idle spell, in late 2011, when I was just coming to the end of a period of research leave and wanted something to do to fill up the remaining time. I started a blovel or blog novel, called Starling City, with no great hope that it would come to anything, as indeed it didn't. The blog remains online in its unfinished state, and I doubt if it will ever be reopened as a blovel, though the novel idea may be worth returning to. (My struggles with the novel form are a topic for another post, as is my tendency to return to old ideas years later.) White Threshold, the companion blog of Starling City, named after a collection of poems by W.S. Graham, was planned as a series of reviews of fiction I considered to be underrated. You can still find those reviews here; I am pleased with them and would like to think they may attract some new readers to extraordinary writers like H.F.M. Prescott, Jerome Charyn and Richard Beard. But that project, too, fizzled out. The reviews were hard work, since I usually had to reread the books before writing about them, and I just didn't have the time to keep the blog going.

Now, though, I have become aware that my online presence is a bit patchy. I have a website, which I update very occasionally, and am on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes I want to share things that are too lengthy and detailed for the social media sites and too ephemeral for my own site. And writers nowadays are expected to blog. In fact, for the last few years, I have taught a seminar on blogging to new doctoral students at Aberystwyth University, where I work, and have had to explain to people who usually know more about the subject than I do that I don't blog myself. Hence my belated reopening of White Threshold as a blog for anything I feel like writing about. Possible subjects are:

   My own writing;

   The contemporary literary scene, especially poetry and especially in Wales;

   Creative writing and the problems of teaching it

   Chess (I am the chair of Aberystwyth Chess Club);

   The ukulele, which I took up a couple of years ago, having been abnormally ungifted at music all my life, and which now gives me immense pleasure;

   Walking, and the beautiful Welsh countryside;



... and so on. I have come late to this kind of thing, because I have had a lifelong aversion to keeping a diary. (I am particularly indignant about the creative writing manuals which insist on it as prerequisite for other kinds of writing.) My attitude has always been that of T.S. Eliot, who described poetry as "not the expression of personality but an escape from personality". But most of the literary world is against me here, as is most of the online world. And the fact is that I have a lot of things I want to write about that I am not getting the chance to communicate. At any rate, it may help to keep the August blues at bay.