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.