My second novel, The Alchemist, explores the strange evolution that makes children into adults, and suggests that what we accept as normal life is subject to radical change, beyond our control. I could trace in it aspects of my own life, which have been creatively processed, but I don’t really want to try. There’s probably nothing to be gained, and possibly something to be lost, in too thorough an examination. I wrote a short story a few years ago, in which a man walks out of his job, finds his relationships with people beginning to fracture, and spends his nights out in the garden digging holes. I liked it without quite knowing what it was all about, until someone, well Ian McEwan actually, suggested it was a writer, leaving his structured, ordered life and, for no obvious reason, digging in the dark. That rang true. I like the dark aspect, the delving and exploring and fumbling and tripping over but picking yourself up and carrying on, not always knowing what you’re up to or where you’re going, till you step back and think ‘Ah, got it, that’s what this is about.’ Sometimes it's much more planned and self-conscious, but it’s that dark aspect, that makes it fun and mysterious and frustrating occasionally but exciting too.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
So along came, in 1988 when I was 25, my first novel, A Chinese Summer. It was about the aftermath of a relationship, about a young man who gets cancer, and about a movement from depression and isolation towards a sense of community and belonging in the personal and in the wider world. Like many first novels it was a short, first-person piece in which the narrator was the same sex and the same sort of age as the writer. And lived in the same place as the writer, and travelled on the same trains, and shared some of the same experiences. But he wasn’t the writer. No, honestly. He was like the writer, but he reacted to things differently, he was a bit over the top about things, and he saw things differently, in a more heightened way.
I was just reading Lindsay Clarke on this. He suggested we use story to convert experience into something with meaning and value. It's the way we pass from feeling into meaning. Makes sense to me. Anyway, I don’t think it’s possible to choose not to use your experience. It tends to be what you care about, what’s central to you. It’s not just what has happened to you, it’s also what has helped to make you who you are. Throw in a vast mixture of events, and the emotions they give rise to, add nature, as well as nurture, and personality, which perhaps has some sort of core content, irreducible, put all those together and some weird alchemy makes an adult out of a child. And in my case, because I’d always wanted to be a writer, as long as I could remember, part of that process was writing a novel. That sounds like it got coughed up - whoops, there it is. No, it was crafted, lovingly, sentence by sentence, beat by beat, and also it was consciously, ambitiously, a step on the way to becoming a writer. Experience, craft, ambition, heart. Those are good ingredients.
1988. It’s history now, isn’t it?