Today would have been my niece’s 21st birthday. It’s hard to know what to write next – that sentence stops me in my tracks.
Would have. Could have. Should have.
Earlier today I stopped in to see Sherie, my Shanghai-ese beautician, and I found her frantic: tomorrow, she told me, is her daughter’s 21st birthday party. I smiled as broadly as I could with a trembling lip, and asked all about the preparations.
“My flat, it look like a bottle shop,” Sherie told me, waving her arms for emphasis. “I told my daughter, I no cooking! No! No cooking for me!”
Sherie always makes me laugh, and today was no exception. So I forced myself to focus on what she was saying, and swallowed hard, and finally managed not to cry (although the wheels have since well and truly fallen off that barrow).
“I hope your daughter has a wonderful birthday,” I said as I was leaving. Sherie gave me a quick hug, and then she was off, already back on the phone organising sushi platters and a great big pair of cakes.
I had a great time at my own 21st. I was an undergraduate at the ANU in Canberra, so I had my party down there at a terrific joint called ‘Tilly’s,’ still one of my favourite places on earth. I love Tilly’s, although I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I was last there. Gosh, years and years. A very long time. But Tilly’s exists somewhere else, it’s buried deep in my heart along with all those other special places – it’s a big warehouse of fond memories and feeling in there, and so for me Tilly’s never goes out of style. In fact, Tilly’s never goes out of style period. It just is cool. And I had such a lovely party, such a wonderful night.
I ought to be going to my niece’s 21st. My sister ought to be in an organisational minefield, racing around gathering spare chairs and bags of ice. My grown-up niece ought to be deciding what to wear – Sherie’s daughter is currently chained to her sewing machine; she went to design school, so she’s wearing an original. And as Sherie excitedly nattered on, complete with whirring sound-effects and a mime of her daughter feeding fabric through a hungry machine, I couldn’t help wondering what my niece might have worn, and what she might have looked like today, had she lived.
It’s a terrible thing that happened to her, and it ought never to happen, not to anyone, not ever. It makes my blood run cold to think of it – it was the start of my insomnia, and it remains the waking nightmare from which there will be no escape. It does not improve with age, and it never dims. There’s just the hideous, evil fact of it, forever.
Would have. Could have. Should have.
My regrets in life are few, because I understand there’s truly nothing so futile, but as impossible as it is going back and changing the past, this is the one thing I can never shake: the abiding regret that I cancelled on my niece the last time she was due to stay with us. She ended up staying at Nana’s place instead, and I will always, always be plagued by the hopeless fantasy of an alternative outcome. Maybe that path would have diverted all other paths. Maybe those plans, if kept, might have altered all the plans that followed. Maybe being with us that night might have set in motion a different chain reaction, a different series of events at the end of which she would not die. Maybe that was my chance to change things, save her, and in this I failed.
And I’m so sorry, I’ll always be sorry, even though sorry doesn’t help. Sorry doesn’t change things. I’m sorry for what I know my sister’s going through today, I’m sorry for everything we’ve missed out on knowing. Who would she be now? What would she be like? My sister and I spoke on the phone last week, and she told me they’re having all my niece’s favourite foods today, and then she said she realised it was possible she might even have been a grandmother by now.
“But then again I doubt it,” she added. “Because I’m sure she would have been doing other things, like studying at NIDA or travelling overseas.”
“Yeah, I always think she would have been an adventurer,” I admitted. “Off seeing the world. Taking it by storm.”
“Oh, I think so,” my sister said proudly. “Yes, I definitely think so.”
And I believe she is.
Happy Birthday, sweetheart, wherever you are.
I’ve been busy the past couple of days pulling together my first month of Alumni news for the Varuna Alumni website, which Shuckin’ Charlotte manages (with tireless dedication, I might add). In my brand new capacity as the website’s ‘news editor’ (which, by the way, sounds way, way too fancy – Charlotte referred to me in this way in an email she sent to someone else, and I veered from the screen in surprise: news editor? Me? Come on now!), I was rather frantically trying to make the March news both coherent and engaging. I had lots of help, in that Alumni members provided me with their own well-written material, but it was still more work than you’d think. I was knackered yesterday by the time I unloaded it on Charlotte, knackered and anxious.
I have this weird morbidity where writing is concerned – I’m always convinced I’ve done the worst job anyone’s ever done in the history of the written word. It sucks, I’m a fucking fraud, they’ll be embarrassed for me (whoever thought I could handle it?), and then they’ll be worried for themselves (however will they extract themselves?), and the whole thing will be a disaster because I’ve wrecked everything. I think that’s why blogging is such a relief – I can’t hurt anyone’s business or reputation or circulation figures, no one’s except my own. Phew! That’s a load off! Whereas every aspect of my professional writing life gives me crippling worry; there’s this nasty voice inside – a tireless, thin, mean little voice – always ready to remind me that I’m just no good and now everyone’s going to know it. Ugh. Hideous. So I crouch over my computer gnawing at my fingernails waiting for the death knell to fall on my half-baked career. Good times.
Anyway, Varuna. I wanted to talk to you about Varuna and its programs, because there’s a changing of the guard up there in the Blue Mountains, and the outgoing director’s farewell address for the March Alumni News (sorry, it’s password protected for the use of Alumni only, so I can’t even show you) really brought a couple of things into sharp relief for me while I was reading her piece.
I know I’ve talked about it before, but for those of you who don’t know, Varuna, the Writers’ House, was originally the home and studio of Australian novelist Eleanor Dark. It’s in the township of Katoomba, in the breathtaking Blue Mountains, about an hour and a half out of Sydney. When both his parents died, Mick Dark, Eleanor’s son, inherited the house. Not wanting to live there but not wanting to sell the estate, Mick ultimately hit upon the most generous, selfless way to preserve his mother’s legacy that I can personally imagine: he started the Eleanor Dark Foundation, putting the house in trust as a writers’ centre, for the use of Australian writers as a place of retreat, community and creativity.
There is something in the walls at Varuna, something like the sound of children whispering and giggling after dark, amused and reverent all at once – a little scared even, but excited too, too excited to sleep. This low-level murmur is the insistent rustle of writers past, reluctantly leaving the lounge-room after another night of wine and conversation, drifting through the house while the dying embers of the log-fire still smoke, moving up the stairs, perhaps pausing to trail fingertips (still bleeding words) along the sturdy desktops, then out the window and there, there they are again, inhaling the scent of the well-loved garden until finally pausing by Eleanor Dark’s studio door. Hilary Mantel believes in ghosts; after spending a week at Varuna, I believe writers leave something behind.
If there’s a faintly evangelical element to my love of the place, and I do have a tendency toward the extreme, it’s because going there changed my writing life, which transformed and improved my life as a whole. I don’t even know where to start in terms of describing its importance to me. Writers know well the depths of despair and sticky sludge of self-loathing that come of no one wanting your work. It is the pits, that feeling, a big tarry hole of misery where some light might occasionally dribble in but for the handfuls of shit people keep flinging down the well that catch you right between the eyes. So having someone like Varuna’s Creative Director Peter Bishop respond favourably to your writing… and having a fine novelist and all round good egg like Charlotte become a sort of guardian angel, well, it’s like being revived after a terrible accident when all hope seems lost.
And of course Varuna’s responsible for my meeting the Darklings, who have become my phantom limbs, writing things I could not, reading books I shall not, thinking thoughts and living lives that are uniquely their own and yet are also truly shared. I missed them so much before I even knew them. I was so desperate to know other writers, to be part of a community, and that’s what Mick Dark’s generosity of spirit has brought to my own life, because being at Varuna immediately filled a gaping hole in my heart.
I don’t know how I’ll ever repay Mick for the gift he has given us all (because even Australian writers who never attend a single Varuna program will likely benefit from its work), but the one thing I can do – aside from give my time in whatever capacity Varuna seeks it – is tell people about it. I tell everyone I meet about Varuna, I love talking about it, because Varuna is a good, true thing in the world. And it makes me happy just knowing it’s there.
I feel like the Ides of March have descended early this year… everything is a little bit peculiar. Take the sewerage situation. I’m starting to wonder if it’s all part of an elaborate Candid Camera skit, or perhaps a Kenny Comes to the Coast TV special.
Graham came back with a final update Friday afternoon – no sign of Elio by this stage, whom I clearly terrified straight to the back of the truck – and when I came to the door, he struggled to compute my swimmers, shorts and towel until he finally said, “I was knocking. Wanted to let you know we’re going around back again. But you were in the shower, were you?”
I looked down at my swimmers-shorts-and-towel ensemble, and there was another long pause while I tried to figure out his logic.
“Um, no,” I said at last. “I don’t shower in swimmers, Graham. I was just over the road having a swim.”
“Oh,” he said, but frankly he did not sound convinced, as though he very much doubted there was a beach there.
Then he reiterated what he’d already told me earlier in the day: engineering types would come. One day. And then they’d decide what to do. Okay. Bye, then. The weekend came and went: nothing. I was just getting ready to put the whole thing down to a case of mistaken mapping on the part of the crap crew when late yesterday there came another knock on the door. There was a new guy standing there with what looked like the council plans of the house and street. Drat, I thought. He too wanted access out the back, so I sent him down the side of the block with my own special brand of mixed blessing. Shortly thereafter, he returned.
“Graham’s marked the spot in the laundry with an ‘X,’” he said.
“A big yellow one.”
“Really?” This was genuinely surprising to me. I’d just been out there earlier and hadn’t seen a thing.
“Yep,” he said. “So the other team is going to come and pull up your laundry floor in the next day or so. Maybe tomorrow, but maybe not. Could be the day after.”
“They’re seriously going to do that?” I almost laughed. “But why don’t they just go in via the manhole? Surely clearing that out is going to be a whole lot easier than tearing apart an entire structure?”
He clearly did not want to get stuck discussing the finer points and was backing away from the door even as I spoke. Up flew his panicked hands of surrender, just like Elio’s. Pacify the crazy lady, must pacify the crazy lady…anyone would think I was a goddamn brown bear.
“I-I don’t know,” he stammered, inching his way backwards towards the main entrance to the block. “T-that’s just what’s on the report. He’s m-made his re-recommendation.”
This entire situation was starting to get annoying.
“Oh, has he? Well, isn’t that nice.”
Graham, you filthy sewer-dwelling traitor. What would Bon Scott say?
“Now the other team will decide what to do. They’ll be in touch.”
And out he ran, as fast as his little legs could carry him. By this time I sort of did feel like pulling off someone’s head, but since then, precisely nothing more has occurred. It’s truly anyone’s guess what’ll happen next.
Then there’s today’s change in the weather. I have this knack – and it’s a pretty nifty trick – of being able to control the weather in reverse. Impressed? Like if I wish for a sunny day, guaranteed it is going to hail small cars. Now, we have some friends shooting over the Tasman from Auckland to spend this weekend with us sans les enfants, so I sent them a little message on Facebook this morning saying, ‘As long as this perfect weather lasts. That’s all. Surely it’s not too much to ask.’
Well. No sooner had I sent this message than darkness fell across the land.
Presently it’s overcast, grey, and about 20 degrees cooler than it was seconds before I clicked SEND, and indeed than it was overnight, which I spent wide awake, right up until I was about to receive confirmation that my 6 am Tuesday walk with my friend T was still on, and then I promptly fell into a deep sleep until precisely 7 am, just as T’s window of opportunity closed. See how well that worked out? Yep. Like a dream. An hour long dream in the only 60 minutes of unbroken sleep I could lay my hands on.
Please, weather gods, please get this nasty aberration out of your system over the next few days so our friends from the land of the long white cloud can have some actual sun and blue skies while they’re here… after all, it’s not their fault, why should they be penalised for my stupidity? I know I shouldn’t have said anything out loud, much less committed my weather wish list to Facebook, but please don’t take it out on them. They weren’t to know I was The Sunshine Saboteur when they befriended me all those years ago – so how about we let this one slide? I’d really be much obliged.
There’s other stuff brewing, I can feel it in this newly humid air, but for now, it’s nearly 7 pm, it’s been a big day, and I’m shattered. Time to hunker in the bunker with my book – let’s reconvene tomorrow, shall we?
Tired, hot, cross… another night of broken sleep followed by male voices out the back first thing, right by our bedroom window, so I shot outside, shoeless and dishevelled, demanding to know what the hell they thought they were doing.
“This is private property!” I shrieked. “Can I help you?!”
Understandably, both men jumped and then cowered.
“Sorry, sorry,” muttered the small Italian, hands up, palms out.
“We’ve got a busted sewerage main,” explained the other. “I can show it to you if you like? It’s in the truck. And the pipe comes straight under your property.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to straighten my shirt. “Sorry about that. I thought you were builders from this new block out the back; they’ve taken a lot of liberties with our property and I’m sick to death of it. So, um, what are you doing?”
“Man hole’s backed up with sewerage,” said the big one, shaking his head regretfully. “Can’t get in there. Think we’re gonna hafta come in through here.” He gestured at the paving and then, worryingly, in the direction of the communal laundry.
“And who’s paying for that?” I asked.
“Oh, Sydney Water,” he said. “They’ll put it back the way it was after everything’s fixed, but in the meantime we might have to go in via that shed. It’s right underneath there.”
“That sounds like a rather big job.”
He shrugged happily.
“I’m Graham,” he said. “And this is Elio.”
We shook hands and then they left to get more equipment. A short time later Graham knocked on the door. His little gizmo indicated X marks the spot directly beneath our washing machine in the laundry. I apologised again for snapping like a scorpion and explained I hadn’t slept.
“Me neither,” Graham beamed. “Went to AC/DC last night.”
“Oh,” I nodded. “I have friends going to that tonight or tomorrow night. How was it?”
“Faaarkin awesome,” he enthused.
What can you say to that but, “Great, that’s great, I’ll be sure to let them know”…?
“Tell ‘em they’re in for a top night.”
“I’ll do that. Now what’s happening with the poo pipes?”
Mercifully, Graham and Elio are seeking a second opinion. Engineers will be coming – sometime soon, we don’t know when – and I’m hoping they’ll decide they should suck up the shit out of the manhole behind the restaurants instead of drilling into our laundry and destroying our backyard. Fingers crossed.
So that was my morning. Can you imagine my mood? Now I’m just fatigued and could use a sleep if I were someone who could do that in the middle of the afternoon. The planning proceeds; I’m liking it. I’ve also thought of another short story idea. Oh, and the inaugural winner of the CAL Scribe prize was announced last night at Melbourne’s new Wheeler Centre: Maris Morton, who has two short stories available online that you can read here. The prize is for an unpublished MS by an author over 35 years of age, and they were swamped with entries, the field eventually topping out at over 500 writers. It remains disappointing not to have cracked the long list, but I suppose there’s always next year. Meanwhile, all good luck and congratulations to Ms. Morton, who’s making her debut as a novelist at the age of 70 – you’d have to think she’d be pretty damn happy with that!
I finished Vacant Possession the other day, and I must say, I didn’t much love the ending. It’s really creepy, too creepy for me, offering no consolation or cheerful resolution whatsoever. Rereading the final page over and over looking for even a faint glimmer of hope, I realised that I don’t really care for being frightened if there’s no reassurance at the end that everything is indeed going to be all right. It’s too upsetting otherwise. Now, I love a good trip on the Ghost Train, but only so long as there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel (which reminds me that there really was a terrible fire at Sydney’s Luna Park a couple of decades ago, in which a number of schoolkids perished when a blaze broke out, unthinkably, somewhere inside the Ghost Train. Few things give me the total heebie-jeebies as much or for as long as this awful stranger-than-fiction tragedy. It’s giving me goose-bumps as I write). I was happy with the atmosphere of dread in Vacant Possession up to this end point, perfectly willing to go along with Mantel’s matter-of-fact little shop of horrors, right up until she withheld the hope. When you read a novel feeling sort of anxious and breathless the whole time, you really do want in the final pages to be able to exhale. But Mantel’s having none of that; you’re experiencing a cold discomfort? Well, good. So you should. B-r-r-r-r.
I’m afraid my next choice is thus far providing scant relief: I’ve gone for The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates. Another Desire bookstore second-hand purchase that actually preceded my rainy day loot, it must therefore, to my mind and by an ever-changing set of nonsensical made-up rules, be read first. I picked it up because one of the Darklings sent around one of JCO’s short stories last year, and it was so stark and dreadful and sickeningly well-written that I felt quite traumatised afterwards and still cringe whenever I think of it. Why would I do it to myself, you ask, why then would I ask for more? Well, I expect the same reason children love being scared, just so long as they’re safely tucked up in bed. Because it’s make-believe, but the writing’s so fine there’s no question JCO makes you believe. And much like Mantel, she makes you believe terrible things.
Meanwhile, I had a great, productive day on MS #2 yesterday. I’m trying to plan, something I didn’t do with #1 and something I don’t tend to do naturally. I have to force myself. But some of the Darklings are terrific planners, and I’m curious to see what my own planning will produce. I’m just trying to learn from past mistakes, you see, and definitely one of the biggest shortcomings of the writing practice that developed around MS #1 was that I did not have a plan. Only in later drafts did I sit down and organise my next steps; for the first few drafts I was flying by the seat of my pants, which were hanging together by the merest thread, threatening to drop at a moment’s notice. Nightmare of public nudity and general mockery ensues.
Planning. I think I’m afraid it’ll wreck something, like kill my vocabulary or blunt my imagination. I have what’s probably an unreasonable terror that by examining my writing, I’ll bring about its instant and irrecoverable demise. I suspect myself that there’s no bigger crock of shit than this theory, but still it plagues me. And I know it is garbage because of the amount of planning and revision that my thesis required; I know it’s an absurdly superstitious worry because of the amount of planning and revision MS #1 has already required and requires still. So I’m going to confront my fear and try to dissemble it in order to avoid some of the same mistakes I made last time and can otherwise expect to make again.
So far, so good: yesterday was great. I made lots of notes on my two main characters and sure enough, it soon emerged that I needed to completely eliminate one of the subsidiary characters. He proved unnecessary, as did several subplot lines I can now happily abandon. It forced me to be tough with myself: whose story is this? And okay, if it’s his story, then what’s this guy doing here? Who asked him, anyway? Oh. I did. Well okay, so un-invite him. Gosh. Can I do that? Sure you can. Is anyone going to miss him? Really? Um, I don’t think so, no. Then show him the door! But that seems a bit heartless… I kind of like him, you know, and besides, none of this is his fault. Nobody said it was his fault. Calm down. Okay, now I’m going to ask you again, one last time: whose story is this? You’re right, you’re right; I get it, I get it, enough already! Je-sus! Anyone ever tell you that you’re a real pain in the arse?
The writer as brazen thief is not an uncommon image, and plenty of (ironically) honest writers are on the record admitting to various inspirations and influences that commonly include things like actual conversations between living, breathing, sometimes litigious human beings. Shucking Charlotte had an essay published in the end of 2009 edition of Meanjin on this very subject, in which she discusses with other writers the thorny issue of incorporating real lives into invented ones; I’ve not read it yet because we cut our spending on periodicals, and the State Library didn’t have it last time I was there sniffing around for it, but I will. It’s a topic that interests me a great deal, not least because I have an obsession with blurred boundaries of every description.
My own view is that I take it as a given that all writers are influenced to some extent by reality; how could they not be? The extent to which this influence is reflected in their writing is an individual matter, but my own interest in exploring contiguous boundary spaces is pretty much along the lines of a dog worrying a bone: enthusiastic, messy and insatiable. It’s inherently interesting territory: tension is always more fun for a writer than harmony, and I’m always slightly bemused by the degree to which this topic proves enduringly contentious. It’s a bit of a “Huh?” for me, because it seems so obvious that writers draw on the human condition to inform their work. Isn’t that what fiction finally hopes to achieve, some insight into our actual existence by sharing a constructed one?
Degrees, degrees, no doubt it’s all a question of degrees, but who gets to decide the line, and anyway, where is it? Intriguing stuff. Helen Garner cops so much flack for basically stomping alongside the fence kicking down palings, but I respect and appreciate her transparency on the matter – she’s totally, refreshingly upfront about her work’s foundation in fact, and she doesn’t hesitate to claim that same work as fiction. On the other hand, I don’t doubt she’s angered, alienated and hurt people over the years, and they probably didn’t volunteer to be sacrificed to her art, and I guess this is where my own line is drawn. I expect to trespass, I know that on occasion I will, but I don’t want anyone else to suffer for my own need to hack away at the line.
Still, the etiquette changes again when you’re thinking about thieving an idea you got from talking to another writer, and this is what happened to me recently. A writer friend recounted a conversation she’d had, and I said to her, “That’s the basis of a great short story.” She didn’t really react, and we moved on. Later, I couldn’t get the conversation out of my mind. I told Llew about it, and his reaction became another layer in the story that was slowly beginning to form in my mind. But I didn’t write it; I wasn’t sure if I was allowed.
Months passed, but this story stayed in the back of my mind, growing unattended, nudging its way forward. And then one day I sat down and wrote a draft of it. I had to relieve that pressure in my brain, there’s no other way to describe it. I felt vaguely sneaky, though, as though I were doing something deceitful behind my friend’s back. I thought about calling her and asking for permission to use her actual conversation as a stepping stone into my made up story, but then one horrible thought stopped me: “What if she says no?”
The thought made me sick; I really wanted to write the story I had by this time been thinking about for over six months. I also had no confidence I could do it – my short stories had always sucked, so there was a reasonable expectation that this one would suck too, and that I wouldn’t be able to transfer my thoughts into a functioning story. So I persuaded myself (yes, I did, and it turns out I am quite the saleswoman) that I should write the story first, and then deal with the consequences later.
It was at this point that I made my ethical mistake, and it’s an error of judgement I won’t ever make again. Did I show my friend the story? No, I didn’t, and by my own standards, I absolutely should have. Instead, I decided that what I’d do was enter it in a competition, and if (a massive “if” given I’ve never even been long-listed for a short story – I’m telling you, they’ve always sucked) I got anywhere, I’d share my prize money with her. It would be a total surprise (hell, prize money would be a total surprise to both of us), and I hoped she’d feel sharing the prize was adequate thanks for giving me the idea.
Except she didn’t give me the idea.
I took it.
This has been niggling away at me ever since because I knew I’d compromised my own sense of right and wrong, my own sense of fair play in an area already fraught with moral peril. I doubt it would have bothered me anywhere near as much had she not been a writer herself. ‘But,’ I eagerly told myself (whenever you have to start over-explaining and over-justifying things to yourself, just STOP, and just admit to yourself that you’re doing the wrong thing, and I guarantee it’ll save you a lot of problems later on), ‘she’s not really sounded keen on writing fiction for ages now, and she’s totally shifted focus, and I know, I just know she’s never going to use it herself, and besides, I’ve completely done my own thing with it, and it was just the light-bulb that started me thinking, so let’s not get carried away here about it because it’s a tiny part of my story, and blah blah blah.’
Anyway, I was bothered because I knew it was the wrong thing to do, it’s that simple. And when I saw my friend yesterday (for the first time, I might add, since writing the story – and see how I’m still trying to defend my actions?), I told her about it straightaway, and she came back here and read it.
“You only had to call me and ask,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “And I’m really sorry. I was afraid that you might say no, and I really wanted to write this story. But it felt like I was doing the wrong thing, it felt deceitful not telling you about it.”
“Maybe,” she said, being quite simply the most gracious person on earth, “you actually needed to do that, because it’s really tense, it really suits the atmosphere of the story, and I wonder if maybe you had to do it this way in order to write it.”
Maybe. But how generous is that? Much more generous than I deserve, and trust me, I do know that. And I’ve learned a very valuable lesson: if in doubt, discuss. I told her about my idea of splitting the prize money and she made a face and said, “You can take me to dinner. I’d never accept something like that. I was never going to use this; it completely fell from my consciousness.”
Phew. The relief of hearing those words was just HUGE. Still, I didn’t want her to think her contribution would go unacknowledged. Without that conversation, I would never have thought of my story; it’s that simple. That fundamental. Is my story fiction? You bet your arse it is. Is it mine? Bloody oath. But did a conversation my friend had trip the wire in my brain? No question.
A scorcher in Sydney today, one of those steaming summer days that makes a beachside office positively inspired. Actually I’m in the sunroom, Granddad’s old fan trained straight at my face. Clouds are beginning to gather, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a stonking great storm later on tonight.
I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s memoir the other day, hot on the heels of Wolf Hall, and now I’m about a third of the way through her Vacant Possession, one of my secondhand pick-ups from last weekend. The memoir, Giving up the Ghost, is quite unconventional to say the least. For a start, Mantel sees what she thinks is the Devil lurking down the back of the garden when she’s a little girl. One of her childhood homes also appears to be haunted. Not in the way you’d expect – say, ‘When I was little, I thought our house had ghosts’ – but very much as an actual situation, much more along the lines of ‘There was paranormal activity and everybody knew it.’ Oh, okay then, ‘Ilary. If you say so.
There are no two ways about it: Mantel does say so, and she is not kidding (though of course she is a screamingly funny writer). The Devil in particular lurks in the memoir as a kind of malignancy of memory, making his presence felt like that really unpleasant abattoir stench that vaguely penetrates one’s nostrils from across a country field. It’s discomfiting, to say the least, and all the many questions the average reader has about this hoof and horn stuff must of course go unanswered. Mantel doesn’t have nor does she attempt an explanation; these things are simply acknowledged, presented almost apologetically, a bit like a collapsed soufflé: I tried to make sense of it, and I followed the recipe, but look here, it’s ugly as sin, and I wish I could chuck it and start over.
It’s all most unusual.
Personally I think the Devil sighting was a blessing in disguise… it’s like it’s given Mantel the ability to imagine a world writhing with poltergeists, things undead and untold, and I for one am awfully glad for the strange tilt in her vision. It makes for genuinely creepy, shivery, altogether blistering writing. Her humour is jet black; both Beyond Black and Vacant Possession are as sinister and awful as they are funny. And it’s true that sometimes her writing is so startling and macabre that it does seem… well, almost out of this world, opening a jagged crack on another.
I’m going to have to wean myself off Mantel for a while once I’ve polished off Vacant Possession (I can barely bring myself to read on and yet I can’t put it down) – it’s like her voice has hypnotised me. I’m developing a Mantel habit, and I think I might have to review my meds – ironic given her own ghastly experience with a cocktail of medicines as a young, radically misdiagnosed woman. Shudder. There’s one cocksucker in particular whose head I’d like on a block – what a patronising, chauvinistic pig! And he got it all wrong, got her all wrong, stuffed everything up and made her crazy instead of making her well – arrogant fool! I must say it was extraordinary reading of someone having an experience I have always deeply feared (for no good reason, I might add. But no one ever said fear was rational). It’s one of my worst nightmares, being wrongly institutionalised.
“But I’m perfectly well!”
“Of course you are, dear. Have another pill, there’s a good girl.”
“But I’m not crazy! Let me out of here! I’m not crazy, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!”
“Nurse, call the doctor. Get the jacket. And make sure that door’s locked on your way out.”
Honestly, trying to prove you were sane when other people were disposed to believe you were unhinged? Now that really would drive you nuts.
As for my own writing, well, I’m going to work on the structural problem in MS #1 at the next Darkling writing retreat. In the meantime I am going to press on with MS #2. I’ve two short stories entered in two different open competitions at the moment; I won’t hear anything about either of those for months. But even if the first story proves not to be a contender by the judge’s standards, it will still be my best short effort to date, and that’s enough.
It’s four months today since the literary agent asked for the full MS of #1. I’m not counting the days or anything – I’ve long assumed this extraordinary lull in communication is a Very Bad Sign – but I happened to check the other day because I was wondering if I should email and say, ‘Um, if you still haven’t read the full draft, then please don’t, because I am going to redraft it.’ Llew thinks I should just leave off, and I guess finally I’m inclined to agree, because I think once I lay my motivations bare I can see I’m mainly trying to force a response. SAY SOMETHING, CAN’T YOU? But what’s to be gained, really? It’s all such a total mystery to me that I think I’m probably better off just leaving them to it. I should draw the curtain right across that unfortunate mess and get on with the things I do understand, like how much work I’ve got to do. That’s coming through loud and clear. Crystal.
Wouldn’t it make you sick? It certainly makes me sick; I still can’t believe yesterday’s post vanished. It was sooo deflating. Of course it couldn’t be a post that’s taken no time or effort to compose, of course it couldn’t be one of those posts where it’s all a bit of a lark, something I dash off without pausing for breath, tra la la la, never to be thought of again. Of course it couldn’t be one of those. I felt yesterday’s lost work so deeply because I put so much into it, and because it’s irrecoverable. The words are gone. The drive to commit them spent. I’m going to attempt to salvage something of it in today’s post, but that’s what this is, a salvage operation, and things that were whole – thoughts, sentences – are now in pieces. Shattered, in fact, which is exactly how I felt yesterday when I realised it was gone.
Oh well. Lesson learned: I am currently writing this in a Word document; I’ll copy and paste it into WordPress when it’s done. I should have been doing this all along. And at a certain point in my wallowing last night, I sort of slapped myself around and thought, “If this is your biggest problem, then what the fuck are you complaining about?” and that gave me some much-needed perspective on the exact scale of the crisis…
So let’s try again. Among this post will be the 222 words that weren’t obliterated, and the rest will just have to do.
Llew may have been excused from official jury duty again, but he was still my private juror on Saturday night, when he handed down his verdict on my manuscript after lengthy deliberations. It took a long time for him to wade through the evidence, and then he retired, with his notes, to consider the case.
Juries are supposed to reflect a reasonable balance of society, a good solid mix of citizens from all walks of life, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea for writers to view potential readers of their work in much the same way. For me the question goes something like this: it’s fine giving your writing to people whom you suspect think and read much as you do, but aren’t you almost more curious about those whom you know don’t? It tends to be the divergent views and totally unexpected responses and insights that fix my interest most in the numerous critiques I’ve received; those surprises open new pathways back into my own work, and I like exploring alternative routes. This reflects absolutely the way Llew and I like to travel: we always go great lengths to avoid backtracking; we hate retracing our steps. What’s down there, or there, or there, let’s go this way instead, let’s see where this leads. You see more that way. You stumble across unexpected things.
Of course, everyone’s different, and I know from experience that our ambles drive other people INSANE, but it’s a preference that goes some way to explaining why I like seeking the opinion of people whom I expect will engage with my work in a completely different way. You’ve got to keep your eye on the jury, right? You’ve got to make sure it’s really mixed.
I won’t spend any time here repeating the nice things Llew said about my manuscript. Writing out secondhand compliments to myself strikes me as more than a little weird. Weird and sad. There was positive feedback. And yet it’s also true that the whole time Llew was giving it, I was leaning forward, waiting, waiting for that word I knew was coming, waiting, waiting, waiting, until finally Llew paused and the moment was upon us, and I couldn’t wait anymore so I said it for him:
“B-u-u-u-u-u-t? Because there’s a ‘but’ isn’t there? Just say it! But, but, but what?”
Llew paused and took a deep breath.
Don’t you just hate that word?
I should say that Llew was very worried – excessively in my view – that he wasn’t qualified to give me feedback. What qualifications would he need, exactly? He’s an intelligent reader, a critical thinker and someone whose opinion I value highly – what else is there? Honest feedback from Llew promised to be important not least because he’s predominantly a reader of non-fiction. He likes reading when he learns something. He likes Dan Brown because there’s often cool, interesting bits of historical fact worked into the story. He loved Ransom because David Malouf revealed something not only about male relationships, but also about the Trojan War: definite Llew territory. Battles, armour, myths, ancient symbols, cryptic codes, secret societies; he loves all that. And yes, I’ve already suggested he would enjoy Wolf Hall.
So when Llew said, “But… I don’t feel like I’m learning anything about drawing, I don’t feel like I’m learning about what it’s like to be an illustrator,” I could well and instantly imagine that this counted as a significant negative. The first-person protagonist is not the illustrator, so this is something of an oversight on my part, because it’s not her occupation so it hasn’t been my chief concern, but illustration is certainly a key component of the story.
Llew’s the first of my volunteer readers to so clearly identify this fundamental gap in the landscape of the novel, and perhaps it’s because every other reader but one has been someone who writes fiction. Llew’s primary reading objective, on the other hand, is to learn something, not to admire the prose or get caught up in the story, so in reading what was there, he mainly located what was missing. And that’s invaluable to me.
I can do something about that problem; it’s a question of research. In truth, it’s something I should have already done. I need to know what kind of paper real illustrators use, what pencils and inks they prefer, whether they listen to music or work in silence, operate best in groups or alone, how long it takes, how much technology is involved, on and on it goes. I imagined my illustrator’s studio, and I have equipped him with certain materials, but I didn’t succeed in bringing that space to life for Llew. I didn’t convince him, and readers want convincing. As a reader, I always want convincing, and I’m always ready and eager to be convinced. But the writer has to take me there. It’s not too much to ask.
The second problem Llew identified is much, much larger, and also relates back to this question of learning. My heart sank when he said it, because it’s uncannily similar to something that came up in my very first MS assessment over two years ago. I’ve applied myself ever since to fixing this flaw, and to have Llew say, virtually word for word, that it’s still alive and well, refusing to die, in fact, well – that was more deflating than I can say. My flesh prickled in recognition: this again. This again.
Fuck, not this again.
“As it went on, I never felt like she was learning from her mistakes,” Llew said.
I already know the effect of this. The reader loses interest, grows impatient – angry, even – before utterly losing sympathy for the character until finally the reader starts hoping, really fervently, for someone to please, please arrive to shoot this fucking pain in the arse and put us all out of our misery.
In cases such as this, the jury accepts the plea of self-defence.
I do know the source of this flaw if not the correction. I’ve been thinking about it since the juror’s verdict was delivered on Saturday, and I am sure I do now know the root of the crime. When I started writing this MS, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a clear story or even a clear character in mind – I just had a need to write. The resulting first draft was little more than a series of vignettes; some were based on my own experience, some not. It was highly episodic, but this was not an accident. I wanted my novel to be more like life, and life is more like that. But some of you have been visiting me here long enough to know that the question of the manuscript’s missing narrative arc has plagued me ever since.
Oh, how I’ve tried. I have worked so hard to fix this. I have jettisoned literally tens of thousands of words, invented fresh characters, explored entirely new themes, trailed after tantalising wisps of possible story. The MS is now unrecognisable from that first draft, and it’s gone places I’d never dreamed it would go in terms of its own imaginary space and the characters that inhabit it. It’s a better book now. But this problem remains.
I like to think I can fix it, but it may be a terminal condition. I truly don’t know yet; only time (oh god, more time!) and effort will tell. You’ll perhaps be relieved to know that MS #2 doesn’t have this problem, because its two main characters arrived in my mind before I’d written a word; they came first. With MS #1, I believe my recurrent, pervasive problem is this: I’ve continually tried to make the developing story fit into the writing I’ve already done.
I’ve never isolated those lately arrived elements of story – those characters and concerns that have emerged over these many drafts – and removed them from all the writing that was required to unearth them. I’ve never yet dusted them off, pulled them clear, cleaned the residue, dirt and blood from their faces and said, “Ah, now we’ve a start.”
I am going to cry. My internet disconnected itself while I was drafting a 1,300 word post about Llew’s feedback on my manuscript, and when I reconnected and clicked ‘PUBLISH,’ WordPress instead directed me to a log in page and virtually the entire post is now lost. There’s just 222 words sitting in the draft folder, which is how much I’d completed when unbeknownst to me it logged me out.
No, really, I could honestly cry. There is nothing worse than a really long, detailed, time-consuming, heartfelt piece of work disappearing like this, it just kills me. I am just too stunned and depressed to even consider rewriting it right now, sorry.
Another sleepless night ended at 5:55 am, when I got up, dressed and went walking along the beachfront with a friend and her eternally grateful dog. T walks at 6 am or not at all; with three small children, a husband and a job all demanding her time and attention, sunrise has become “her time,” and if I want to see her, sunrise it is. Never a morning person, I was on especially shaky ground without the buffer of a good night’s sleep, but the moment I left the apartment and caught sight of the deep coral pinks spilling across the sky, flooding the Pacific in a kind of Paradise Sunrise, like something from a leading paint brand, well, I promptly forgot my crabbiness and my weeping tired eyes and just thought, “Glorious.”
It was lovely. What a stunning time of day. I don’t say I mean to start getting out of bed at the crack of dawn on a daily basis – who am I kidding – but you know, it’s probably far better than lying awake cursing the fact. If I could only sleep… if only I could sleep, I’d quite like to see more sunrises. And I’d like to see more of T.
Llew was still sleeping when I returned, luxuriating in yet ANOTHER call for jury duty. Because he didn’t have to front up until 9 am for selection, we were able to have a swim and then take breakfast together in the courtyard as the light changed and the sun continued to climb. Breakfast is something we usually only do together of a weekend: Llew’s one of those, ‘What? Food? First thing? Ugh, how could you?’ people, so generally doesn’t eat breakfast through the week. He doesn’t seem to mind the idea so much after a swim; I think he just has to satisfy himself that he’s done something first. Me, I want feeding immediately. Otherwise I start snapping and snarling. But it was very pleasant out there this morning; I’ve stewed the rhubarb from the farmers’ market, and it’s a delicious addition to muesli, almonds and yoghurt. Llew licked his bowl clean: most gratifying.
So now to Wolf Hall. I’m missing it a bit, actually… about an hour ago I was standing in the kitchen, making a (second) coffee and thinking about it, and I was unpleasantly surprised to realise there was no more left for me to read. At least not for the time being. I know Hils is hard at the sequel, and that’s a happy thought indeed. Come on, Mistress, harder, faster, get cracking! It seems Mantel’s managed that rare thing of combining the careful discipline of historical accuracy with the saucy freedom of vivid invention, and the result feels both educational and daring.
The times are mad. Disease and superstition run rife, rumour mills work overtime, and the political squabbles, prurient fantasies and religious differences among the privileged few make for an alarming, endlessly entertaining display of human excess, opportunism and stunning stupidity. Mantel’s attention to detail is addictive; Thomas Cromwell, our hero if not history’s, fondles fabrics, weaves and stitches like they are Braille objects; he speaks the language of common cloth, luxurious silks and velvet, and his appreciation and knowledge of their worth, their heft and telling dye, is a subtle bleed through the novel that becomes part of the reader’s instruction. These details matter, he seems to say. They tell us something of the world, and something of the wearer. He misses nothing.
Thomas Cromwell’s ascension through the political and social ranks of the day – the 1530s, very much a closed club, chaps, keep out the vermin – is hands-down, flat-out remarkable, and the novel’s worth reading just for the insight into his invented (or what feels more like recovered, excavated) psychology. Mantel burrows in there like a determined mole, setting up shop in a dead man’s earhole like there’s no place she’d rather be – is there anything this writer can’t do? I think the other thing that struck me (one of the many things, I should say) is that there’s so much compassion in her portrait of these tumultuous, often miserable times – arch enemies are never without redeeming features, including a sort of grudging camaraderie from among the men who would ideally see Cromwell minus his gruff, unlovely head – even they can’t help but respect his meteoric climb, from the tip of his violent father’s blacksmith boot all the way to Henry VIII’s regal right hand. It is astonishing, deeply impressive stuff. And it was a dramatic time to decide your own destiny; the Boleyn family and Henry’s obsession with marrying Anne altered the course of England’s history, and our man Cromwell was, improbably, there on centre stage. As a powerful and skilled operator, one suspects Cromwell preferred acting unseen, but now he’s been caught by Mantel’s probing light, and I daresay even he would approve of the angle at which she has him stepping out, squinting slightly against the long shadow of these great many years. It is a masterwork; truly great.