The Heft of a Novel

Marilynne Robinson, So, yes, Winter Fugue is underway. How has it taken its first few steps into being? I don’t mean “being” as a concept; I mean “being” as a synonym for pixels and ink. Beyond the emergence of the work of fiction as a flickering response to the raw and burning imperative to write, how does it — how has it — come to assume a definite form on the page?

For me, the first words of a fiction never issue from an idea or an image, or a narrative dilemma, but always — strange to say — from a feeling in the body, a mood that circulates through blood and breath, an incarnate sensation in no way tethered to events in the outside world. They come on top of the murmur that drives the act of writing and they take shape in response to, or in mimicry of, an inner disturbance that feels physically like the growth of some alien thing, some subcutaneous burr, lodged in the fibres of muscle and flesh. Marilynne Robinson gives voice to an experience of much the same sensation in her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things: Continue reading →

Listening to the Murmur

Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a book voucher to the value of £100. I used it to nab a dozen new paperbacks that ended up making me nauseous. To be fair, I had anticipated the feeling. It’s a familiar one in the process of writing a novel. I can barely write a word without first looking around at the superabundance of novels already in existence and asking myself if the world is really in need of a new one like Winter Fugue. More than that, I can barely write a word without first looking over the handful of novels that I consider flawless, the novels that I’d say have changed my life, and wondering why a new novel should be written when whatever faint power it possesses will almost certainly fall short of theirs.

It’s a truism of writing workshops that it’s impossible to become a writer if you’re not first and foremost a reader. I don’t disagree with that, but I also recognise the double-bind it involves. For me, being the reader I am, it’s impossible to write the novel I’m writing without bearing in mind the force of the competition it faces. I’m constantly aware of the inadequacies it harbours, relative to the best of its kind, and I’m aware, too, of the obscurity that likely awaits it if it makes its way into print. To write it at all, in fact, is to labour away in conscious defiance of this dual awareness, with a wilful dismissal of everything that the reader in me is trying to warn the writer about. Continue reading →

Distractions

These words are a distraction. I don’t necessarily mean for you — although there probably is something else that deserves your attention right now, isn’t there? — but certainly for me they arrive here at the expense of something less occasional, something more worthy of my time.

For a little bit over eighteen months, working in fits and starts, I’ve been piecing together a new novel. Right now it’s called Winter Fugue. At the start of the summer, it existed as a loose-limbed, shaggy beast of about 80,000 words. It was recognisably one thing, fully formed in the sense that all its core components held together, but its surface textures were coarse and its proportions were all askew. I’ve been going over it again since August, trawling through it line by line to tighten it up and smooth it out, and now, with the first 25,000 words in better shape, I feel like I’ve passed at least a minor waymark. Time to pause and look back over the route that has led me here. Time to rest and take stock, and survey the terrain ahead before setting off again. Continue reading →