For all those of you who are contemplating writing a multi-generation saga for your next novel (come on, admit it), a word of warning for you.
All of my previous books have taken place over a relatively short time period. One of the things I wanted to do with my new novel was to expand that rather tired palette (to mix artistic metaphors) and try something altogether bigger in scope and subject matter. But I hadn’t realized until I was well into the book is that there is a severe drawback to writing a story that takes place over an extended period of time (just over a century, in this case): people have to die. And it is my job to kill ’em off.
Despite the rampant megalomania inherent in the act of making up stories, I’ve found this to be a surprisingly tough gig. As you live with characters and watch them grow, it’s hard not to become quite fond of them (even the bastards – perhaps especially the bastards.) And it’s only with extreme reluctance that I’ve consigned them all to their various fates, sorry to see them go.
You can’t just have them expire from old age, either. Most unprofessional, don’t you know. This is a novel, for heaven’s sake! So we’ve had death by: enemy sniper fire, arson, drowning (twice), hanging (suicide), lynching, massive stroke, cycling off the edge of a cliff, Parkinson’s disease, and myocardial infarction brought on by a malfunctioning pituitary gland (you’ll just have to trust me on that last one.) The only person who does die of old age is 106. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, I say.
It may be wearisome, this endless trudge of death, but I suspect that all those morbid endings contribute hugely to the book’s vitality. After all, a life lived without fear of death is not much of a life at all.
Today was kind of a big day for me and my little ole book.
I’ve spent more than three years on this baby, painfully cranking out the 130,000-odd words that constitute my fifth novel, whose working title is Paradise. (5 second pitch: “Absolom Absolom meets The Sound of Music.”) And all this time, I’ve been wondering: how on earth am I ever going to end this thing? I had in mind a final scene which involved telling quite a funny joke, but was never quite sure how to get there.
It’s a high-risk strategy, this kind of stunt. “Writing organically” is one way of putting it. “Typing into the void” is another. I really should know better, too: when I was living in London I once spent six months writing myself into a dead end of a story line, which I had to abandon and start all over again.
After that debacle, I promised myself that I would always know where I was going in the future – plots all meticulously charted on timelines, that sort of thing. Anyway, that was obviously a bust, and as the book has grown I’ve become increasingly anxious that I may have screwed up again, with all these lovely words and characters and nifty story lines, but nowhere to go. So I have spent the last few mornings staring into space, thinking as hard as I could, trying to make some tough decisions. And, rather to my surprise, this morning everything seemed to fall neatly into place, and, as Dickie Smothers would say, viola. I have a plan, an exit strategy.
Now all I have to do is write the damn thing.
So, yeah, anyway. This blog.
I wanted to have a go at trying to give some sort of mission statement – more for my benefit than yours, really, just to keep me on the straight and narrow. Here’s what I do not want: within a couple hours of mentioning on facebook that I was contemplating starting a blog, I got a message from a friend of mine telling me about a course he was giving where I could learn to maximize my blog’s something-or-other, with a view to getting the thing published as a book. It was a thoughtful offer, but I explained that I’m already struggling with one book, which is probably enough. So: not writing for publication, then. Jolly good. Next question: what am I writing for?
Here’s the thing. I’m a lucky, lucky bastard. Lucky beyond anything I could have ever dreamed. I could tell you why, but since everyone reading this knows me anyway, I don’t suppose I need to. But despite all the wonderful things that have fallen into my undeserving lap, I can’t help thinking that I could, or should, be doing better. Don’t ask me what that “better” means, exactly – that’s one of things I’m hoping to find out as this experiment continues.
Let me try and explain what I’m muddling towards. I know a few people who have a manifest talent for living. They grasp life, they celebrate it, and they enjoy every moment of the time they’ve been given on this earth – even when things aren’t going so well. These people leave me slack-jawed in mute admiration. And I always think: I’d like a bit of that. And that, in essence, is what I’m after. Whether it means starting a vegetable patch, or listening to more whey-faced Norwegian jazz musicians, I’m on the hunt for small stuff that will make me feel as if I’m getting the big stuff right.
I’m also going to write about my new novel (my fifth) and will be charting its labored progress towards completion and then the fun and games of getting the damn thing sold – or not.
So, that’s the basic idea. Self-indulgent, solipsistic nonsense? More than likely. But, after all, this is a blog. What did you expect?
That it should have come to this.
There we were – newbie blogger (that would be me), wife, parents, aunt and uncle fresh off the plane from New Zealand – sitting around the dinner table after one of my father’s spectacular creations (butterflied leg of lamb, thank you very much). We were happy, replete, and a couple of bottles of wine to the good.
Talk turned, as it often seems to these days, to our various ailments, diseases and complaints. My mother produced a devilish machine which you blow into to measure your lung capacity (she’s asthmatic, as am I.) She duly blew; we politely marveled. Then it was my turn. Then the bloody thing went all around the table as we each took a deep breath and blew into it as if we were Dizzy Gillespie. (My uncle, 74 years old, did much better than me.)
Not to be outdone, my father then produced his machine for measuring blood pressure, and around we went again. I was expecting him to produce his little device for measuring his blood sugar level which probably would have prompted a ghoulish pricking of fingers and some strange blood oaths – you never know with these Kiwis – but thankfully the cheese plate arrived and we were distracted by some pungent Gorgonzola. And more wine.
It was only later, when I was lying in bed listening to my daughter snuffle quietly in the adjoining room, that it struck me that the shrill beep of the portable blood pressure machine was in fact the dolorous clang of the bell announcing the passing of my youth. I mean, for heaven’s sake. We’re were using medical equipment as a means of entertainment. (I’ve done this in past, of course, but I swear I’ve not had another enema since.) I remember a time when after-dinner games, if played correctly, could almost guarantee late-night puking in the nearest flower bed. Even the most geriatric game of canasta would have been more fun than the solemn reading of our medical runes on the little screen. And whatever happened to Charades, for God’s sake?
Still, on further reflection, I decided that all in all it was a good night, even if it was a little odd. Our little informal medicals made me realise that we were lucky to be there at all. If I have to huff and puff down a plastic tube every once in a while to be reminded how grateful we should be for our continued good health, then so be it. Pass the damn thing over. This time can I be Charlie Parker?