Cormac James’s most recent novel is The Surfacing. We published his story ‘Issue’ in Granta 142: Animalia. His short fiction has appeared in AGNI, Guernica and the Dublin Review. Born in Ireland, he now lives in Montpellier, France. In this series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
My most recent writing lesson came from Elizabeth Strout, a few months ago. Pay attention, is all she taught me, and it was plenty. There’s a scene in her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton where the deeply troubled father catches his teenage son dressed in women’s underwear, and in that state herds him down the main street of their town, so that the world will know his son is a fucking faggot, the father screams, and we feel the man’s inevitable, futile, opportunistic rage as strongly as anything else described; next we’re shown the father that same night cradling his traumatised son on his lap like a baby, with the sister/narrator saying she ‘could not tell one’s tears and murmurs from the other’s’. I found all that very strong – unsettling yet deeply credible, and the sequence of scenes so daring yet sure that I was also jealous. I might conceivably have written the first scene, but not the second, and definitely not slapped it on top of the first as flatly as Strout did. Then, just days after reading this passage, caught in a fist of fatigue and pent-up anger and frustration (all my own baggage and no one else’s), I lost my temper with my young son and upset him considerably; a few minutes later he was on my lap and I was hugging him and telling him it was not his fault, and feeling sickened at myself and both of us were crying or close to it, and from any distance it would not have been clear who was comforting whom. Strout’s lesson kicked in later, telling me: it’s all there, right under your nose. It’s not something you have to research, root out, ponder, find. Pay attention and filter nothing. That’s all you have to do.
That lesson’s first reward came a few weeks ago, as I was carrying sacks of rubble from a fourth floor apartment down to a garage on the street where I store tools and material for the renovation job I’m currently working on. I had loaded up each bag (there were about sixty) with as much as I thought I could carry at a go, and with a misguided notion of efficiency (spot the man who thinks he’s younger than he actually is) decided I’d use the return trip to carry up sacks of plaster and mortar and boxes of tiles I needed for the work to come. I’d set aside my novel-in-progress six months before to take on this other job, so I hadn’t written anything in a while, wasn’t even in writing mode, but somewhere on the stairs I caught myself doing what Strout had taught me: paying attention. And what I noticed was that with every trip I could feel myself getting older. That thought, like most, might have paid my mind only the briefest visit, but I latched on and repeated it, and even as I was tramping up and down those [4 x (2 x 8)] steps I found myself starting to riff, making it more and more my own. By ‘getting older’ I found I meant I could feel my legs (and arms and core) weakening and stiffening with every storey, up and down – a kind of accelerated process in which I thought I felt the years going by, past youth, and physical ambition, and even health, all the way to actual decline. The steps and storeys and sacks I was counting off were days and months and years, as a deep fatigue spread through my body, invading and exploring and occupying like mortal disease. But even as I was physically faltering, that heartless voice which is the writer’s great ally was saying: This is good. Because I’d already tried various openings for the novel I was writing, and been satisfied with none, but here, whole, was exactly what I needed: a situation with frustration perfectly (and simply) balanced against resolve, yet with the tension of unsustainability. Sooner or later the guy has to falter; and even if he physically outlasts the sixty sacks, what a legacy for the bulk of the book still to come.
Since then I’ve been paying attention to everything on site. Just this morning, for instance, my first task was to stir the paint, a big twenty-five litre tub. I used a wooden handle from one of the ratty mops the old lady left behind. With something that thick and deep, you have to stir two-handed, fist over fist, strong stately (gondolier’s?) strokes, to rouse the gelatinous sludge from the bottom and sink the watery layer topping the new paint. Mind-leap: the thin transparent stuff you get on yoghurt if you don’t shake the tub. What the French call le petit lait. A mind-leap further: childhood doorstep, milk bottles, red foil caps, the risen cream, your father’s over-stern Don’t shake the bottle! But maybe that’s too far too fast, don’t go back (yet), stay in the present, with that first strong, simple image – the stiff pantomime stirring motion with the worn wooden handle plunged deep into the molten white. That’s your snag. An image that’s neat and clean, yet gratifyingly incomplete.
Like I said, I haven’t written a thing in months, but this morning my writing brain was on. Wondering if the image was better stripped bare or worked up? How about comparisons? My grandmother’s thick forearms over her washing tub, perhaps? There are so many windows you might open, each with its own full view. And what about the petit lait reference, is that pretentious? (If it was meat, you’d certainly hold it to your nose for a sniff.) That’s not saying it’s unusable. Maybe give it to a secondary character, with all your other hand-me-downs. Yes, let it be a comparison some other character makes – not the one stirring, but someone watching him, a friend come to visit, say, at the worst possible time (the renovation is way behind schedule) – and why not give her the line a real friend said on hearing what kind of work I was doing these days: ‘Wow, you must be getting really fit!’ Put that and the petit lait together and you can almost hear her voice.
And that’s how it works. (At least, that’s one of the many, many different ways it works, sometimes, for me.) That’s how it starts. Glimpses and stutters. A fully-fledged situation or just a compelling detail. The view from a stairwell window, or the cracked pane, or the lumps of pastel putty (chewing gum?) holding it in, or the petrified thumbprints in every one. You find yourself toying with a thread and you pull. Sometimes it comes off short. Sometimes every succeeding detail seems another find. Even then, you don’t always use them. Sometimes you think they’ll be the centrepiece but they end up merely glimpsed in passing: a conversation on the fourth floor landing, the door of poor old Madame Cruchet’s apartment opens, and an arguing couple (mother and child?) catch a glimpse of a man (the new owner? an illegal worker from Oran?) on his knees, using a broom handle to stir a huge cauldron-sized tub. The strobe flashes come when least expected, and each time light up an entire world. Your eyes must be open and willing to record. Inside and out. You, too, prize confidence over intelligence. He has scars on the soles of his feet that feel like fish scales to his wife.
Photograph © Guillaume P. Boppe