This time, I contracted labyrinthitis, a charmingly-named and utterly uncharming virus which I haven’t shaken yet. And I am aware, believe me, that the last thing you should do to anyone with labyrinthitis is shake them.
And you don’t miss it. You really don’t. Yes, the final stretch of a first draft’s completion is perhaps writing at its most comfortable – your book is helping, all the decisions you have engineered to get here have made an ever increasing number of other decisions inevitable, you know the characters, you are chasing along after them and their plot as if the only reason they could seem so clear must be that they will vanish overnight, so you have to catch them now, now, now. But beyond that comes the rewriting, the periods of bottomless self-loathing, the insoluble paragraphs, the grind of making a private joy into something palatable for others.
If you’re in any way like me, it all means that for months your friends have not seen you, or if you’ve been there, you haven’t really been there. If there is anyone you love, you are aware that they have known you only in bursts between something intense which has little to do with them, beyond the fact that you are grateful for their interest and support, that you appreciate anyone who would understand how much you can disappear and yet how much you need to feel that someone is holding your hand and cheering you on and thinks you are better than you are. You need that, but it’s more than you should ask.
I would visit my mother, or my godchildren, and be delighted to see them and then horribly, quickly become anxious either to take long walks in order to think about the novel, or to go away into a corner and work on it, take out the data stick and the back-up data stick and the back-up back-up data stick and get more of it down. It sits in your dreams and eats them.
This time I had a very tight deadline for the book and asked a very kind lady, Shelby White, who can only be described as a patron, to let me stay once more in her cabin in the woods in New York State. So for months I went slowly and necessarily crazy in a wooden house surrounded by – and increasingly perforated by – hordes of woodpeckers. I would sleep late, have lunch, go for a thoughtful walk to the reservoir through a glorious Indian summer, then go back and start writing. A break when I would be brought my dinner and then a bottle of Diet Coke (heaven forgive me) Tai Chi while playing Jimi Hendrix, some voice exercises to get me feeling able to express what was needed and the long, real run into pages until the small hours. It was a strange and humid and almost hallucinatory time. Scarlet damsel flies would pause and then lift. There would be great continental storms, skies as light as morning but white and the wood tiles rattling overhead with torn leaves and water. I knew I had been undisturbed for a little too long when I found myself outside on my deck, Jimi loud inside and the lightning roaring overhead while I danced naked in the dark and hot and heavy rain. Whatever it takes to get the job done.
I had to break off from my seclusion and Shelby’s gentle hospitality to travel across the US by train (I no longer fly) and so completed my first draft in car 2730 of the Empire Builder – American trains are uncared-for but they all have sturdy names – en route to Portland, Oregon. And the occupants of car 2730 were pleased for me and hugged me and made much of me and I was glad, having spent the whole night awake and typing, typing as Washington gave way to Idaho and then . . . done – nothing left but the dark and Oregon and a rattled, light-headed dawn spent threading along beside the grey mist and early fishermen of the Columbia River Gorge. It felt heroic. It always does. And I went to sleep in a friend’s house that night, still rocking and having sent a text to let my supporter know the good news. I was woken by the return text in the morning and knew then that someone was happy for me who understood.
I fought through the first rewrite on the ship going home across the Atlantic – I was tempted to let the pages blow overboard and start again, so horrible did everything seem. But they have very stern laws about littering at sea.
And now, of course, there is the plunge into all of the care that the author must take once the book has left them. It is no longer a problem, the newer tests and more frightening ideas have arrived. The horrors of past doubts and effort have receded and only the exhilaration of that downhill rush over the final chapters remains. It could almost seem possible that I might actually never write another. But the old book isn’t done with me yet – almost no one else has read it and it has to be supported and pushed on its way, launched like a very sinkable little ship. Suddenly, I’ve hit the time for interviews (anxiety-provoking) and for photographs (more anxiety provoking) and I have readings to give and an autumn of promotion to undertake when I am still ill and still adjusting, still taking time to move from being private, from channelling too much of myself into a small fictional space. I am unused to normal expressions of emotion, to interactions, to the rhythms of people I didn’t make up earlier. It is strange. Very.
I never know how to genuinely talk about what I do when I write, because when I write I am so far from myself. I never like to lie. This makes discussing matters with journalists unwieldy to say the least. Plus, I never feel that I have the right to sell anything I have produced – it seems a terrible imposition. Still, I’ve been paid, the last book did well, won prizes: so there are expectations. If I were healthier, I might feel the professional pressures more, I am certainly aware that in a time of recession, I have an uncertain job, a position which only rests on the quality and visibility of the last book. I have to try my best, dress nicely, stand up without throwing up, be grateful that anyone is paying any attention when so many books aren’t reviewed at all, when my mailbox receives three or four unsolicited novels every week, asking for a quote, for a favourable review or mention, for any kind of help. The envelopes all smell a little of despair.
And when the day’s required event is over, I get back home and I sit and I catch my breath and I know that while I’m writing I feel I could handle all of life, as much of it as I could get – the complexity, the unpredictability, the press of people – I feel that I only need time, for the book to be over so that I can be free. But I’m wrong. I don’t deal well with life, or people. I appreciate them, but they baffle and overwhelm me and scare and delight me perhaps more than they would those who are more in the world. It can’t be helped. Which is part of the attraction of starting on another book.
Photograph courtesy of Campbell Mitchell.