On Writing ‘Blind Bitter Happiness’ | Adam Mars-Jones | Granta

On Writing ‘Blind Bitter Happiness’

Adam Mars-Jones

When I was put on Granta’s first Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983, no novel of mine had been published – nor when I appeared on the second, ten years later, though one was in the works. If this earned me a certain amount of mockery, it was a small price to pay for the extension of my shelf life as a writer.

My writing psychology is largely negative, so that my reflex, having put down a sentence, let alone a page, is to dismiss it as feeble, beyond saving. This isn’t the disadvantage it might seem. For one thing my personality in its other sectors is reasonably bouncy, so that I can afford a slow puncture of confidence in that one area. Certainly if I woke up one morning convinced that I was God’s gift / the cat’s pyjamas / the dog’s bollocks as a writer I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Take away my deficiencies and you leave me with nothing. I’ve learned to work around the sinking-shrinking feeling, to elaborate my immediate reaction of Can’t do it! into a series of more qualified rejections (I can’t do it because because because – I couldn’t do it unless unless) and then move into positive territory without really noticing, with some formal decisions already made.

I can give an example of my ‘process’, to dignify it with that name. In 1996 I had a phone call asking me if I’d like to contribute to a book called Sons and Mothers, to be published by Virago and edited by a mother-son team, Victoria and Matthew Glendinning. Obviously not! Why? Why should my version of family history be given space over my brothers’ or my mother’s, just because I’ve been published in the past? That doesn’t give me insight, just a precedence I have done nothing to earn.

I certainly couldn’t do it without asking my mother, Sheila. I left the decision to her, and she said very sensibly that she wouldn’t compete with me in my area of professional expertise. I had no pre-existing desire to write about Sheila, though she was a subtler subject than my father (a High Court judge and middling celebrity). Again, I think a mild rather than impassioned desire to write about something can be more productive – why shouldn’t diffidence be part of a writer’s equipment? In the publishing world where I got my start, just as politics was regarded as show business for ugly people, writing was show business for shy ugly people, but the ability to push yourself forward is now indispensable, though the talents that get crowded out aren’t necessarily inferior in anything but push power.

I was still far from saying yes. I asked the Glendinnings if other gay men would be contributing, aware of the widespread idea that there is a special, potentially pathological closeness between gay men and their mothers, something that would be hard to put out of my mind in a loving piece, however low-key. I still hadn’t agreed to the project or written a word, but at least I was confident about what I didn’t want. Knowing that Sheila had not seen herself, ahead of time, as a candidate for motherhood, I wondered if it was possible to write a narrative essay about her earlier life as if the idea of having children had played no part of it. Quite a challenge to a son’s ego! The tone that might work was a warm neutrality claiming no particular intimacy, and with the first person singular restricted to the first and last sentence.

I said yes. I didn’t interview Sheila but relied on memory, though I showed her the result. She read it more than once, saying that she enjoyed her life in written form more than she had enjoyed living it. She would turn the page more or less eagerly, even though she knew what happened next and as often as not hadn’t enjoyed it – quite a testimony to the power of narrative. Ian Jack, then the editor of Granta, took a version for the magazine, taking my title ‘Blind Bitter Happiness’, and shrewdly giving it to an issue exploring the complex emotions of family in general.

Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones is a writer and critic living in London. He was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 and 1993. His fiction includes Box Hill and Batlava Lake, which are short, and Pilcrow and Cedilla, the expansive first parts of a semi-infinite novel. The third instalment, Caret, will be published in August 2023.

More about the author →