It’s a hundred years, well, seven months, since last I wrote here and now my blog has become a column on my shiny new website. Welcome if it’s the first time you’ve been here, and welcome back if you’ve been to my old blog, writinglifeandtheuniverse, which has now migrated here.
Since April I’ve been rewriting my second novel, which is very loosely based on my great-grandmother’s life, what I’ve discovered is that to begin a novel confident that the few facts in your possession will emerge from their chrysalis into a butterfly of a novel is to mislead yourself (at least it is if you’re me). I thought that because I had some real-life characters and something of a real-life plot (my great-grandmother sailed on Titanic) a novel would easily emerge. Wrong.
I only had the bare bones of a story and that story had no heart. And because that story had no heart my own heart couldn’t engage with it.
But finally I find myself on the last leg. My heart is at last engaged mostly because, as I commented to Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book in September, I have been working with a brilliant freelance editor who’s been asking me questions that have sent me down paths towards a better book, and making the kinds of suggestions a writer dreams of because they open windows onto new mindscapes. She’s not at all prescriptive, but she has a knack of helping me see the book objectively and recognising which paths to follow and which not which is a difficult thing to do when you’re on your own in the woods of a book. I think she’s quite wonderful and I hope she’ll agree to work on every book I write from now on. She has read the rewritten first part and reacted very positively. Now she’s reading the rest and I’m waiting to hear how she feels.
When I’ve made any last changes my agent will do her very best to sell it. But the competition is hot now: there are two Titanic novels already out and two more coming out in April 2012 (the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking). So we can only hope there’s a publisher out there who feels confident that my second novel has something to add to the collection.
And now for something a little different, something I plan to do each month. I’ll write about a book I wish I’d written, a song I wish I’d composed, a painting I wish I’d painted. Perhaps a house I wish I’d designed, a beach I wish I’d stood on … who knows. Something that has inspired me and moved me. Something I love. Something I aspire to.
I would love to have written this book because it has an astonishing capacity to live on in the imagination. When I first read it I had trouble keeping all the threads in my head but Ondaatje’s prose is, well it’s not prose, it’s poetry so when I couldn’t keep the threads in my head I had to let my heart lead, the way you do with poetry, and then the characters stole their way in until, by the end, I’d fallen in love with every one of them, including the thief. Ondaatje seamlessly weaves stories within stories: the characters tell their own and other stories (the English Patient keeps his letters and drawings inside Herodotus’s HISTORIES) just the way we weave stories in our own lives. Only when we tell someone else about something that’s happened does that story truly become part of the fabric of our lives (and always we embellish a little … ).
After I saw the film I went back to the book and found so much more in it than I’d found at first, and now I think the way to read THE ENGLISH PATIENT is to let go of all desire for simple narrative threads and allow it to steal its way into your heart the way dreams do, chaotically, beautifully, terrifyingly, unexpectedly and delightfully.
How I would have loved to have written this book.