Ever since she told me she wants to write a novel my neighbour, Evelyn, has been coming over here once a week and I’ve been trying to make helpful suggestions.
My family has now begun to refer to me as ‘the professor’.
An early road-block in this process was Evelyn’s fixation with plot. She didn’t believe me when I told her that plot was less important than she imagined.
But when the acclaimed spy novelist Mick Herron told her the same thing, she sat up and took notice.
Evelyn is radiant this evening. Before I can even ask she whips out her phone and scrolls through it to the message she wants me to hear.
‘Listen to this! “Mum, do U think it wud be ok if I came home for Xmas? Nigel X”’
Nigel, the older of her two boys, lives in Sydney and has not been home since his father’s funeral almost two years ago.
‘That is great news!’ I say.
‘He has broken up with the latest girlfriend – but I don’t care!’ Evelyn says. ‘I’m so happy!’
I’m happy for Evelyn. She often speaks of Nigel and has told me that he is very like his dad, Bill (RIP) So this is fantastic news and means that she will not be on her own for Christmas.
PEOPLE YOU CREATE
‘If novels are not about plot,’ Evelyn says when we’ve settled down and the glow of Nigel’s Christmas visit has been allowed to recede, ‘what are they about?’
This is the kind of question I dread. It drags me out of my comfortable organic swamp and makes me confront what it is I actually do. The truth is that most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing – it just happens. Of course that is of little benefit to Evelyn.
Outside there’s a strong gale getting up. Wind whistles down the chimney. I briefly consider whether I should get a sudden migraine and retreat.
‘People,’ I say. ‘Novels are about people.’
‘I had grasped that,’ Evelyn says gently. From time to time another side of Evelyn pops out, the woman used to being in control. ‘Go on.’
‘People you create.’
‘These people are already in your head,’ I say. ‘In your memory.’
We sit in silence.
‘May I make a simple observation?’ she asks. ‘You look in pain.’
I open my eyes, and only then realise that they’ve been closed. ‘I’m…concentrating.’
‘I don’t want to cause you any discomfort,’ she says. ‘We don’t have to do this. We can stop.’
Every ungallant ounce of me wants to take her up on this. I’m happiest when I’m writing, not talking about writing. But if I opt out now I know I’ll feel miserable. I’ll have failed; she’ll have rejected me. Writers have very fragile egos. Accepting rejection is meant to be part of the deal. You’re meant to embrace the fact that what you write may not be to everyone’s taste. That’s hard. Much easier to embrace the reality that your harshest critics are morons posing as critics.
‘We’ll still be friends,’ she says in the soothing tone of a shrink whose patient is daft as a box of frogs. ‘I’ll take up painting.’
Perhaps some of my reluctance to try and parse what I do arises from fear. It’s as if someone is trying to dismantle my golf swing, itself a thing of gravity defying wonder. What happens if once dismantled it can never be put back together again?
‘When I was beginning to write,’ I say, ‘I read Proust. Remembrance of Times Past is one of the greatest novels of human relationships and childhood perceptions ever written. All the senses play a part in Proust’s early memory, but none more than the sense of taste. He famously recounted how in later life the taste of a little piece of madeleine, the cup-cakes which his aunt used to give him as a child, brought on a rich rush of childhood memory.’
‘Exactly the same thing happens when I smell capers!’ Evelyn says. ‘As children we were given them every Friday with fish. Uggh! Soon as I smell capers I’m a snivelling seven-year old again!’
‘It happens because the olfactory bulb, the smell analysing region of our brains, is very close to our hippocampus, where memory and emotion are dealt with. Early tastes and aromas make an indelible impression on memory, and remain buried there, waiting to vividly re-emerge when we experience the same tastes or smells in later life,’ I say. ‘What this means is that all the memories are in there. Waiting to emerge.’
Evelyn gets up and paces up and down, scratching her head with an eraser-tipped florescent pencil.
‘But I don’t want to write a memoir,’ she says, ‘I want to write a novel.’
‘I wrote a novel recently called The Trout,’ I say. ‘The story is told in the first person by Alex, a man who lives in Canada but is haunted by a childhood memory that took place when he was growing up in Ireland in the 1950s. In order to write the story, I had to become Alex, as a man, and as a child, even though it’s all made up.’
‘Let me tell you what my predominant smell was from that period. Guess.’
‘I haven’t the faintest.’
‘Leather. As in the leather seats of a car,’ I say. ‘As in the leather seats of your minibus. You described them recently to me.’
‘Okay,’ she says slowly.
‘So, Alex grew up in Ireland in the 1950s. I can remember what it was like back then in the south east, what the cars were like and how their upholstery felt and smelled. Alex has vivid memories of kneeling on the stitched red leather rear bench-seat of his father’s car, a black Humber Hawk, as his father, a doctor, drives to his house calls. Even though the story is invented, because I could imagine the car so completely by simply smelling old leather, I could put myself in young Alex’s position, kneeling on the back seat, looking at the world going, as he says in the book, “in the opposite direction”.’
‘Weird,’ Evelyn says.
‘I can recall the smell of damp at seven o’clock mass on mornings during Lent. The warm smells coming out of the bakery we went to after mass to buy our blaas – the local bread. The smell of boot polish from the shoes of the local priest. Incense, mortuary candles, floor wax, rubber, every one of these smells makes a different memory pop up for me.’
Evelyn is blinking rapidly. ‘How depressing is that!’
‘It provides me with a setting. My memory furnishes the world at that time.’
‘When you were a boy – but you’re not this boy…’
‘No, Alex is my invention.’
‘But a few minutes ago you said that you had to become Alex, both as a man and as a boy,’ she says.
‘All fictional characters are to some degree an extension of the person who creates them. It’s not surprising that this should be the case. We know no one in the way we know ourselves. So I imagine myself as a child, but in the skin of Alex, a boy I have created, and place him in my own kaleidoscope of memories. A number of dark and awful things then take place. Think of each of these steps as the brush strokes on Mick Herron’s wall. One layer at a time.’
Evelyn sits back. ‘That,’ she says, ‘is really interesting. Seriously.’
I’m not sure if this is a compliment.
‘You see,’ she continues, ‘I assumed that writers go through life collecting characters. The funny little man who jumps around behind the counter in the deli. The woman in the dry cleaners with the grand accent. Writers have an eye for such people and rush outside to make notes. Years later the funny little man pops up in a book.’
‘Those are labels. A facial tick, a limp, a stammer. But these labels just describe people. You sometimes read novels and it’s as if there’s a sign hanging around a character’s neck and so every time he or she appears he limps, she stammers, he ticks. These are cardboard cut-outs, they’re not characters. You have to get inside his mind. You have to find out how she thinks and what she thinks. You have to become him.’
‘Crumbs!’ Evelyn takes a deep breath. ‘May I make a suggestion?’
I’m anticipating another broadside. ‘By all means.’
‘D’you think it would be a good idea if we had a drink?’ she says. ‘I brought over some of my sloe gin, and some mackerel pâté. Even if I say so myself, they’re quite delicious together.’
I get out glasses and ice and we transfer to the chairs either side of the Aga. She’s not wrong about how good her sloe gin is.
‘Good health,’ she says and crosses her legs at the ankles. Her wellingtons are, as usual, inside the backdoor, and this evenings her knitted socks are canary yellow. ‘I can’t wait for Christmas,’ she says. ‘Nigel coming home on his own – I’ll have him all to myself.’
She looks dreamy all of a sudden.
‘It’s a kind of magic, this, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘Making things out of nothing?’
I want to tell her that the magic is just the tiniest hint of the herb that brings the whole pot of stew to life, and that all the rest of it is hard slog, relentless determination, re-writing the re-writes over and over, and the slow dawning comprehension that this is what you do because you don’t know anything else. But Evelyn’s face is so full of enthusiasm that I haven’t got the heart.
So I say, ‘Magic, that’s exactly what it is,’ and sip my sloe gin.