THE STORY SO FAR
Since the beginning of October I’ve been meeting my neighbour, Evelyn, once every week or ten days, to discuss what happens when you try to write a novel.
Evelyn’s husband Bill passed away two years ago, so everyone around here wants to help her however they can.
She’s agreed that I will write about our evenings.
I’m not sure what Evelyn is learning from these sessions, but I’ve learned a lot.
For example, I never knew until last week that Evelyn was once a traffic warden in Dublin.
And that same evening she informed me that she’s started going out with someone called Lenny.
I can hear Evelyn’s car pulling up outside.
To be honest, I don’t know what to expect this evening. The last time Evelyn was here she announced – after we had shared two bottles of red wine – that her new boyfriend, Lenny, is a retired PE teacher and a recent inductee to Dig It & Dung It, the foraging, garden touring and gin drinking group of which Evelyn is a member. Her introduction to Lenny was when she fell into a ditch somewhere in County Offaly and he pulled her out.
She told me that Lenny is very well read, as she put it. She told me that he is most encouraging in her ambition to be the next Margaret Atwood.
‘By the way, Lenny’s read your novel, The Trout, and really liked it,’ Evelyn said.
Lenny suddenly leapt in my estimation. It’s pathetic, but like all writers I crave praise. I wanted to dig for further information about what Lenny thought of my novel – Oh, really? Did he say what exactly it was he liked about it? or What did he most admire in it? – but I managed to stop myself in time.
THE KITCHEN TABLE
‘I’ve been flat out all day and haven’t managed to eat,’ Evelyn says, ‘so I brought over some lettuce soup.’
She produces a thermos flask and I make Barry’s tea.
‘You need to rake up your leaves outside or someone is going to break their neck,’ Evelyn says as we slurp happily.
I smile as politely as one can when ignoring uninvited advice. I recognise the soup – an Evelyn special.
‘I’m well,’ she says. ‘We walked from Graiguenamanagh to Saint Mullins last Sunday. And back. Me and Lenny.’
Her eyes are aglow as she imparts this information.
‘He’s so fit for a man of his age!’ she cries. ‘He wants to soon bring me cycling on the Waterford Greenway.’
We’ve fallen into a routine since September. We have no pre-set agenda, partly because I’m often as much in the dark about writing as I daresay Evelyn is, and because if Evelyn wanted to take a conventional creative writing course she wouldn’t be here with me.
Because I’ve never had to think much about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction – other than doing it – I’ve asked other novelists to give Evelyn some tips. To date she’s been advised by Mick Herron and Mary O’Donnell.
As it happens, two nights ago a letter to Evelyn came in by email from my novelist friend Catherine Dunne. Catherine’s name and books are widely known, and especially in Italy, where her fan club is extensive and is headed by the wife of the legendary politician Silvio Berlusconi.
Catherine was responding to my request that she help Evelyn. To be honest, all these friends are also confirming to me that what I’ve been telling Evelyn these last couple of months hasn’t been complete rubbish.
‘I’ve read two Catherine Dunne novels,’ Evelyn says. ‘A Name for Himself and Missing Julia. She’s very good. I am honoured.’
Evelyn has the great asset of being an avid reader. I know of no writer who is not, or has not at some point been, a voracious reader. Reading fiction over many years lays down a template in our minds for how stories are told and how they work. And when we read a novel that is beautifully written it inspires us to try to do the same.
CATHERINE DUNNE JOINS THE CONVERSATION
It must be the writer’s inbuilt perversity, but I’m constantly drawn to create fictional characters who bear no similarity whatsoever to me. It’s some kind of inverse process: the more extreme the differences between me and my characters, the better the fiction.
I’ve spent years in the imaginary company of a man searching for a sense of self, one whose obsessive love for his wife drives him to commit murder. I’ve lived with a young teenager terrorised by cyber-bullies. I’ve invented a whole family whose emotional life revolves around a child with a disability.
It seems the more distant the fiction is from my own lived experience, the deeper I have to dig. The nuance becomes more shaded. And the created character has the freedom to become his or her own fully authentic self.’
‘Elena Ferrante says that the characters we create “…never leave you, they have a space-time of their own in which they are alive and increasingly vivid, they are inside and outside you, they exist solidly in the streets, in the houses, in the places where the story must unfold.” In my experience, there are many times when these fictional people take up more space – psychic, emotional, physical – than the flesh-and-blood copies we live with.’
‘My Brilliant Friend’, Evelyn says. ‘I think I cried for a week when I finished it.’
‘Yes, but listen to what Catherine is saying when she contrasts the fictional characters which writers create with the flesh-and-blood copies we live with. She’s saying that for writers the world is inverted. That’s wonderful!’
Evelyn suddenly sits up straight.
‘Yes! And didn’t Mary O’Donnell say more or less the same thing a couple of weeks ago?’ she asks.
My laptop is beside me on the kitchen table.
‘“Sometimes, I believe in the emotional truth of fiction more than I believe in the emotional truth of everyday life,”’ I read.
‘You all keep saying the same things over and over,’ Evelyn says.
Catherine Dunne continues:
WHERE DO CHARACTERS IN FICTION COME FROM?
‘So where do they come from, these imaginary beings? From within, of course. Which is not the same thing as autobiography: that is something else entirely.
No one writes for long without understanding that they are entering mystery and will never leave it. There is a sprinkling of magic dust that comes with the creation of a fictional person. Struggling to understand where something “comes from”, trying to be rational about the shadow world of the imagination is such a contradictory – and useless – activity that I prefer not to engage.
I’m too busy living there.
CHARACTERS AND COFFEE
‘In order to get to know my characters properly, I take them out for a coffee. Or I sit across the table from them, having dinner, asking all the (mis)leading questions I can. I invent families for them; obsessions; fears; joys. I build the scaffold of their past. Even if that past never appears on the page, a character’s history tells me everything about who they are, who they will become. Such intimate knowledge shadows me as I write. It allows me to keep my character from getting what s/he wants.
Many writers dismiss the view that fictional characters are capable of ‘taking over’ and mapping their own destinies. And while I accept that the writer has ultimate control, there is still a very real sense in which the character that we bring to life through the imagination has the power to unlock something unexpected within us.
That in their creation, the writer is led down an often startling, entirely unimagined path. Following our characters down that path is part of the risk, the real exhilaration of fiction.
Sounds insane? It may well be. But I never claimed otherwise.
I just prefer to enter into the mystery of it all.
Evelyn stretches like a cat.
‘May I bring that home with me?’ she asks and I hand her the page. ‘I’d like Lenny to read it.’
I feel as if suddenly I have a house guest I didn’t know about. And everyone knows that house guests, like fish, go off quickly.
‘By all means.’
‘Lenny has really good judgement about literature, you know,’ Evelyn says.
This statement shouldn’t irritate me, but it does.
‘You don’t know how much these evenings mean to me,’ Evelyn says and climbs into her car.
The night is ink and a wind is rising.
She beeps the horn and lurches off. I see that her right-hand taillight is not working.
I think of Catherine Dunne’s line – There is a sprinkling of magic dust that comes with the creation of a fictional person – and it makes me feel better.
Evelyn’s car disappears and I’m left standing there.
Catherine is so right. Writers have their characters for company and in that sense we are never alone.