THE STORY SO FAR
A couple of months ago, when we were all still clinging to the dying embers of summer, my neighbour, Evelyn, asked me if I would talk to her about what happens when one sits down to write writes a novel.
Maybe I shouldn’t have.
Maybe I should have declined and allowed our friendship to continue as it had before – a drink now and then in the pub, a chat when we meet in the woods. An Evelyn recipe gladly received.
Now maybe I’m in over my head.
I’m managing to keep a record of our evenings together and I’m sharing them as blogs.
Thank God I’ve asked some writer friends to help me help Evelyn. The first was the much-admired spy novelist, Mick Herron, whose illuminating insights into plot gave Evelyn’s confidence an early boost.
And this morning, as if anticipating a crisis, I received a very beautiful note to pass on to Evelyn from the poet and novelist Mary O’Donnell. Mary’s acclaimed novels are memorable for their sensuality – their tactile exploration of what drives human feeling and emotion.
Evelyn is not herself this evening. Something elusive and unhappy clings to her from which I am excluded. It’s as if only half her mind is here in my kitchen. I don’t want to intrude and ask her, ‘Anything wrong?’ It’s not my place to do so. I wonder if her son, Nigel, who recently announced he was coming home for Christmas, has cancelled out. It’s happened before. Or perhaps her mood has something to do with me. In other words, perhaps her unhappiness arises from these evenings when I am meant to be illuminating the craft of novel writing to her but failing. I wouldn’t be surprised.
AT THE KITCHEN TABLE
‘Do you like cucumber relish?’ she asks. ‘I can’t remember.’
‘Oh, yes, I do.’
‘I’ve left a pot of it on the table inside the back door,’ she says and looks away.
‘Thank you.’ I take a deep breath and try to ignore the fact that Evelyn’s mind seems to be elsewhere. ‘I told Mary O’Donnell about our project,’ I say as casually as I can.
Evelyn turns to me slowly. ‘Say that again.’
When she looks at me like that a different Evelyn appears, someone I don’t know.
‘Wait a minute,’ she says.
‘She’s a good friend of mine,’ I say. ‘She’s happy to help.’
‘I went to one of her readings in Maynooth about six months ago,’ Evelyn says. ‘It was wonderful.’
Then she covers her face with her hands and I’m suddenly wondering what have I let myself in for.
‘This is so embarrassing,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure you should be bothering other writers like this on my behalf.’ She may be about to sob. ‘In fact…’
I ignore the implication in her remark that she doesn’t seem to mind bothering me.
This is it, I think. We’re done here. Maybe it’s for the best.
‘Look, we don’t have to…’
She shudders and sits up. ‘I’m sorry, I really am.’
‘No, no, no, it’s fine, it’s fine,’ I say, without the remotest idea – as usual – what I’m alluding to. ‘Look – I think you should listen to what Mary has to say. It’s beautiful.’
Evelyn sits back. ‘It’s not as if I’m ungrateful,’ she says and then attends to her nose with a small, white handkerchief.
MARY O’DONNELL JOINS THE CONVERSATION
I read Peter’s account of your hopes of writing a novel. This is exciting, and perhaps a little terrifying. As the writing gets underway you’ll sometimes doubt your own ability to bring certain events and ideas to life. But here’s the thing Evelyn: we are all lone sharks in an ocean of experience, restlessly picking apart what we ‘smell’ instinctively about one another.’
Evelyn’s hazel eyes are now narrowed in concentration. Whatever was assailing her a few moments ago has been put to one side. I continue to read.
AN EARLY STORY
‘Emotional truth interests me in fiction. Sometimes, I believe in the emotional truth of fiction more than I believe in the emotional truth of everyday life, where we conceal so much about ourselves. As it took me a while to understand the value of emotional truth, let me tell this tale from my early writing days, of how not to dodge what’s really on your imaginative mind when you approach a potentially defining episode in your novel.
In the late 1970s, I wrote a fairly autobiographical short story called The Musician. It was my first attempt at a ‘literary’ story. Ellen, a university student, spends the summer revising for her September finals. She is captivated by her friend and fellow-student, guitarist Philip, whom she has known since their schooldays. Also holding her attention is a lone swallow imprisoned in the high wooden arches of the university library in which the pair study daily. She observes the swallow swoop and rise, dive and spiral. But eventually it tires of the struggle for survival, and dies from exhaustion. Somewhere in my mind, I felt that this swallow would symbolise something important within the story.
Summer passes into autumn, when Philip and Ellen meet by a lakeside in their home county. I went to a lot of trouble evoking that landscape, with its hinterland of drumlins and glacial lakes, its many secret haunts.
At the lake Philip confides in Ellen that he is gay. She takes this on board without much debate, but a lot of abstraction. I finished the story and let Philip head off on his post-university travels, with his guitar, making some reference to the swallow that had been imprisoned in the library.
ADVICE FROM EUGENE MCCABE
A word of advice at this point, Evelyn: never depend on something you think is a symbol. It might not be the right freight to carry a cargo you really need to be more explicit about!
Then the writer Eugene McCabe read the story as a favour to an uncle of mine. And while he focused on the story’s strengths, praising its sense of landscape and evocation of place, he also remarked that I had evaded how my narrator felt at her friend’s confession. Philip had left it many years before he felt comfortable enough to raise the question of his sexuality. Why? Did that delay raise questions about the society in which they lived, or about Ellen herself, who was (like me, the writer) inexperienced in living and in relationships?’
Evelyn gets this. She is now nodding her agreement with what she hears.
‘Eugene McCabe suggested gently that I had failed to respond to the question of someone confessing something that matters desperately to them. But that was all I was able to give at the time. I lacked nerve and life experience. I did not know how to intervene fictively and evoke her honest feelings at the revelation that Philip was ‘homosexual’, as I termed it rather stiffly. It would have been an opportunity for me as writer to call up the many disapproving voices which, back then, weighed heavily on anyone perceived to be ‘different’, in this case on Philip. Instead, I rushed, without much comment from Ellen, to a false conclusion far away from the lake, using Philip’s sexuality as a vague means of explaining why he chose to live in Thailand.
A LESSON LEARNED
I never revised the story, although it taught me retrospectively to consider the question of emotional truth. And that is what I believe you, Evelyn, should bear in mind as your novel unfolds. As writers, we must not avoid the one thing which sets a situation, or character, apart from a generalised interpretation. We must not attempt to appear more sophisticated or skilled than we actually are. There’s no need. Nor do we need poetic symbols like swallows. It doesn’t matter if we don’t hold the ‘right’ views, or the palatable view on anything. All that matters is that it’s your novelistic truth.
Wishing you the best!
We sit for a minute. Outside, in the woods, an owl hoots.
‘What Mary is saying is that we have to confront the truth within ourselves,’ Evelyn says. ‘What she calls emotional truth drives a story.’
She looks into the middle-distance. I’m no longer in the room as far as she is concerned.
‘How can I confront the truth within myself?’ she asks quietly as if I’m not sitting across from her. ‘Come to terms with my inner world? The life I had before we came to live down here, for example?’
My heart jumps. What Evelyn did before she and Bill (RIP) moved into this area five or six years ago is a mystery. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was CIA.
‘I’m not ashamed of it,’ she says, now addressing me. ‘I don’t talk about it, that’s all. It’s just…awkward. Embarrassing.’
A priest in confession at this point would murmur, ‘Go on, my child.’
‘I don’t mind if you don’t want to tell me,’ I lie.
She looks at me grimly. ‘I’m always afraid, you see, that I’m going to run into one of my former…clients.’
Holy comoly, I think!
‘It would be highly embarrassing – for them too,’ she says.
‘I understand,’ I say as images of red lights and velvet drapes, whips and fishnet stockings flash before my eyes.
‘I’ve been thinking what to do for years. But what Mary says has changed all that for me now,’ she says. ‘I think I’m ready to write about it.’ Evelyn takes a deep breath. ‘Can it be our secret?’
‘Of course,’ I say even as my fingers twitch for the want of social media.
‘On my oath.’
Neither of us can breathe.
‘I was once a traffic warden in Dublin,’ Evelyn says.