The American spelling of ‘ass’, of course. ‘Arse’ wouldn’t do the job. Just wanted to point that out in order to pre-empt emails that fall into either of two categories: (1) That I can’t spell ‘ass’; (2) That I wish to promote violence towards beasts of burden.
I’m talking, in this instance, of the long job of writing a book – Flashback. The first draft was completed a couple of months ago, and now I’ve returned to the manuscript following a break. There are many chores. Some of these are artistic: I take a scene, attempt to work out the point of it, decide on a way of reconfiguring it for maximum impact, and re-write it in ‘final draft’ mode (this last is a game I play with myself; like hell it’ll be the final draft).
Tediously, the majority my work rests upon the answers to research questions. What’s the rank of the lowest investigative officer in the German border police? How fast would an aircraft be flying at the point of vertical impact following a dive from 30,000 feet? What day of the week is it? What’s the age of Jem, my main viewpoint character?
And that’s before I consider the convoluting effect of time travel.
Some writers produce a ‘bible’ that stores all their information about the fictional world. Character biographies, timelines, all that. For reasons I can’t quite articulate – it has something to do with the idea that ‘proper writers’ don’t plan their books, an idea I picked up as a teenager and have yet to truly evaluate – I feel that information in a notebook is dead information. I want the information to stay in my head and rub alongside all the other bits as I write. I do this to serve the unconscious writing mechanism that seems to be responsible for the major thematic elements of my work, and perhaps it is an appropriate method for the first draft – which should be the formation of an emotional, not physical, landscape – but now I find myself sorely in need of basic information.
So do I go biblical? Hmm. Maybe. Perhaps at the third draft. Planning reeks of constraint, and I want all stories decisions to serve the emotional landscape, not the physical. Where there is a conflict, the physical landscape will need to be changed. For example, if I want my main character to change from someone with a troubled criminal past to someone with a troubled psychiatric past because this, in some way, improves the book, then the physical landscape – conversations, memories, motivations – will just have to get with the programme. (This is something I did in the middle of the first draft.)
But it’s true enough that the physical landscape will need to be served at some point. The novel works like that: It starts as a (overwhelmingly) creative act and slowly transforms into a lot of paperwork. Perhaps I’m just putting off the inevitable; perhaps I should get with the programme myself.
For those with an interest in such things, here is a brief excerpt (draft two) from near the beginning of the novel, in which the heroine, Jem, returns to the Berlin apartment of her dead friend, Saskia. She finds a man there. Though she does not yet know it, the man is a killer.
When Jem arrived at the door to Saskia’s apartment building, it was another midnight, and the drizzle had worked its way down her collar and into her boots. Her wet tights itched and a zit had taken root in the corner of her mouth. Her belly, though empty, was bloated and sore. Jem lifted her chin to the rain. She had no language to trap the wedding-cake edges of the apartment building. But its sad curlicues were like glasses lifted to toast elegant times, and it felt right that Saskia would live here. Sadness flared match-like in her belly and her mood switched from hope that Saskia was still alive, in this building and cursing Jem, to a sudden creepiness, a certainty that Saskia had died in the crash but her essence yet walked, unreflecting, across the ebony decks of her apartment. The spookiness filled her like the gases of rotting meat. She saw a Saskia-shaped hole in the air next to her. Rain stayed faithful to its shape and dribbled over the bob-cut of her hair, ran down ghost shoulders, and kept two patches dry on the pavement where Saskia might have stood in her flat shoes.
“Flat in case I need to run.”
Jem stepped back from the apparition, alarmed that her eyes attended the voice of her grief, and the ghost Saskia dissolved. The rain reclaimed her space and she was lost.
Jem pressed the buzzer marked ‘Frau Dorfer’. The door hummed to indicate it was unlocked.
A man’s voice. Not, she thought, Inspector Duczyński.
Jem pushed through the door. The stairwell was dark and echoic. She pressed the light and heard the timer rotate as she climbed the stairs. Her legs were slow. She reached Saskia’s door. It was open an inch. The squeak of rubbing cloth confirmed her fear, but it was only her rucksack as she shifted. She knocked. She stared into the skinny gap and understood that she could not see into the gloom as easily as someone could look out from it. Then the stairwell light clicked off to complete the darkness. The door swung inwards.
In the small lobby, where Saskia had once flicked away her shoes and explained to Jem that they were flat in case she needed to run, there was an old gentleman rendered sepia by dusty bulb above the coats. Behind him, the staircase rose to darkness. He might have been a count opening the door of his castle to a traveller at night.
“Seien nicht erschrocken Sie,” he said.
His eyes were rheumy and his eyebrows flamboyant ticks of white. His hair was thin, rusty at the temples. His throat was swollen by a cravate. He wore a pullover with dull epaulettes and elbow patches. His short cane: Jem judged it to be an affectation. Despite his age, there was something of Saskia about him.
His free hand reached towards her. She frowned at the way his fingertips gathered to a point, like a raptor. She stepped back.
“Bitte seien nicht erschrocken Sie,” he said.
“No, I’m English.”
The quick nod betrayed his talent as an improviser. “You must be one of Saskia’s friends from the reading group. She mentioned that a young English woman attended.” He inclined his head. “Partly to explain the slang in Nick Hornby novels.”
Jem wanted to burst au contrare, she was just a lesbo tart. She would unleash this with a smile. His composure would crystallize, fissure, and slide from his face. But her breath stalled.
“My poor girl,” he said, “come inside.”
She allowed him to cup her elbow and bring her across the threshold. Jem jettisoned her coat, which was heavy like wet washing, and tucked her rucksack into the space where Saskia stored her umbrellas.
She followed the stranger up the stairs. His shoes were wet, like hers. At the landing, he turned and tapped his left shin with the cane. “It is sensitive to the weather. Rain is the worst.”
“The hallway light is on the left at the top,” she said.
“I know. Here.”
He pressed it and Saskia’s spirit returned with brilliance: the antique phone in the middle of the hallway, next to the opening that led to the kitchen; a ‘wooden man’ kung fu thingy, with Jem’s special-occasion knickers hanging from a stump; a poster from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that showed a young border guard leaping a barricade; the rippled glass door that led to the living room and the balcony; the nearby indoor palm tree; the black door; the sideboard with Saskia’s neon weight-training gloves crossed on top; the ebony floor. Jem could smell the toast that Saskia had cooked for her that morning. Saskia had been singing. She had a beautiful voice. When asked, she pretended to forget the name of the song.
“I’m Jem,” she said.
The man turned. He, too, had been contemplating the hallway. “My name is Kirby.”
At last, they shook hands. His palm had a rough island of knotted skin and, on instinct, Jem turned it upward.
“An old burn,” said Kirby. He made a fist but Jem had already read ‘Pyrene’.
“They make fire extinguishers.” He smiled. “Ironically.”
“I came,” blurted Jem, “to see if Saskia…”
“Let me fix you a drink.”
“Saskia kept a whisky bottle on the left of the dishwasher.”
Kirby searched her face. “I know.”
Jem, embarrassed, looked at her own hands. An apology wanted to climb her throat but she pressed her teeth together. She raised her head with a question – what, by the way, are you doing here? – and saw an empty hallway. In a single click of time, Jem understood that she did not want to be alone . Another thought fell upon the last: She would search the apartment for Kirby but never find him, ever. He would be the last ghost in the story of her fugue from England, a punchline to widen eyes, souvenir from loop-the-loop land.
She heard movement in the kitchen. Relief. Kirby came out. He no longer had the cane. Instead he carried two tumblers.