Rosie Garland writes:
October 17th 2019 marked the end of my yearlong Writer’s Residency at The John Rylands, funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain. During the year, I’ve been writing a new novel, set in the John Rylands Library during the summer of 1985. The main character is Wil, a student who’s working on a state-of-the-art computer database of the library collections. The books start to talk to him…
To celebrate the success of the residency, I was invited to read excerpts from the novel in the Historic Reading Room. The date was decided months in advance, and the plan was to complete a first draft of the novel by then. However, at the halfway point I only had half a novel. When I say ‘half’, I don’t mean Chapters 1-5 of a tidy 10-chapter novel. I’m sure life would be easier if I were the sort of linear writer who starts by typing ‘Chapter 1 – The sun came up…’ and 400 pages later types ‘…the sun went down. The End.’
‘Half’ means something far less organised. Pick ten writers, and they’ll have 10 different ways to write a novel. I’m one of the messy ones. I begin longhand, producing stacks of notebooks. It’s where I scrawl and have creative adventures: getting to know my characters and what they’re going to get up to. Typing-up is the beginning of the editing process. To quote Hemingway: write drunk, edit sober.
The wonderful Sarah Waters compares her writing process to a seed that grows leaf by leaf, twig by twig to a tree. I’d compare my process to the formation of the solar system: a vast cloud of disconnected dust particles (words) that condense into solids (paragraphs & chapters), very gradually. The force of gravity (editing) pulls the whole lot together (novel). My hope is to end up with a planet full of interesting features.
Halfway through the residency, things were at the early stage of planetary formation, where volcanic activity meant it wasn’t yet capable of supporting life. In short, I couldn’t imagine that by October I’d have meaningful excerpts to read, let alone a completed first draft.
The answer was – and is, whenever I write a novel – keep going. Whether one is a writer of poetry, fiction, or academic articles, the only solution is get on with it. That novel / doctoral thesis / short story is not going to write itself. For the whole of the residency, I turned up at the blank page and stuck with it.
By October, I had a first draft. It even had a title – ‘Not All Ghosts’. However, no-one had seen a word of it. I’d lost sight of whether it was a readable novel, or a pile of… words.
It was time to share it with a reader. I selected 7 short excerpts, and sent them to Jess Smith to see if they ‘worked’. The good news was a resounding thumbs-up! We chose 3 and on October 17th, debuted them to an enthusiastic audience. Not only was the event sold out, but there was wonderful feedback, including ‘magical’ and ‘spine-tingling’. How marvellous.
Mark Twain said that ‘good books aren’t written; they’re rewritten.’ I have a first draft. Now, the work begins.
To close – here’s one of the excerpts. Enjoy!
Excerpt from ‘Not All Ghosts’ by Rosie Garland
At lunchtime I make a detour to the main reading room, the corridor echoing to the click of my heels. Carved dragons peer down from the ceiling and I imagine us playing a game of grandmother’s footsteps.
One of them fans its claws with a swish. I freeze. It freezes too. Holds cold breath till I start walking again, when it uncoils its tail in a rustle of scales, stiff as artichoke petals. I spin round, but am far too slow to catch it moving.
‘I know you’re only doing this to wind me up,’ I say.
‘Doing what?’ it replies.
I don’t have an answer. A ruddy dragon is talking.
‘Can I help you?’
I turn, very slowly. A librarian. I hope he didn’t hear me.
‘I was…’ I start, no idea how to continue.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it.’ He gazes around, taking in the mullioned windows, ribbed ceiling, iron wall-lights sculpted in the shape of cotton flowers. ‘Lost?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I gabble and race up the staircase to the reading room.
The roof soars above my head, vaults studded with bosses like a medieval cathedral, russet stone the colour of an old bruise. Sunshine spills through the leaded windows, speckling the floor with copper coins. I feel like a trespasser at the best of times, and today is not a good day. Famous men in stained glass stand in judgement. Right there, shoulder to shoulder with Kant and Descartes, is Dante glaring down his beaked nose.
I tiptoe past alcoves lit with heavy-bellied lamps of green glass. An old man bends over a book, running his finger along the lines and scribbling into a reporter’s notebook. The veins on the back of his hands stand out like twigs, the skin rough as bark. He looks like he’s growing out of the desk. He glances up as I pass, licks the tip of his pencil and plunges back into study.