Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Farewell to Arms: 47 endings

All writers struggle over writing. Thomas Mann defined a good writer as “somebody for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.” In a previous blog, I wrote about how I sensed that Hemingway had had difficulty with the beginning of For Whom the Bell Tolls. But until recently I did not realise the extent of the trouble he had in ending his first novel, A Farewell to Arms.

In a Paris Review interview with George Plimpton in 1958, Hemingway made the admission that he'd rewritten the ending of A Farewell to Arms “39 times before I was satisfied”. There are, in fact, 47 endings which have been preserved in the John F Kennedy Library in Boston.

In July 2012 the novel was re-released by Hemingway's longtime publisher, Scribner's, which includes all the alternate endings, as well as early drafts from other passages in the novel and the original Art Deco cover of 1929.

In an age when most authors create on a screen and any changes they make vanish into thin air, this edition offers the opportunity for readers (and writers) to see how the definitive ending of this book was arrived at.

Variations on the novel's conclusion range from a short sentence to several paragraphs: some dark, some more optimistic, even one suggested by his friend, F Scott Fitzgerald. For someone who is interested in process, this edition allows you to follow Hemingway's struggle to discover the ending which feels inevitable: satisfying, logical and unalterable.

In the Plimpton interview Hemingway was asked what had stumped him. His reply? “Getting the words right.” That's pretty succinct. As lean as the 6-word short story that Hemingway once wrote as a bet: For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Stay tuned . . .

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Arrow of Time

The second law of thermodynamics is known as the arrow of time. In simple terms it means the past is different from the future. It is a closed system, an irreversible process.

But fiction is immune from natural laws and it was with an intake of breath I read the following excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. Here he makes time flow backwards for Billy Pilgrim, a time traveller who is regularly picked up by a spaceship from the planet Tramalfadore. During one of Billy's many travels, he has been a soldier in World War II:
Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new. 
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed . . . 
Ironically, aerial bombardment was first "practised" on civilians in Morocco by the Spanish Air Force in the 20s, then by the Italians in Ethiopia and then more widely by the Italians and Germans during the Spanish Civil War. The most famous painting depicting bombing from the air is, of course, Guernica. Picasso rarely expounded on the symbolism in his work, but after the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, he explained two of his most important symbols to an American GI who interviewed him in his studio. "The bull is not fascism," he said, "but it is brutality and darkness . . . the horse represents the people."

It would seem that Picasso is implying that the bull is the demon, yet some art critics have suggested that the toro is as guiltless as the victims and no less bewildered than the frantic women and terrified horse. And if the bull is not the aggressor, then the "enemy" is not present on the canvas. An omission that has a chilling message: to victims of modern warfare, the enemy remains impersonal, unknown. This is something the innocents know only too well.

Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The water lilies of Claude Monet

The Canadian painter, Robert Genn, visited the Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris where Monet’s famous water lily paintings, Les Nymphéas, are on display. There are eight of these huge, magnificent canvases which the artist painted when he was nearly blind with cataracts. The two paragraphs below are excerpts from Genn's blog of 15 December 2006, "The other eye". The unabridged blog you can read here:
I've been in these two rooms for so long that my stomach is concerned. A guard has already determined that I’m planning a heist. I’m sure she has alerted her supervisors. And then there's a man who has been in here almost as long as I. He moves from bench to bench. He has a round, friendly face and an honest smile. I find relief in pretending we have met. We talk in hushed, religious tones. He is Monsieur LeClerc, an actuary from Poitiers, in Paris for four days . . .
"I know nothing about art," he tells me, "But every time I come to Paris I enter these rooms. The collection was closed for some six years and Paris was very dull. These are sublime things. They are beyond words or expressions. They cannot be categorized or listed. In winter they take you to spring. They bring my boyhood and my home. Maybe God is in these things. What do I see? I see sadness and I see beauty. What else do we need? What else do we have?" His face is flushed, his eyes moist. "But then, who am I to say?" he asks. "I know nothing about art."  
May we all be blessed with those "other eyes" of Monsieur LeClerc.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Slaughterhouse 5

I recently purchased a book, 50 Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures. This collection of images is published by Taschen and is arranged in chronological order, covering a span of 170 years.

This photograph was taken by Richard Peter and is titled "View from Dresden City Hall Tower". It does not include the date, 1945, when it was made. It does not need to.

Dresden, which prior to the war had been called the "Florence on the Elbe", was fire-bombed, although it was strategically unimportant as a military target. The number of victims is still a matter of dispute today. Estimates begin at more than 30,000. The true figure will never be known because many of those who died were instantly incinerated.

I read Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut's book about the destruction of Dresden, over two decades ago. Seeing this picture made me want to return to it. I had forgotten what a truly astonishing book it is. Vonnegut was able to capture the insane business of war, not only because he was there, but because he found a highly original way of relating his horrific experiences: using the device of an alter ego, Billy Pilgrim, who is a time traveller.

Vonnegut survived the firestorm in Dresden only because he was a prisoner of war who'd been held in a basement slaughterhouse. It is hard to choose an excerpt from this landmark book, but I will try. Two days after the bombing, guards gathered the POWs and marched them to the place where they would begin their grisly, and monumental, task.
Prisoners of war from many lands came together that morning at such and such a place in Dresden. It had been decreed that here was where the digging for bodies was to begin. So the digging began. Billy found himself paired as a digger with a Maori, who had been captured at Tobruk. The Maori was chocolate brown. He had whirlpools tattooed on his forehead and his cheeks. Billy and the Maori dug into the inert, unpromising gravel of the moon.
Even 43 years after publication, this book is considered subversive and controversial. It has been banned from US schools, removed from libraries and struck off literary curriculums. In August 2011 Slaughterhouse 5 was banned at a high school in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met this stupidity by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis. I hope those kids took them up on the offer.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Internal monologue

In the British Musuem is a letter from James Joyce to his one of his most loyal patrons, Harriet Shaw Weaver. It is dated 23 November 1923. In it he mentions that, six months earlier, Valery Larbaud, the most influential French critic of his era, had invented the phrase "interior monologue" as a way of describing the revolutionary last chapter of Ulysses.

Joyce wrote this eighteenth, and final, chapter in the first person from the point of view of Molly Bloom, the unfaithful wife of Leopold Bloom, one of the novel's main characters. Her soliloquy is a masterpiece, a tour de force that attempts to capture the thoughts leaping through Molly's mind.

Her "Penelope" chapter consists of eight brobdignagian "sentences" that total 4,391 words. The concluding full stop following the final words of her internal monologue is one of only two punctuation marks in the entire chapter.

Larbaud gave his lecture praising Joyce's book to 250 people jammed into two rooms of Shakespeare and Company in Paris. He told the audience something that all readers now take for granted: that the key to Joyce's encyclopaedic work was Homer's Odyssey. Using a scheme that Joyce had given him, Larbaud talked about how the chapters were organized, presenting each one in the terms of an hour of the day, an organ of the body, a color, a symbol. He then read from the book. One of the two sections he chose to present was a portion of "Penelope".

Molly's episode begins and ends with "yes" which Joyce regarded as "the female word" which indicated "acquiescence and the end of all resistance". It is a chapter to be read aloud as it more readily gives up its beautiful logic. I use it as an example in one of my writing exercises to inspire my students so they don't come "cold" to their notebooks. Just hearing a fragment of "Penelope" always produces inspired work from them.

I was greatly influenced by Molly's soliloquy when I was writing my first book and decided to try some interior monologue myself. The passage below appears in Chapter 24 of No Angel Hotel. For the purposes of this post, I have removed the punctuation and capitals at the beginning of sentences in my own crude attempt at a Joycean "sentence":
Michael asks again about my "deflowering" sounds gentle wonder why they call it that like I say I've forgotten his face the one who came courting and then after a few visits pulled me into me da's shed and threw my skirts in the air virgin-tight I bit my lip seeing the inflated size of it we had been drinking and even so the pain was terrible I had only managed a carrot before with difficulty at nineteen I was beginning to despair of never being pierced but he did it for me gladly a soldier-boy just back from the Mediterranean he wooed me with a bottle of Marsala he hadn't even bothered to wash he said soldiers were forced to practise self-pleasure I was more concerned "with child with young big with consequences" et cetera hating him I couldn't wait for him to dismount he asked "Was I too big for ye" and I was crying to beat the band so I nodded so I wouldn't have to explain myself it was innocence that was gone
But if you want the real thing, buy Ulysses, if only for the last breathtaking chapter. It's worth it.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Sylvia Beach & the trials of Ulysses

The person pictured with James Joyce is the woman who gave Ulysses to the world. Sylvia was the founder of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore that was the hub of literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. This plucky American from New Jersey had the courage to publish what was considered an obscene book when no one else would touch it.

In 1921 Ulysses was deemed to be pornographic in America after portions of it were published in the literary magazine, Little Review. The legal decision made in the New York Court of Special Sessions ruled the novel "unintelligible" and "obscene" which meant that major publishers in the United States and elsewhere would not touch the manuscript for fear of prosecution.

The judgment was a heavy blow for Joyce. He knew that all hope of publication in English-speaking countries would be impossible for decades. It occurred to Beach that she might help and asked Joyce if he would let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out Ulysses. Joyce accepted immediately, even though Beach had never published a book before.

The next eleven months proved to be a series of crises, the first of which was the typing of the manuscript. Seven typists refused to type "Circe", one of the bawdiest chapters; the eighth threatened to throw herself out the window.

The writer Robert McAlmon typed forty pages of "Penelope" when Beach could not find another typist. McAlmon had to decipher Joyce's "hen-scrawly" handwritten script with no less than four notebooks with insertions marked in blue, purple, red, yellow and green ink. For three pages McAlmon painstaking put the insertions in the right place. "After that," he wrote, "I thought Molly might just as well think this or that a page or two later, or not at all, and made the insertions where ever I happened to be typing. Years later I asked Joyce if he had noticed that I'd altered the mystic arrangement of Molly's thought, and he said that he had, but agreed with my viewpoint. Molly's thoughts were irregular in several ways at best."

Sylvia Beach chose to use as her printer, Maurice Darantière, who was based in Dijon. This was a conscious choice because her French printers did not understand English words or punctuation and had no idea what the manuscript contained.

Even though the project threatened to bankrupt her, Beach allowed Joyce to have as many proofs as he wanted. Time and time again, she persuaded Darantière to allow Joyce to alter his manuscript which then had to be painstakingly reset by hand. He added and added, with the final set of proofs containing more handwriting than print. And, even then, Darantière continued to receive endless telegrams with new lines to insert or delete. Sylvia said, "I would never have dreamed of controlling its great author so gave [Joyce] his head. It seemed natural to me that the effort and sacrifices on my part would be proportionate to the greatness of the work I was publishing."

The fascinating story of the publication of what Anthony Burgess called "the greatest novel of the 20th Century" is told in an excellent biography by Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Highly recommended reading.

Ulysses is a novel that is over 900 pages long. Joyce once spent a whole day shuffling these 15 words in which he was attempting to show his wife's sensuality: 
Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely he mutely craved to adore.
He wasn't adding or subtracting words, only rearranging them to have the weight and the power he wanted in search of that ever elusive thing, perfection.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Making flashbacks work (2)

I’ve recently been rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel I first read in my twenties. Even though it was first published in 1940, seventy-two years later it still has a high public profile. Almost everyone knows the name of this book which is set during the Spanish Civil War, even though they may never have read it.

In discovering FWTBT again, it surprised me that the beginning is so unengaging. I had to read the first 13 pages over and over because, unusually for Hemingway, I found the scene difficult to visualise. There is also an extended military flashback that is intricate and hard to engage with.

I was vaguely aware that Hemingway had had trouble with the ending of his first novel, A Farewell to Arms. When I started rereading his signature novel, my gut feeling was that he'd had trouble with the beginning of FWTBT. But by page 14, he'd changed into a higher gear. From a somewhat shaky beginning, For Whom the Bell Tolls became a breathless, 490 page-turning ride.

The style of the book is quintessential Hemingway: lean, clean and mean. Chapter 10 which describes a massacre in a village is one of the most unforgettable, stomach-churning things I’ve ever read. And he breaks the rules in the way only a genius can. A chapter which is a story, told in flashback, by the character, Pilar.

In my previous blog, I mentioned that, in a dramatic situation, to have a flashback impedes the forward thrust of the narrative and so I was shocked to discover that quite near the climax of the book there is another extended flashback. Robert Jordan, the narrator, is about to set off before dawn to blow up a bridge. The mission is dangerous and Jordan feels “awkward” saying good-bye to his lover, Maria, whom he fears he may never see again. And then Hemingway does something incredibly risky. He talks about another leave taking, one with his father when he was a boy. 
Robert Jordan had not felt this young since he had taken the train at Red Lodge to go down to Billings to get the train there to go away to school for the first time. He had been afraid to go and he did not want any one to know it, and, at the station, just before the conductor picked up the box he would step up on to reach the steps of the day coach, his father had kissed him good-bye and said, “May the Lord watch between thee and me while we are absent the one from the other.” His father had been a very religious man and he had said it simply and sincerely. But his moustache had been moist and his eyes were damp with emotion and Robert Jordan had been so embarrassed by all of it, the damp religious sound of the prayer, and by his father kissing him good-bye, that he had felt suddenly so much older than his father and sorry for him that he could hardly bear it.
The flashback in Chapter 41 continues with a description of the train moving away, the station getting smaller, the conductor talking to the boy about how hard the good-bye was on Robert's father and then another paragraph of internal monologue before Hemingway returns us to the present. To the action: the final farewell to Maria.

What remains foremost in the reader’s mind before Jordan goes into battle is not his good-bye to the woman he hopes he will live long enough to marry, but the one with his father about the awkwardness of love. Only a writer of the calibre of Hemingway could get away with a flashback like that.

Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Making flashbacks work (1)

In novels and motion pictures a flashback is a narrative technique to interrupt the chronology of the story to cut away to something that has happened in the past.

The flashback technique is as old as Western literature. In The Odyssey, most of the adventures that blighted Odysseus' return journey from Troy are told in flashback by Odysseus when he is at the Phoenician court.

Roger Levy is a writer who’s deservedly been said to be "the heir to Philip K Dick". His science fiction novels, Reckless Sleep, Dark Heavens and Icarus are all published by Gollancz. He is one of the founding members of the Zenazzurians, a writing group that I was privileged to have been asked to join 8 years ago. Roger nicknamed me “The Flashback Queen” because flashbacks occurred so frequently in the novel I was then reading to the Zens. And he was right. In The Speed of Dark I relied on them too heavily and didn’t handle them skillfully enough for the reader to be unaware of their presence. 

What most readers are interested in is the story moving forward in the present, not making distracting detours into the past. But if you need to have a flashback, the reader shouldn’t notice it. In the 1986 edition of my first novel, No Angel Hotel, the flashbacks weren’t handled well, as is evident in this Chapter 11 excerpt because it is immediately followed by a flashforward in time. The flashback below is indicated in bold.

Ivan went to Cabourg each year. Each time he walked up the Avenue de la Mer he saw the face of the Grand Hotel as he would a friend, a little older, a little changed.
  At the hotel he could lie all day in his room; he could remain an outsider. In September he could order a plate of chaudfroid, the maître d'hôtel not protesting, 'But monsieur, that was on the summer menu.' Instead, a red-boleroed waiter would serve the filleted poultry in jelly and withdraw.
He had first gone to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg with his father five months before he died. Helen Doran had gone too, to look after the boy. She had been twirling a new, cream parasol with flounces.
The first morning they'd eaten breakfast in the glass-sided dining-room which faced the Channel. She had thanked his father for the gift of the parasol; she had called his father James. The boy cried, 'He's not James to you!' and Helen had looked up from her plate in surprise. His father had turned towards the glass wall. The two adults on opposite sides of the table, tears on her face, the glass's reflection on his.
Twenty-five years later, in his son's jacket pocket, was a note he'd received the morning he left for his annual visit to France:

Ivan, I was quite surprised to hear that you are to be married! You could have had the decency to tell me. I am, after all, your mother. I wouldn't have known except for the enclosed which appeared in the SentinelIt was the thing to do as far as Pellipar is concerned, though I would have thought you could have found someone more in your league. Having said that, I did find her that night at dinner rather charming and, of course,  quite beautiful. My congratulations to you both.

He folded the note and engagement notice and returned them to his breast pocket thinking, Mother dear, you're not the only one she should have had the decency to tell. 

Below is the re-edited page from the 2012 revised edition. Only the first paragraph in this excerpt is in the present. The rest is a flashback, but because it’s extended, it’s more active because this "umbrella scene" unfolds as if it were the present:   

He went to Cabourg each year. Every time he walked up the Avenue de la Mer, he looked forward to seeing the façade of the Grand Hotel like he would an old friend. He knew the bellboys, the night staff, the chambermaids. With the casino next door, he could gamble all night and sleep all day. If he went in the off-season, he could order chaud-froid from room service and not be told, ‘Monsieur Pakenham, filleted chicken in jelly is only available on the menu of summer.’ 
He had first gone to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg with his father five months before he’d died. His mother was supposed to have accompanied them, but the doctor had sent her to bed with ‘nervous exhaustion’. His new nanny, Miss Doran, had gone instead to look after him. 
They had arrived at the Dives-Cabourg railway station on a hot July afternoon. They checked into the Grand Hotel, then went for a walk on the mile-long promenade above the seawall his father told him was called the digue
Halfway down the beach was an umbrella shop with a scalloped blue awning. Miss Doran stepped into its dark rectangle of shade to fan herself.
He turned to his father. ‘Why are we stopping, papa?’ 
Miss Doran leaned down and explained the heat was making her feel faint.
His father asked if she had an umbrella and she said she’d forgotten to pack one. Then his father said that he must do something to remedy that. 
Leaving them on the promenade to watch the waves, his father went into the shop and came out with a big, banana-coloured parasol with a handle in the shape of a swan’s neck. 
Miss Doran twirled her new umbrella as they walked in the direction of the cliffs. They were passing a cafe on the promenade that had a flaking lattice screen hung with framed pictures. Ivan was a few steps ahead when he turned back and saw Miss Doran slip her hand into his father’s. He heard her thank him for the gift of the parasol. He heard her call his father James. 
In the 1986 version the leap from a flashback into the present (flashforwarded 25 years) was too jarring. This was solved by editing out the section about the letter and engagement notice and inserting them into the following chapter so the time frame was more straight forward.

A postscript. After Roger called me the "Flashback Queen", I began to wonder why I was so drawn to using them until I realized that it was because I was more interested in my characters' past than in their present. That must be why I'm so fond of this quote by Kirkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards." 

Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Making a book trailer

One of the things a writer needs to do once a book is published is to promote it. Many authors do not feel comfortable with this (myself included), but it's a necessary evil. There are millions of novels out there. How do you get the message out that yours is now available in the seemingly-infinite soukh of physical and cyber books?

One of the things I decided to do was to create a 3-minute book trailer for No Angel Hotel. But what images and footage to use to best give the flavour of the novel to tempt a potential reader?

The first task was to create a short synopsis that would, hopefully, create interest. Not an easy thing to do. Writing a synopsis is similar to what Flaubert said about writing a novel; it's like trying to put the sea into a carafe. I finally managed to "bottle" a minute's worth of plot on which images could then be overlaid.

I have friends who are award-winning photographers and they generously allowed me to use their images. Then there was some hand-held footage filmed in Cabourg years ago. And I was also able to use several of the covers the graphic designer had come up with for both the front and back covers. Line of Sight had given me a choice of six covers and I was able to use four of them in the trailer. 

Music was a hugely important consideration. I had originally decided to use Eric Satie's "Gymnopédie No 3" as the soundtrack, but while I was compiling source material for the video, I was playing one of my favourite songs, "Blue" by Joni Mitchell. The album by the same name came out in 1971, only a few years after the late 60s when much of NAH is set, but as I worked, I realised the song was the perfect backdrop. So many of the images I'd chosen for the trailer were blue and the mood of the book is blue and, for much of the novel, the main character is "blue".

As Mitchell said herself in 1979 about the Blue album, "there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either." A lot like the heroine, Elkie Bonner, in No Angel Hotel. 

Even if you have no desire to buy the book, listen to the trailer, just for Joni and for three minutes be serenaded by her sad angel's eloquent voice.

Stay tuned . . . 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Rewriting: between dog and wolf

The French have an interesting phrase for dusk: entre chien et loup. Literally translated, it means “between dog and wolf”. More precisely, the phrase might be rendered as “twilight” in English: when the level of light is so low that one is unable to distinguish between these two similar, yet very different, four-legged creatures.

But the French phrase means more than that, implying that it’s also the time between what is comfortable and familiar and what is dangerous. What is unknown and frightening.

Reworking a text that is familiar, but needs major work was, for me, entre chien et loup. Terrifying because you can see—and not see—how to proceed. You can still make out the shape of the old narrative, but the new chapters are dissolving.

I had been working on the rewrite of No Angel Hotel for months; the more I played with the “canvas” of the text, the muddier (and uglier) it became. I was about abandon the project forever when one of my students gave me some wise advice. Gwendolyn Kosten Modder had read the published version and loved it and she told me, It’s of its time, Anne. Don’t tinker with it too much.

So I went back to the drawing board. I took the original and compared it, word by word, with the muddy, reworked version, keeping the best of them both and correcting some major plot inconsistencies.

Not many writers have the chance to rework their prose once it’s been in print, but I was lucky enough to be able to. The result is the same book, but one that is completely different and, hopefully, much better. And if you don’t believe me, buy the new one and get the old out-of-print one on Amazon for one pence (plus postage).

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Rewriting: kill your darlings (2)

Another easy decision in the rewrite of No Angel Hotel was to remove the quotes at the beginning of each chapter. I’d been attached to what I now call my second-hand "darlings" when I first wrote the book, but jettisoned them for the new edition.

I did love those quotes but, thinking back on it, I believe I'd put them there in the hope of making my first novel have more literary "weight". My younger self didn’t think my own words were enough. I can still remember the amount (a considerable chunk of the small fee I received in advance royalties). Some people who dispensed the permissions were extremely generous and asked for no remumeration for a few quoted lines from a first-time novelist. I am still grateful, Vera Nabokov and Olywn Hughes. As beautiful as some of those twenty-four chapter quotes were (from sources as diverse as Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood, Vladimir Nabokov's "Spring in Fialta" and T S Eliot’s "The Waste Land"), they all disappeared from the fourth imprint at no detriment to the manuscript.

I did, however, keep the epigraphs at the beginning of each of the four sections the book is divided into: Autumn 1966, Summer 1967, The End of Summer 1968 and Fall 1980. Reading a short quote on each of these pages slows a reader down just enough so they register that time has been kaleidoscoped, flash forwarded.

My favourite quotation in the book is two sentences taken from a short story by a friend of mine, Victor Rowe. "Night Time" is his plangent tale about an unequal love affair and absolutely perfect for the third section of No Angel Hotel. "How I hug my antique grief to me, it keeps me warm." Thanks, Victor.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Rewriting: kill your darlings (1)

When BareBone Books decided to re-release my out-of-print first novel, I was thrilled. No Angel Hotel had been published many years ago: twice in the UK and once in the US. I hadn’t looked at the book in ages and it was a shock to re-read it.

When it was first published, No Angel Hotel received excellent reviews, including ones in Kirkus and the Washington Post Book World. But reading it again, with a colder, crueler (and more experienced) eye, I was unwilling to publish it in the version that had appeared more than two decades earlier.

Words have power; they are precious, but every word a writer produces is not precious. I often quote William Faulkner’s wonderful phrase to my students: “Kill your darlings.” I discovered that to make the new edition work, I had to kill quite a few youthful “darlings” of my own.

The writer is a puppeteer, creating a world of characters that only exist in a metaphorical theatrical box. The string-puller must invent, clothe and conjure up words for their marionettes to speak. They must move them behind the proscenium arch in a way that is so skilled that an audience suspends belief, surrendering to the irrational idea that  these wooden, wigged figures have lives of their own. During the magical time of the performance, the audience is aware of the puppeteer’s existence (who wears black so as to be as invisible as possible). The audience wouldn’t want the house lights to come up and see the person manipulating the strings.


Authorial sentences and “suspect verbs” do exactly this; they reveal the presence of the puppeteer.  So one of the easiest parts of the rewrite of NAH was to delete lines that were suspect, inaccurate, unnecessarily poetic or clever, examples such as these in Chapter 5. (Click on either page to enlarge the text.) In the rewrite, I was relieved to leave these, and many other, cringe-making phrases on the cutting-room floor.

• “Through the drawn curtains a splinter of light embedded itself into the floor.”

Geez, this is embarrassing. Why you may ask? Because pulled drapes allow in more than a “splinter” and light cannot “embed” itself into the floor. A physical impossibility (and a suspect verb, to boot). Old curtains in a child’s bedroom, a small hole through which light can pass, is more atmospheric. And precise.

• “In Frankfurt, they’d buried their dead with bells on their fingers to prevent premature inhumation.”

This might have been credible in third-person narration, but it was an internal thought of one of the main characters after a one-night stand. I don’t think many men think something as arch and complicated as that after mattress mambo with an attractive young woman, even if they are remembering a recurring nightmare about their father’s death.

• “his [father’s] fists hammering against the Risorgimento sides [of the coffin]”

Risorgimento had to go, too. The word was there because it sounded grand; I liked the sound of it. My younger self was trying to be clever and, for my crime, I am now whipping myself with a wet noodle.

To illustrate the difference in just one page between versions, above is the edited original first page of Chapter 5 and the 2012 edition. If you’re interested in the editorial process, compare the old and new versions, then decide for yourself which is better. I had to.

Stay tuned . . .