At the fiction master class with Tim Lott organised the other day by the Geneva Writer’s Group (see photos), I presented the first chapter of the new novel I am writing. A number of people admitted they were troubled by its complexity. To which I replied that complexity was part of my nature and writing in any other way would belie that. Not that I dismiss their concerns. I have to find some way to make that complexity more accessible.
That I must write complex stories, doesn’t imply I don’t enjoy stories that have simpler story lines. By simpler I mean there are one or two main characters and a single central theme throughout the book. I’ve just finished Lisa Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal. A delightful book about a subject I too have dealt with. Her book moved me greatly. Once I am engrossed in the book, what I initially perceive as a relative ‘thinness’ of the story quickly becomes unimportant, as the whole world blossoms into life around the characters.
I personally perceive the world as extremely complex and seek to reflect that complexity in my writing. I remember being disappointed with school because it gave only a watered down version of reality on the pretext that that was all pupils could handle. But the world is not like school would have us believe. Sometimes when I struggle with complexity, I feel like I am going to be torn apart by my efforts to hold all the threads together. Silly really. I ought to know that the world won’t fall apart if I let go…
My latest novel involves an autistic child whose name is Sam. Although he is brilliantly articulate in his head, that brilliance goes unrecognised as he is quite incapable of communicating with others. Just as he is unable to coordinate his body movements satisfactorily. I have chosen to write this twelve-year-old’s voice in first person present. Therein lies one of the challenges. How to begin my book and signify his condition by his words and acts without having some external point of view telling us what is happening?
I have Sam shut himself in a cupboard in an attempt to get away from the unbearable noise and confusion of daily life at school. But, as the reader opens the book, she doesn’t know any of that. Only Sam’s thoughts are given in the first paragraph. To indicate that it is his thoughts I have created a convention by prefacing his thoughts by :: .
In the version I presented to the master class, I had used the metaphor of a fortress in the opening paragraph, with Sam protected behind thick grey walls. As I re-read my first chapter in the train on the way home from Geneva, wondering how to handle the complexity, afraid that I might have to cast away much of what I’d written, I realised that the castle metaphor increased the complexity. When I tentatively removed it, I found the text flowed much more easily without losing anything of its evocativeness. So I am heartened to think that it may be possible to communicate complex realities without necessarily losing the reader on the away.
Here then are opening lines of the draft as it stands at the moment:
:: tiny squiggles of silver worm their way through the darkness and hiss nonsense at me – these squirming messages are spawned by the kids outside dashing around in senseless circles – their agitation addles my brain – I no longer know who or where or what I am – I find myself crouching between coats that hang in a cupboard – they smell of Nan my teacher her pretty perfume getting on my hands and following me around – backwards and forwards I rock, like a boat praying for the storm to still
:: I am not going out – it is not safe – only confusion and tears await me out there – I stuff my fingers in my ears and listen to the pulse of my heart – on days when I am under assault and can find no refuge, I fear my heart might falter and flicker out – where would I be then? – in the unending dark I say to myself – in heaven Nan would probably say, but how can she know?
“Sam, are you coming out?”
:: I bury my head between my knees and clasp my hands over my ears – I attempt to think Nan away – not that I want to be rid of her – she’s my favourite after dad, but I will not go out, not for her, not for anyone – she moves away and the din diminishes