Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Labour of Love not Lost

What a delight! Shortly before Mavis’s Shoe was accepted for publication by Waverley Books last October and I was immediately caught in a whirlwind of fast track re-editing and cover blurb, I was cooking up the latest draft of another novel. This work-in-progress was variously filed as ‘Hopping the Twig’, ‘Strange Fish’, ‘Essentials’, ‘Elementals’, ‘Stranger Fish’ (a later version) and ‘This Book Smells’, (its first title - a warning seemed in order). It was simmering on the back burner while I ignored it and tried to get some distance. The exact distance I took was from Glasgow to the south of France via the airwaves plus the 400 kilometres on my beloved old bike along the Canals de Garonne and du Midi. This took me from the Garonne in Bordeaux to Port La Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, effectively linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Being flat, it wasn’t difficult and took less time than you’d expect, despite a couple of days of head winds and one of heavy rain; nine days in all plus a couple spent with family and then the journey home. I have to admit to some smugness about this at the time, although it’s greatly tempered now by limited exercise since those heady days.

Anyway, in total only two weeks had passed, not enough for any mental distance to have worked its magic. Due to the furore over Mavis’s Shoe it is only recently that I have returned properly to this multiply-named novel. Today I reached the end of my read-through with a tear in my eye. The obvious reason for weepiness is that this book is partly about death and what counsellors (which I used to be one of) call ‘complicated grief’. The tear was eyestrain too, but the main cause was writer’s terror. It is always worrying going back to a piece of work that has been left. There is the fear that you were deluded when you wrote it and that it’s actually not worth the computer chip it was written on and you’ve wasted a year of your life, or more if you’re Garbriel Garcia Marquez or Donna Leon to name but a couple who allegedly take a decade. The tear is for fear unfounded, a sigh of relief, that despite the still considerable editing task ahead, all is not lost and the thing was worth doing whether it is ever published or not. Unfounded fear is a great delight, a variation on ‘Better to have loved and lost’ etc. Only a seriously worried person can experience that kind of relief.

I saw a documentary recently about Peter Howson, the Glasgow artist famous for being brave enough to go to Bosnia as a war artist and being so seriously disturbed by what he saw there that his life fell to tatters on his return. Whatever you think of the whole strange idea of a ‘war artist’ or of Howson’s dark portrayals of disturbing events, he is astonishingly prolific. Apart from a certain commission which seemed to stop him in his tracks for a quite a period, I wonder if any of his paintings ever took a year, and doubt it. And although paintings can take some artists even longer to complete, I doubt there are any novelists who finish a book in a couple of weeks or a day, and if they do, whether it is their best work.

I’m not as brave as Howson and have never been in a war zone, apart from once wandering with a friend through Armagh (I think) in the dead of night and suddenly being surrounded by soldiers with big guns and being asked what the hell we thought we were doing. ‘Hitching,’ I said, wide-eyed and very young, and they escorted us to the edge of town where we erected a tent beside the border post.

But Howson and I share a common subject in war and its effects on ordinary people. Howson, as an artist, takes snapshots which don’t tell stories but suggests them, in the way a poet might provoke an image in a reader’s mind. The beauty of novels is their very length. There may be ugly brutal scenes but a good book will throw them into contrast with hope or generosity or humour then throw you back into despair and on further to disgust or love. You stay with it for hours at a time being moved through all the different experiences a human can have. Quite a bargain really for as little as £7.99 a pop.


  1. I’m a slow writer. It takes me, on average, four years to write a book. I wish I was quicker. I wish I wrote more commercial stuff. But this is how I work. I finished my fifth novel in January and have yet to start my next book. I have a couple of ideas that won’t go away but I know whatever I start I’ll be living with for a long time. This worries me. I have little doubt that whatever I start I will finish and that I’ll go through the same rigmarole as I did with the others – self-doubt mainly, thinking I’ve chosen the wrong project perhaps one that, this time, will be beyond me – but I’ll get through it. I suppose there’s a degree of bravery involved in committing to something like this. I don’t work constantly for four years. I tend to work in clumps in fact during the third novel I stopped for a whole two years during which I worked on a collection of thematically-linked short stories before returning to the book with exactly what it needed, a fresh perspective and a new voice. The last book also took longer than it should because I fell ill in the middle of it and was incapable of finishing it. Again, the break did the project no harm whatsoever. I’ve just finished a Q+A and one of the questions was: What do you hope to achieve in the next five years? My answer was quite simply: A sixth novel.

    I saw the Howson documentary but it feels like a while ago now. I could relate to his struggle painting that commission over and over again. He reminded me of Rothko – completely different style, but the same approach. As much as most of Rothko’s paintings look as if he could have turned them out in an afternoon the truth of the matter was far from that. Some artists are prolific, others not so much. Vivaldi wrote over 800 works in his life including 40 operas but poor old Ruggles struggled to finish 10. I think it’s hardest at the start when you’re still coming to terms with what’s right for you. I’m content with my pace.

  2. Hi Jim. I think the Howson was a repeat. I don't watch much tv. I too can identify with his difficulty with the commission as I've experienced similar problems. It has been said that a writer needs to be discovering something in order to keep writing, for instance Kidnapped is said to be Stevenson's discourse on his own divergent views. The novel I am currently planning is around a similar heated argument I keep having with myself (and sometimes others).

    I couldn't really put a figure on how long a novel takes me because they happen, like yours, in fits and bursts. I left the current one nearly a year and the one I wrote before that, I realised recently, needs about half as much again. I started it in 2008.

    What strikes me is how all my novels (4 at present) have been completely different in their process and their journeys to completion, and that can be quite bewildering.