It’s often said that writing and publishing a book is like giving birth, but it’s probably worse due to the lengthy and unpredictable gestation period that’s involved.
Perhaps writing a novel is as simple as this:
An attempt to distil 25+ years of effort and experience into a simple diagram.
Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway) and I’m always interested in any clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons I love a literary pilgrimage.
In the UK, I’ve visited many houses with literary connections, such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, Kipling’s mansion, the Brontes’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse.
Last summer I ventured further afield, and after the full-on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. This was the home he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle), and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.
An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that overlooks the pool – originally there was a boxing ring below – Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.
So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see Jane Austen’s tiny writing table (squished next to the window, but far enough from the creaky door to be warned of imminent disruptions), or the Brontes’ front room where the sisters workshopped together?
These houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. I doubt Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of the film adaptations of Ernest’s books (especially after he went off with Martha Gellhorn), and yet the house does offer a glimpse of a writer’s life: the domestic set-up with kids and pets, and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.
The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet if offers insights into how he lived and visiting made me want to read more about him. Last summer I was grappling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to send out his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. He rewrote the ending about seventeen times, and reading this spurred me on to once again revisit the ending of My Life as a Bench. Somehow it helps to know that even the greats have had to struggle to ensure the ending of a novel is right.
A version of this feature was first published on Britfic.com.
This Friday I will be reading from my upcoming novel, My Life as a Bench, at Novel London.
Novel London is the brainchild of writer Safeena Chaudhry. Having been to many short story and poetry events she noticed a lack of new novels from new novelists being read on the literary scene and decided to launch a regular event where writers read out their opening chapter.
This Friday, October 7th, Novel London will be celebrating fiction from London and beyond at independent bookshop Travelling Through Bookshop & Cafe in Waterloo. There will also be readings from Ben Starling and Helena Halme, and author Stephen Marriott will be the compere. The event is free and you can register for tickets here.
Book reviews – the buses of publishing – can take a book elsewhere. The preferred destination: discovered, bought, read and enjoyed is clear, although there’s no guarantee any book (however good) will make it.
‘Bussing it’ – catching a bus and staying on wherever it takes you – has its fans such as teenagers with free travel cards, OAPs and even rock chick Chrissie Hynde. It’s more about the journey, the opportunity to travel and discover unexpected places along the way that may, and often do, prove to be more interesting than the final destination.
Independent book blogs are the bussing-it-style trips compared to the straightforward journeys on offer via the book review pages in the mainstream media.
Book blogs, through their willingness to read widely and without prejudice towards self-published works, offer the chance for other voices to be heard and new, possibly more unusual books to be discovered. As Haruki Murakami says, ‘If you only read the books that everyone is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking’.