Someone said to me recently: “I’m not going to ask you what your book’s about. I want you to tell me what you intended your book to do.” He stressed that end bit and I thought, what a question from this person I’ve only just been introduced to at this party. I answered: “I can’t say anything more about my book. I’m talked out. My brain has pulled over the curtains.” Although true, this was also code for, “Please don’t. I need a rest. Stop.”
Later, with no stopwatch ticking down the seconds to hurry me into a soundbite answer, I thought about his question. It had seemed strange, unanticipated. The ones I had been getting about Milkman , and so have started more and more to expect, are: “Why have you not put names?”; “Why pages of paragraphs?”; “Is this really you in the book?”; “Why Ireland again when you could be getting on with your life?”; “About this language you use in the book ...” I can see - now that my brain has opened the curtains again - that the man’s question was the same as: “What started you writing your book?” The only answer I can give is that I started writing it because it wanted to come.
I can’t demand anything of my writing. I have no idea when I turn up what is going to come. Except the characters
I don’t mean this as a brush-off. I mean, this is how I write. The smallest intention I could say I did have initially for Milkman, and one that fell away immediately on my attempting to put it into action, was that I thought to take a few hundred words that were superfluous in a novel I was currently writing, and see if I could write up a short story from them. Instead, they turned into Milkman. The point is, I can’t intend anything in my writing, or demand anything of my writing. I have no idea what’s going to come.
Except the characters. They come. Usually. Unless I’m being seriously desperate and grabby and controlling and fearful and in a hurry and showing it. They don’t like that. I don’t blame them. Also, they would be astonished, then amused, if they thought they were to show only for me to give them instructions. My characters tell me who they are - and what it is they want me to do. I’m allowed to enthusiastically second-guess, they don’t mind that, which is nice of them. They let me have this fantasy, and they don’t frown on my audacity or mock or hinder me or push on my insecurity complexes. However, they also pay no attention to me.
When it comes to the end, to wrap up time, I realise once again that my characters have ignored all my clever guesswork as to the progression of our novel. They’ll have deleted bits of writing that they allowed me for the duration but to which they never had any intention of giving the confirmatory thumbs up. Or I’ll awake in the morning and they’ll have dashed out of the computer on to the living room floor all my latest squashed-in bits of great ideas. Ruthlessly, it is they who kill my darlings, then shrug and suggest I get over it. You need a strong constitution in my position, also a certain amount of forgiving forbearance, in order to deal with the desire, also the dread, of working with that lot.