I am writing a novel. I have been writing it for five years. But most of the time I write it in my head. Does this sound familiar? Am I just another wannabe novelist who talks big but will never produce a finished book? It’s possible, but my novel feels much more real than that.
In 2008 at the age of 50 I finally published my first book, a non-fiction work that I researched and wrote in five years, fitting it into cracks of time while also working full-time as a journalist. As soon as it was done a novel started forming in my imagination, as if my creative brain had been activated and needed another, freer outlet.
By the time I took myself to Varuna, the Writers House, for a writing residency of two weeks in 2009, the first chapters had formed themselves so clearly that they erupted as fast as I could type and I left with 14,000 words. (This was much more successful than my first visit to Varuna to work on the non-fiction book, which ended in less than 24 hours when my husband called to say he had broken his ankle and was in an ambulance.)
Without jinxing myself further by telling too much, my novel-in-progress is a story about several people living in Sydney in 1999 against the backdrop of the Olympics, the dotcom boom and other millennial anxieties. Initially, I thought I more or less knew where I wanted to take them but once I had set them free they started taking me in other, unexpected directions. Suddenly the story was not as straightforward as it had seemed.
By this time I was (for a second time) literary editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, a more than full-time job in which I am always reading, interviewing authors, commissioning reviews, and otherwise filling my head with other people’s books. Every spare hour when I might sit down and write a few hundred words, I need to read a few chapters. And I am not one of those people I so admire and envy who rise at dawn, go straight to their desk and write before the day’s other activities. In my case, fiction seems to demand an uncluttered mind that can roam.
Anyway, says the sensible part of my brain, why does the world need a novel from me when there are dozens published and forgotten every month? And how often do journalists make an elegant transition to fiction? We are trained to suppress our imagination and stick to the facts; to compress complex ideas into tight sentences; to work fast with little revision. Faced with the infinite liberties of creative writing we tend to cower like zoo monkeys released from their cage.
So I did not get back to my novel until 2011, when I took eight months long-service leave and planned to dedicate myself to writing. I became the full poseur and took myself to Provence for a month where I rented a friend’s stone cottage in a hilltop village, wrote in the sunny top-floor bedroom in the mornings and played tourist in the afternoons. I made some progress but not as fluidly as I had in that first rush of words at Varuna; perhaps the distractions were greater in Saignon than in Katoomba.
Back in Sydney I enrolled in the first Faber Academy novel-writing course, which ran part-time for six months at Allen & Unwin. There was plenty of inspiration and helpful advice from my tutor, Kathryn Heyman, and other visiting authors. I’m not sure I became a better writer but perhaps the best part was simply the encouragement to carry on, and the sense that we all believed writing fiction was an important way to spend our time.
There was research to do too, to place my novel accurately in what was becoming a historical time; this appealed to my journalist’s instinct and short attention span. By the end of the course my first draft was close to 40,000 words and about halfway through my intended story.
During those same six months, however, my mother’s health had declined rapidly and I was visiting her every day, busy with chores and fearful of what was to come. It wasn’t an ideal state of mind for writing. As the Faber course ended so too did my mother’s life, and I vaguely remember attending the party where everyone else celebrated and read from their work; I was in a fog of grief, hardly able to listen.
From the day Mum died, on August 16, 2011, I have not written another coherent sentence of the novel. My imagination shut down like a garage door. Slam. Real life was so overwhelming and sad that fiction seemed irrelevant. Very soon, though, another idea emerged, it felt urgent. In the following year I commissioned and edited a collection of personal essays on losing a parent, as well as writing my own 5000-word memoir of the experience. The book came out in October 2013.
And now I am ready again to take up the novel. After all this time it has not died. It lives in a part of my mind that is constantly active and excited, where my characters move about, where I pluck details from my thoughts and observations and tuck them into the story. Something I hear or read might trigger a useful idea: ‘‘Ah, that’s how I solve that plot problem,’’ or ‘‘That’s how I deepen her personality’’.
It is a fantasy life, a mental escape from daily tedium, yet it’s also very practical and I jot occasional notes that I hope will make sense when I go back to them. I should be writing more of it down, but of course that’s the hard part.
I was comforted recently by my interview with the Australian writer Mark Henshaw, who published a very successful first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, in 1988 and 26 years later, at the age of 63, has just published his second, The Snow Kimono. In between, rather than try to support his family as a full-time writer he enjoyed a career as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia. After writing the first chapter of the second novel in the early 1990s he hardly touched it until he was ready to retire and write again. The novel then emerged in 18 months and the excellent reviews suggest his writing matured rather than withered during its long gestation.
Will my manuscript look excruciatingly bad when I return to it? Will any of my ideas work when I eventually try to capture them in the limited expression of words? These fears might be keeping me from my computer. I tell myself I need another stretch of clear time – two weeks or maybe the rest of my life – to find momentum again. I think it’s a healthy sign that I still want to do so. Meanwhile, I can say I’m writing a novel.
Susan Wyndham is literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. She is the author of Life In His Hands: The True Story of a Neurosurgeon and a Pianist (Picador, 2008) and the contributing editor of My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent (Allen & Unwin, 2013).