Last night I completed the first draft of a new novel. I have a distinct feeling that this will eventually be locked up in the digital equivalent of a bottom drawer, never to see the light of day. It’s short, which is probably its only virtue. Working title: Blacksmith. I can think of more portentous alternatives, such as All the Devils Are Here and Lower than Angels, if only to display to all and sundry my immense erudition.

But I know my place, and it isn’t literary, so I’ll keep Blacksmith. At least it says, more or less, what it’s about. Yes, that’s right – a village blacksmith.

I’ve been carrying the idea around for years, not knowing how to get into it and unable to rid myself of the need to write it, and having done so, I’m not sure why I bothered. It’s my first attempt (and probably the last) at historical fiction. I found it hard not to end up crushed under the implacable weight of historical fact. The alternative was to manipulate both fact and timeline to allow the characters to breathe, which I’ve tried to do. Today I’ll start editing, which in my case means ridding it of an excess of adverbs and clumsy syntax and so on. Later this month I’ll send it to editor Allison, who has agreed to play the role of dispassionate Beta reader. Then I’ll decide whether to bury it in a virtual cupboard (called the Cloud, apparently), or send it off for possible publication and await the trickle of rejections. (Not that I mind, particularly. I’ve outgrown all that fuss about offers, contracts, royalties and the rest of it.) Despite being historical, it deals with political issues that I belatedly realised are even more sensitive today than they were then. I suspect that publishers of commercial fiction won’t like that at all, but it’s entirely my fault…

Anyway, writing historical fiction is different from concocting a spy thriller. That’s obvious, I hear you say. I know it now, of course, but I didn’t when I started. I had no idea. A spy thriller relies on the question ‘what happens next’ to keep the reader turning the pages. There’s deceit, of course, and betrayal, and action, and big, global issues at stake. There are the white hats fighting the black hats. It’s relatively simple. But historical fiction seems to require a deeper sense of emotional involvement. Not on the part of the author, but the reader. The reader has to feel a good deal more about the characters. There need to be more emotional entanglements, more disappointments, more delight, more sorrow, greater exuberance, bigger failures and successes for the characters to come alive, and for the reader to engage with the story. There has to be love and hate. I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t sure how to do it. It wasn’t at all about how I felt, more a question of constructing an emotional roller-coaster for the reader. If the reader doesn’t care what happens to the characters or the outcome of the conflict (and all fiction rests upon conflict), then he or she will quickly throw the book aside, rightly so, because it’s failed the ‘so-what’ test.

I judge books by the ‘so-what’ test. Just as an example, I’ve just finished a book – it’s literary non-fiction, I suppose, a memoir – that had me by the throat. When it came to the ‘so-what’ test, it broke the literary equivalent of the sound barrier. It was deeply affecting. I thought when I began that it seemed a pleasant, amusing, lighthearted memoir about death’s proximity and life’s brevity. I wasn’t paying attention, obviously. For by the end of the first 90 pages or so, the author had succeeded in creating a dizzying sense of intimacy and danger, so much so I felt I knew her better than some of my closest family members (not that difficult, perhaps, if you knew me and my family,), and I felt so concerned about what was happening to her and what she was thinking and feeling that I imagined she might walk in the door at any moment and I’d just say ‘hello’, give her a hug and put the kettle on for tea. (That’s the diffident Brit being emotional, incidentally). The book is startling in its honesty; it’s funny, witty and terrifying. The sense of death that she portrays is so very real and imminent, and it’s remarkable how well she’s able to show that death and life are so closely linked, and that the difference between the two states is so fragile and ephemeral. She didn’t tell the story. She showed it. Even when I finished it, the book still hung about, a presence that refused to go away. Even now, I still feel anxious about it, and if I think about the book and how good the writing was, it produces a wave of sympathy, admiration and even pity – the good sort of pity, that is.

That’s what I mean about emotion. I’m nowhere near that level of skill as a writer – nor am I, as a person, so open to everything, and certainly not to upfront, honest feelings.

And the book? It was Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. 

John Fullerton, July 2023

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