Author David Whitehouse on what it’s like to do battle with an inanimate nemesis – his own novel
Imagine that you’re a builder. Imagine you’re building a house except, every time you lay a brick you notice that it has a mouth, a mouth similar in size, texture and elasticity to the arsehole of a cat. The brick speaks to you.
It says stuff like:
“Don’t put me here. This is a stupid place to put me.”
“You’re terrible at laying bricks.”
“This whole house is a disaster. No one will ever live in a pointless house like this.”
That’s what it’s like writing a book.
It took me two and a half years to write The Long Forgotten. I’m not saying I hated every single day of it. I didn’t. We had happy times together. A nemesis isn’t a nemesis if one’s happiness isn’t in some way index-linked to the existence of the other. Batman needs the Joker. Only Moriarty understands Sherlock Holmes. Tom and Jerry’s antagonistic relationship was up-lit with new profundity in the episode where they finally made love behind the fridge.
But, most days, that book and I were at war. On those days, I tried to write and every single word I put down on the page opened its wizened, foul little mouth to tell me to stop in a frequency only I could hear. This is the book’s goal. It doesn’t want to be written. No book does. A book being written is a baby resisting its own birth.
I don’t know, maybe two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel doesn’t feel this way. I’ve read Wolf Hall, which is a work of such clarity, of such startlingly singular vision, I can’t imagine a single word in it ever spoke to Hilary Mantel through its little arse mouth.
This, though, is a trick of the light playing in the eyes of the writer. To the writer, all other books seem so correct, so effortless, so perfectly realised that, even though you understand something of the work that went into writing it, they appear to have been born instantly and without struggle. Not for them the swollen eyes or flattened skull of your own horrific infant. Not for them the want to drown it. I have to really concentrate, really dream hard, to allow myself to believe that there was even a brief moment in the creation of Wolf Hall when Hilary Mantel, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, didn’t think to herself: “This is shit.”
Because that’s what writing a book is.
I can’t think of any other undertaking that so successfully defends itself against the desires of its creator. To not just deflect them, but disparage and denigrate them. To constantly reassure them that the task is an impossible one. That spending nine hours a day hitting the keys on a laptop for a couple of years to try to tell a story is all well and good, but your time would be better spent loading your sunburnt genitals into the exhaust pipe of your father’s Mondeo.
That’s what it feels like, on day 500 and something, when your watertight plot springs leaks you can’t plug. When your characters blunder into untenability a cliche at a time, and every sentence you write is just bilge, plain bilge, the words rearranging themselves before your very eyes to read, “Well, this isn’t going to pay the fucking gas bill, is it?” No.
No it’s not. The book is my nemesis. I hate it (please buy it), I hate it (please buy it), I hate it (please buy it). And then…
You get to the end. You get to the end of a book that is nothing like the book you set out to write, because the book you set out to write can’t be written. Every new word is a blemish on its otherwise flawless face. You knew this yet you continued. The same as the painter struggling forever to capture a portrait, to one day find it smiling back from a canvas. The same as the long-married couple, working through the shit bits, to sometime, maybe years from now, bring each other a perfect breakfast without asking. The same as that builder, sitting back on the grass, looking up at the house they have built and the lips, now sealed, on its blissfully silent bricks.
You defeated your nemesis. But not by killing it. By bringing it to life.
The Long Forgotten by David Whitehouse is out now (Picador)
(Illustration: Bill McConkey, photograph: James Lees)