Monday, August 12, 2013

How novels are like girlfriends: my personal relationship with writing...

I found this old print of the only photo of my office circa 2000.  Some things haven't changed: though the 1995 Toshiba Satellite sadly gave up the ghost.

I’ve often thought that my relationship to my novels is similar to that with various women in my life. 
Other novels were those that needed working at.  Some that just hit you out of the blue, and some that were never really working out and were doomed from the start.  And then there are some which come like a bolt of lightning.  DDTH was like that.The Drink and Dream Teahouse (I've always called it DDTH for short) was my first novel, and so it has a very special place for me: it was my first love. 
It was as incredible a time for me as being a teenager and falling in love for the first time.  Writing it was an intense, all-consuming love affair.  It was like the story had been bottled inside me and suddenly burst out.  I could barely keep up. 

It took me six months from first line to putting the mss in an envelope, already sold for what was then a record breaking amount for an unfinished novel.
I had spent my twenties working abroad with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and I had already written two books about my experiences in rural China and Eritrea, East Africa.  But I found travel writing a little stilted.  Travel writing is an odd business, and it turns all the locals into foreigners in their own country.  I was dying to break into fiction.  I said 'graduate into fiction' then, and I still feel that fiction is a higher art form than Creative Non Fiction. 

What fiction gave me though, was a freedom to not have 'me' in the story, and this was so liberating.  I found, oddly, that I could be much more honest in fiction than in nonfiction.  And I could get much closer to the truth as well.

I came back to England from a last stint in China at the age of 29, to do an MA in Creative Writing in Lancaster.  As the leaves began to turn (autumn still seems like the best time to start a novel) I sat down to write a story that I wanted to put all my feelings about modern China into. 

I'm glad DDTH only took six months to write, because like your first love affair it was an unguarded and complete fall for me.  I would be out in the pub, thinking of my characters rather than listening to what anyone was saying.  They would wake me in the middle of the night.  I became a little obsessed.  The lives and challenges of the characters felt real.  They still feel real.  When I look at China now, the book is as relevant as it was ten years ago.
It's flawed of course.  It was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing.  But there is a freshness and an honesty and a ballsyness to the writing that now I look back and admire. And I wonder if I still write that confidently, and fear that I dont.  Much in the way that after the first cut, you're never quite so open to others again.  I wonder if other writers have the same feeling?

DDTH won prizes I had never heard of, and was banned by the government in China, which in turns infuriated and delighted me, and I'm very fond of this book, and am delighted to have it out in the world again. If you'd like to get it then there are some links below, and if you like it, or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

DDTH ebook is up on Amazon on a special 48 hour sale: $1.99  £1.28

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