As I’ve mentioned, I am less interested in how authors write – early morning, late at night, Tuesdays, longhand, on their phone – than why authors write what they write – and why they can’t or don’t write anything else.
Kazuo Ishiguro has said, of his early work, ‘I’ve written the same book three times.’
‘There was a subplot in A Pale View of Hills about an old teacher who has to rethink the values on which he’s built his life. I said to myself, I would like to write a full-blown novel about a man in this situation … Then I looked at (An Artist of the Floating World) and thought, This is quite satisfactory in terms of exploring this theme of about the waste life in terms of career, but what about in your personal life? … I wanted to write the whole thing again.’ (The third book became The Remains of the Day.)
Isn’t this a beautiful idea? One book growing organically from the previous one? Is that how it is for you? Or is it more like Jonathan Coe’s approach:
‘Each of my novels seems to be a reaction to the one that came before it. After the tricksy, multi-layered narrative of A Touch of Love, I decided to write something simpler. At the back of my mind, undoubtedly was my disappointment with the terrible sales of my first two published books. The Dwarves of Death, therefore, was really the only time I chose the tone and form of a book for commercial reasons – hoping to increase my sales – and this taught me a useful lesson, because what I ended up writing was (in my view) my weakest novel.’
That experience led Coe to write a more ambitious novel – tricksy, perhaps – and after playing with several ideas, he wrote the brilliant What a Carve Up!.
Anne Tyler sets out with the best of intentions: ‘‘I start every book thinking, “This one will be different,” and it’s not. ‘I have my limitations. I am fascinated by how families work, endurance, how do we get through life?’
Tyler has called herself plot-deficient, and she uses the natural events in life – birth, marriage, parenthood, death – to propel her novels forward, rather than big events. Tyler has said that Ladder of Years isn’t ‘a book about a woman who undergoes an experience that alters her life; it’s about how the experience lets her come to terms with her life as it already is. At the end of the book, Delia is wiser. I think that’s one of the most valuable changes anybody can hope for.’
Who would argue with that?
Do any of these approaches chime with your own experience? I actually think it’s more complicated than that. So I’ll break off here, saying ‘to be continued …’ Back on Wednesday.