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The Difficult Child

“A number of years ago, a new trend in writing rose from some cursed tar pit filled with flawlessly cleansed ancient skeletons. So, writers tore all the meat off the bones of their novels leaving readers to fill in the deleted information with their own imaginations, leaving readers to do most of the work of creating new worlds. One can picture hungry readers stranded in some distorted, Dali dessert, starving, scratching through the sand like palaeontologists searching for sustenance from scraps of information left on bleached bones. Serious readers are thankful that some writers resist this trend and strive to nourish them with linguistic banquets of colour, texture, and imagery.”

Many writers will tell you that their books are like their children. We give birth to them, often with great labour. We guide and encourage them, being patient when progress is slow, and staying up all night when their growing pains are fierce. We try to let them form their own characters, not dictating, restricting or suppressing who they are. Then we prepare them for the world, polishing their outer appearance and doing our utmost to ensure that they are good to their core. At last, we send them out, to stand on their own two feet, to win friends and plaudits and to find their place.

But, as any parent will know, not all of our children are destined to be successful. The world may not recognise their special gifts. Some will be overlooked.

So what do we do? Write them off as a bad job? Wash our hands of them? No. Of course not. These, our difficult children, need our care and encouragement even more than their siblings. They occupy our minds and our hearts long after the others have ceased to be a worry. We lie awake at night and worry about them.

It’s wrong to have a favourite child and no good parent will ever admit to it. But the difficult children - the lonely, the troubled, the unappreciated, the different - do occupy a special place.

And so it has proved to be with my third novel, Lost Boys. My first idea of it was as one story, the tale of Matt and his mother Rosie. I had penned it in various iterations including a radio play before the narrative, more or less as it exists today, arrived on the page. Various characters in the story called to me, though, and so I wrote their stories too. They began to join up, forming connections I hadn’t expected. The little boy who falls in the river connected them but other things did too. They were all making crossings of one kind or another, moving from one stage of life to another. About this time I visited an exhibition called Palimpsest, in which canvasses had been reused by the artist, with one image over-layering another. It seemed to me to be exactly what I was trying to achieve.

At that time I too was moving from one place in life to another. Emotionally, I was a bit lost, itinerant, dislocated. Something traumatic had happened. Looking back on it, I think I was in shock. Even, perhaps, in crisis. Everything was in flux - not to say, in shreds. In terms of geography, I was in the US, travelling to some of the less salubrious locations and staying, sometimes for weeks, in hotels that were bland and impersonal. Other guests stayed a night or two and moved on but we were fixed there. It felt like Hotel California. I had no car. My companion was out at work all day. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Much of what I had gone through arrived on the page, although I hope it did not do so in a self-serving or self-indulgent way. There is some of me in Mrs Fairlie, Jennifer and Megan. Life provided me with plot and setting. Once, many years before, I had watched a boy like Matt being bullied and pushed into a stream. The playing field, the social housing estate, the little river, even the rope swing - I know those places. Even as I wrote Mrs Fairlie’s story, I travelled on a train and the incident with the homeless man, the accordion and the dog named Snowy happened EXACTLY as I describe it, and showed me where Mrs F’s son had been and how I would resolve her story. I have stood on the bridge of a motorway services and watched the traffic slide below me. I have walked out in a storm and prayed. I have known the kindness of strangers.

I would say that one of the themes of the book is redemption. That too, I have known.

Self-consciously, because … well, what else was there to do? And also because I felt the story called for it, I worked harder than I have ever worked on the language of my book. As a reader of literary fiction myself, I aimed for that level of beauty in my prose; the beauty that Alice Munroe, Elizabeth Strout and Donna Tartt produce. Of course I do not claim to have achieved it, not anywhere close. But, because of them, I know there are readers who want good prose. I like it myself. Hannah Kent, Olivia Hawker, Laurel Savile - these are some of my favourite writers. People buy their books.

Anyway, I published the book and nothing happened.

Someone told me it was too heavy, as a physical book, so I published the four constituent parts separately. I know, the covers are awful! But I had no money to pay a designer and, as anyone will tell you, my own artistic skills are nil.

Still nothing happened.

A few years later, when Tall Chimneys had given me a little success - and some money - I had the covers redesigned, and did a thorough edit of the text. I republished.

But still, nothing happened.

Now, I’m trying again. Again, I have edited and honed the text and had a new cover created by a wonderful artist friend of mine, Karen Wride. I’ve reunited the four parts of the book and given it a new title, Crossings.

I’m not giving up on my difficult child; the one that holds back, the one whose charms and unique gifts aren’t obvious at first, the one who isn’t chosen for the team, whose hand nobody wants to hold. Personally, I think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. I think it’s authentic. One of my readers calls the prose ‘raw and warty’.

He’s out there again, trying to make his way

So, if you happen to see him, won’t you say hello?


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