The first novel I published through Lulu.com was Even in Peoria. It wasn’t the first I had finished: two other novels preceded it, that is, if you count the Semi-Legendary Autobiographical First Novel, which never went into a second draft because the first was enough to exorcise the ghosts that had driven it. But it was an unrepeatable experience, and one that changed, almost overnight, my approach to writing fiction.
The facts are simple: one day, out of the blue, I started writing a completely unplanned book, in a totally different style, and I wrote it in 52 days, 75,000 words. I have never written another book remotely that quickly.
You could also say that the book took 11 – 12 years to write, instead of 52 days. This is because, whilst on holiday in the Lakes one year in the mid-Eighties, for no apparent reason I cannibalised a couple of experiences into an opening for a novel. Whether it was any good or not, I can’t say, as the original manuscript was lost ages ago, but it was only ever an opening and it suffered immensely from not having a story to go on the end of it. I did have one half-baked idea, but if it didn’t convince me, I couldn’t see it getting by readers, so that was that.
Except that, for some inexplicable reason, the piece seemed to go into some mental filing cabinet, and every so often, I found myself pulling it out and ‘reading’ it through, as some bizarre head-exercise. And it was always there and it was always the same.
Until Easter Monday, 1997. It was a significant day for me: I had finally reached the end of a five year contract at a firm where I hated every minute and loathed the people I had to work for. Discovering my last day was Easter Monday was like getting a four day parole.
And it was Easter and it was sunny, and I was off to the Lakes, free at last, for the first walk of the year, and I even had a football match to go to, as Droylsden were playing away at Netherfield – now Kendal Town – that evening. It was a day for exuberance.
The walk I’d chosen was an expansion of the very one I’d used as the basis for that old, not-forgotten piece. I got to the relevant summit by lunch, more relaxed than I’d been for many years, and now I was in a position to ‘research’, out came that old scene.
And it immediately began to change.
It had been so long, I couldn’t take the piece seriously. It started coming out with long sentences, convoluted tones, a detached and ironic mood, and after three paragraphs, it was as if a voice in my head said “Tangent” and I went off on a long, completely improvised paragraph, departing from the linear story, and spiralling round into a completely unforeseen punchline that had me laughing out loud and thinking, “Wow! I’ve got to keep that!”
So I re-ran everything in my head, three or four times, until I was confident that I could keep it stored until I got back to the car, and pen and paper, which was going to be at least two hours.
Only it didn’t end there. By the time I reached the end of the ridge and the last summit of the day, I had about 1,500 words in my head, a whole chapter repeating and repeating so that I could write it down.
Nothing like that had never happened before but, as I started downhill, I knew I still only had an opening, without a story to go on the end of it. On the other hand, if I was to do it in this tone, this ironic, comic, unserious tone, that stupid old idea I’d had before might well work, as a comedy thriller. There would no doubt be guns (there weren’t), and there’d have to be a scene where the two leading characters, one male, one female, would be benighted in the fells with one tent and one sleeping bag between them.
Back at the car, the first thing I did was take my boots off (that is always the first thing you do when you come down off the fells), and then I wrote out what I had, with relief. It was astonishing to have retained that amount of writing in my head for so long (not completely: I have vague memories of a paragraph about a camera that disappeared, but even so). It was even more astonishing that, having previously only ever worked in the first person, I had dropped into the third person, and into a totally new voice, without any prior warning or practice.
Being hot and thirsty, I headed for Keswick, parked up and walked down towards the Market Square, this new story still dominating my mind. Idly, I started to vamp the sleeping bag scene only to realise, as I reached the crowded centre that this wasn’t vamping: I was writing the actual scene.
Back to the car, write this new part down. I decided to start making a slow way towards Kendal, via Ullswater and Patterdale for the views, but it hasn’t finished, they’re in the sleeping bag, things are happening, and I’m desperately looking for somewhere in Patterdale where I can pull in and write it down without causing a queue all the way back to Penrith.
This accomplished, I drove on, but it still wasn’t over. She’d gotten her end away, but now she wanted to talk. With the result that I ended up in a layby on the slip road into Kendal, with the Droylsden coach rushing past me, writing down a third part to this completely unanchored scene of two strangers, in an unknown place, in unknown circumstances, having spur of the moment sex for unfathomable reasons.
But at least it was done now, and I could concentrate on getting a meal (plain but filling) and the match (lost 1-0).