The latest issue of The Author has an article written by me, Before I forget. Here for blog readers is the unedited version. The events mentioned happened a while ago as I have been waiting for the publication of the magazine before posting, but the sentiment is still valid.
Before I forget
The other day, on the touchline of a junior football match, a friend praised a book of mine he had read on holiday. We were chatting, watching the game as it unfolded, and I happened to mention an evening I'd enjoyed on the quayside in Newcastle. ‘Oh, did you see Emmanuel there?’ my friend joked. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. To my immense embarrassment, he reminded me that Emmanuel is the street-wise villain of my Newcastle-based thriller. I felt fraudulent, as if I was passing myself off as the author of a book written by someone else. Certainly I felt far more dissociated from the story at that moment than the friend who had just read it – he had a better claim on Emmanuel and the rest of the characters of 11:59 because, even though I'd lived and breathed their very existence for eighteen months, not to mention being the sole parent of every single one, frankly, I'd forgotten almost everything I ever knew about them.
Currently, I'm doing talks about and readings from my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret. In particular I've been talking to Women’s Institutes about the Stephenson Women, the neglected heroines of the railway pioneers’ story. I speak for an hour or so without reference to a crib-sheet, note-perfect. But there is a cloud on my horizon. In a few weeks I'm scheduled to talk to The Stephenson Locomotive Society. In my nightmares I am fielding a barrage of questions about the specific innovations made by the Stephensons to ensure The Rocket beat all other locomotive pretenders to the ultimate prize at the Rainhill Trials. At the time I emerged from my three years' research on the subject I could have faced John Humphrys on Mastermind. Not now. At least the book is there to remind me of what I used to know (and perhaps in the final analysis that’s why we write) but what still remains on the page, what once seemed seared on my brain, is not after all indelible. I've moved on to the next thing.
Writers are learning’s prostitutes. Or my kind of writer is. To all appearances we are thoroughly absorbed in our subject, and we do take trouble to be at least superficially impressive, but we are learning and turning tricks to get by. We keep an eye out for glitter or material we can shine and polish. Another eye on the clock. Our work is potentially contagious.
More generously (while staying with the contagion metaphor) we are carried along by temporary enthusiasms that become unignorable inflammations; they smart and smart until they stimulate the writing of a book, if only to ease the itch. I can't write at length about anything until I feel that need to scratch.
I've found you can just about blag it on the books you've already written and almost forgotten. The real problem comes when the itch for the next book starts before you've finished the one you are writing. That’s where I am now. It has taken me too long, far too long, to get to where I need to be on the psychological mystery that emerged from a temporary obsessional interest in the subject of erotomania. The need is not yet satisfied, but another, quite different, has emerged from somewhere in the shadows and it’s pricking me, pricking me.
Married couples are said to be subject to a seven-year-itch, the period where a possible alternative love comes calling. Writers are serially faithless lovers, seduced by alluring encounters with fascinating possibilities into one intense affair after another, compelled to engage, to scratch and scratch out. As with affairs, there is likely to be as much pain as pleasure involved. In my experience there seems to be a three-year-itch for ‘the next big idea’. This is what I'm suffering now. I have to resist it – I can’t let myself be distracted. Like Odysseus on his voyage I'm up for the new experience but I must avoid being blown off my present course. Tie me to the mast – I can't respond to this siren now. Not yet. Not yet.