Cell by Cell

I’ve been reading a brilliant essay in the compilation Write, edited by Claire Armitstead (Guardian Books). It’s by A S Byatt, and it’s about the writing of her novel Possession.

Possession has been, since it appeared, a key text for me—because of its story, its subject, its brilliant interweaving of times and materials. And because of the way it made me cry at the end, touched by the story itself, but also by the frisson of potential the book gave me, a feeling of possibility for and excitement about my own writing that I can’t define. This was one of many streams that, in some invisible underground way, watered the terrain of my first book Inscription.

Something Byatt says in this essay strikes me:  “Formally my novel needed the presence of real poems…..” Her editor, poet DJ Enright, said she shouldn’t use Ezra Pound's poems, as she’d planned, but should write some herself. So she did. “When the book was finished, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled and dubious. They begged me to cut out the poetry, to cut down the Victorian writing…..I wept in the early mornings. Then it won the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, and the Booker prize, and to everyone’s astonishment—including my own—became a bestseller.”

I have the inevitable reaction, not for the first time: “So what do publishers know?!”  (Dear publishers, obviously this apparently blanket scorn does not apply to any astute publisher who is interested in my book!) Byatt was already a well-known writer with a respected reputation when the publishers told her that her instincts for her book were all wrong. What chance for the rest of us?

This triggers a negative whirlpool of thoughts. Instead of being stuck there, I’ll try to take Byatt’s experience as a gift. I’ll add Possession to the heap of wonderful but unusual books that have captivated readers, once a brave publisher took the chance. Books that give me courage. Books that cross boundaries, like those of Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, Eimear McBride….

But there’s another thing. Publishers were scared by the poems in her finished novel, but Byatt had originally intended to write something even more experimental. Then she read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which gripped readers while drawing them into medieval theology. “The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story…."   That strong storyline is probably the reason for Possession’s wide appeal and runaway success.

Since the book I'm writing is partly about the nineteenth century, I should say that, far from aspiring to imitate Possession—and who could?—I'm trying to do something very different. Luckily, the nineteenth century, like Heaven, is a mansion with many rooms. 

I’m trying to grow a book, cell by cell. The cliché of comparing book-writing to pregnancy is a cliché for a reason. As I talk about my project, and think of revealing its working title, I feel the hesitancy of a newly expectant woman who hardly dares mention her condition, far less give the child a name.  Yet like the embryo growing unseen, my book does have, ate least for now, a small life; I pray it will continue to grow, metamorphosing, becoming stronger….

Maybe soon I will be able to speak its name.