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.

Present and Past

It's about time I mentioned Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings. Her compilations of inspiring and thought-provoking words from writers, artists, and thinkers of all types are marvellous, and her newsletter brings regular treasures to my inbox. The latest is about poet Mary Oliver and her book Upstream: Selected Essays.

The whole thing is a brilliant meditation on the creative life. And I will copy out these words of Mary Oliver's and put them where I can see them, often:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.


I've been going to various events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, listening to writers who have heard that call to creative work, and who have, by dint of dedication and sheer hard graft, succeeded in making something beautiful or powerful or interesting out of nothing.

I loved the poetry of Matthew Hollis, who read from his pamphlet Stones.

What passes in the present is present in the past. 

And there it lies upon the latch.

Our hands tremble on the morning match.                                                                                                                                                            

The book is letterpress printed and bound by hand; Hollis prefaced his poems with an illustrated talk about how the pamphlet itself was made. We understood a little of the care and skill that went into making this slim volume; the work of setting the type, hand-spacing it, line by line, page by page; of the printing itself, of trial and error until it is just so, and of letting the ink dry, which takes three days. It was fascinating, and seductive, and a celebration of the book-maker's craft. 

Other poets whose work I enjoyed were Sarah Howe, who wrote Loop of Jade, and Rebecca Perry. Confusingly, nomenclature-wise, the Festival also brought us the novelist Sarah Perry, speaking about her book The Essex Serpent. Sharing this event was Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built and the brilliant Unapologetic, about faith; he has now written a novel, Golden Hill. There was an interesting conversation about setting novels in the past; Perry's is set in 1890s Essex, and Spufford's in 1740s New York.  The moderator Andrew Holgate asked if either of them had hesitated before writing something that could be called a "historical novel," because, he said, a snobbish attitude is still sometimes found towards to such books. Both replied firmly, No. Sarah Perry said that she did hesitate five years ago, when she was writing her first novel, "...because I wanted to be taken seriously," and didn't want to be accused of shirking a novelist's duty to grapple wth the present day. (I'm paraphrasing here, from memory and scribbled notes). But then  she realised that even a novel set in the past is "as much about us as it is about them." And besides, she said, "human hearts do not change, human behaviour does not change."

When writing Inscription, I thought about the same issues, wondering about the difference between "historical novels" and novels that just happen to be set in the past. Francis Spufford made a distinction between novels that are written like a theme park trip back in time, where you know what you are going to get, and those that offer creativity, surprise, and invention. Others might say that since so many "literary" novels are now set in the past, we should drop the genre label "historical novel," or at least stop thinking of all historical novels as "bodice-rippers" with minimal literary value. Indeed, A. S.Byatt, Hilary Mantel, David Malouf, Jesse Browner, Marguerite Yourcenar, and many other writers have amply shown that a novel set in the past can be of the greatest literary excellence.


The Festival, as always, prompted much thought about writing, reading, and creativity.  Now to see what inspiration I have gleaned and use if in my own writing. I hope it will help me as I shape what I hope will be my own new novel set in the past; this time, not as distant as the first century AD of Inscription, but much closer to us: the 19th century. Which I have been thinking about for several years, and, for the record, before I knew about Sarah Perry's book or any other of the recent 19th century novels. It must be something in the Zeitgeist. I am trying to find out what, and why.  Trying to give some "power and time" to my own creative instincts. For after all, as Hollis says, "What passes in the present is present in the past."