It’s a treat for me to host a guest blog by Nuala O’Connor – who has featured in earlier blogposts as Nuala Ní Chonchúir – to mark the publication of her new novel Becoming Belle, a historical novel set (mostly) in Victorian London.
Becoming Belle is based on the story of a real woman, Isabel Bilton, who left her protected garrison life at 19 and became a music hall star before marrying a young aristocrat, Viscount Dunlo. His father is appalled and does what he can to destroy the marriage…
Write the Book You Want to Read?
by Nuala O’Connor
When I hear the phrase ‘Write the book you want to read’, I always stop to think on it for a moment. But how could I do that? I wonder. Isn’t that utterly impossible? The saying may have originated with Toni Morrison who said once in a speech: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ But this phrase, this thinking, presupposes two things: one, that I know what I want to read and, two, – more crucially for me – that I know exactly what it is I want to write. For me, neither of these things is ever clear or obvious.
Yes, I like to read biographical fiction and historical novels – I’m a fan of Emma Donoghue and Andrew Miller, among many others. And, yes, I like to write those kinds of novels and stories too – my latest novel, Becoming Belle, is about a real life, nineteenth century music hall girl who married into the Irish gentry and ended up as the Countess Clancarty. But I also like to read dystopian fiction and hybrid narratives and long-form essays and, so far, I haven’t written much of any of that.
Until I’m reading it, I don’t really know what I want to read, or what I will enjoy. Some books, on paper, sound dull but turn out to be exquisite; others, with rave reviews and garlands of prizes, have left me decidedly unimpressed and wondering if there’s something askew with my literary tastes and/or critical faculties. But, like everyone, I just enjoy what I enjoy and I truly don’t know what that is until I’m in the immersive act of reading it.
As for writing what I want to read that seems a hopeless task. When I start to write a novel or story, I have a fizzle of excitement about a character but, mostly, I’m clueless. I’m with Stephen King who says, ‘Plot is … the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.’ Plot, for me, grows not from thought-out plans but from getting to know my characters by writing them, from seeing how they negotiate the trickier aspects of life. This happens because that happened, but I don’t plan the happenings, they occur because the characters are who they are: faulty, humane, nasty, sweet, contradictory, selfish, loving, narcissistic. Whatever.
I am, as a writer, what George R. R. Martin calls ‘a gardener’ – I sow seeds and see what will come up. I prefer this organic approach – there’s mystery in it, excitement and possibility. This is why I’m always uncomfortable when anyone asks me ‘So, what’s your next book about?’ ‘How on earth would I know?’ is what I want to answer, but I’m more likely to mutter some incoherent, semi-stewed plot idea and then go on to write an entirely different novel.
So, can a writer write the book she wants to read? I don’t think so. She can write a book that she hopes other people may want to read and characters that she enjoys and anticipates that others will too. But a writer cannot read her own book the way every other person does. Her relationship with the material is too knotty, she’s too aware of seams and patchworks, too loaded with the memories of the hows and whys, the weight of research, the questions asked and perhaps left unanswered, the long days of getting the story down word by word by word.
Generally, by the time I’ve finished, edited and published a book, I am gone past it, done, saturated and exhausted by the whole enterprise. The last thing I want to do is read that book. I’m already on a journey into another novel by then, I’m at the new friendship giddiness stage with fresh characters and, hopefully, an intriguing situation. For me, that’s the satisfying part of writing. Not the book launch, or the thoughtful reviews, or the literary events, but the first draft stage, the point where I don’t know what I’m doing but am joyfully starting to piece things together and find out what it is that I’m about to write.