I’ve been dismembering one of my books, painstakingly taking it apart, page by page, so that each comes away from the glue of the spine cleanly, a perfect rectangle.
It’s a strange, not entirely comfortable, feeling. The book in question is a paperback copy of The Witness, my post-Scottish-independence thriller. I’m doing it because I no longer have an electronic version and the only way I can get the book onto Kindle is to have the text scanned and create a new file from it. As I remove the pages I can’t help pausing when my eye is caught by a passage or turn of phrase I remember particularly well or am especially proud of.
I find myself reliving the pleasure of writing it, and this throws into relief the dilemma I face at the moment: should I abandon the novel I’ve been writing for the last four years? I wrote here last year that ‘the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.’
Hmm …now I’m not so sure. I think perhaps that this particular story has lost its energy. More than that, I wonder about its relevance to me in 2012. When I started it, in 2008, I had recently published two novels in quick succession, both of which had been critically well received. A third in the same general genre – the young adult thriller – seemed the obvious thing to do, especially for someone whose literary career to date had followed a random trajectory to say the least.
I had two ideas gnawing at me. One was to mine the diaries I had written nearly 40 years previously, during a year travelling on a shoestring through Latin America. The other was to examine the impulses that make someone steal. As a small boy at boarding school I had stolen sweets, sometimes from the large jar of favours that sat in the headmaster’s study (fair game one might say), sometimes, much more shamefully, from other boys. I had been caught and beaten for it and it had troubled me, intermittently, ever since. What, at that moment in my life, had made me do something I had never done before and have never done since?
My story, The Artefact, concerns a precocious eight-year-old who is taken by his parents on a scientific expedition to Amazonia where the whole family suffers a trauma. Later, back in Scotland and growing up neglected by his work-obsessed parents, he starts to steal compulsively. This leads him into bad company and worse trouble. By the time he is about to leaves chool he is staring into the abyss. It comes to him that he has been cursed, that the only way to get out of trouble and rid himself of the compulsion is to return to South America and right a wrong he had committed there as a child, ten years earlier.
Although I’ve written around 70,000 words, hardly any of that has been over the last two years. Other commitments and interests have taken over, not least Room 121, the business book I co-wrote with John Simmons, and this blog. Dipping back into The Artefact now, some of it seems good, some less so, but – andt his may just be the time of year, though I suspect not – it feels stale; the thought of returning to it does not make my pulse race. I know that to finish it is still several months’ work. Then there’s the thorny question of whether to find a publisher or self-publish. There’s promotion – can I face, indeed do I have the time for, touring the secondary schools again. And there’s the commitment to a follow-up, pretty much a given should I find a publisher.
To some extent the project has already done its job. I’ve come to understand through the research and writing that in certain circumstances stealing can offer a form of comfort and a sense of self-connection – an explanation certainly, if not an exoneration. I’ve also discovered that my South American material bears revisiting, and there are other arenas in which I could re-work it, this blog for example. Yet a year ago a prominent children’s author for whom I have great respect, insisted that I finish it and paid me the compliment of saying that the kind of books I write are important to their audience.
So I’m stuck. Should I finish it simply because it’s there? I need some other opinions – including yours, Dear Readers. I’m posting the first couple of chapters here to give a flavour of The Artefact. If you can spare a few moments, please read them and help me decide: carry on or let go?