Thus begins Chris Beckett’s latest novel, Tomorrow. A single sentence that said so much to me. At once a knowing nod, a jibe, an amusing paradox of sorts. Because I am putting off my novel – if not starting it, at least from tackling it in earnest – and for the same reasons as the protagonist of Tomorrow: I want it to be a novel about everything. It’s unwieldy, it grows in all directions whenever I spend time with it, try to pin it down.
It is the promise of a novel to beat all other novels – ‘chasing a mirage’ – that keeps the protagonist (and me) producing, exploring; and yet it is also what keeps us dissatisfied. The feeling is one.
Sometimes I wonder whether it will always be the case that I will have ‘the novel’ looming over me, the MacGuffin that keeps me moving, but that the real body of work is what happens incidentally in the peripheries. The preparation, the experimentation, the spin-offs and the alternate takes. Often the most interesting things happen by accident or on whims, so doing something wonderful on purpose can seem like a futile pursuit.
Bridget set the table because she always set the table.
Every evening at six o’ clock, she laid out the dishes, the silverware, and the glasses. She put out a fresh vase of flowers for a centerpiece. Every evening at six o’ clock for the last forty-seven years, Bridget set the table.
Then she would go into the kitchen to bring out supper. A roast, stew, or ham; she had several cooking staples and she rotated through them like clockwork.
One day, she brought out a salad with homemade dressing, chicken parmesan, seasoned green beans, and warm rolls. Bridget made everything from scratch; there was nothing out of a box on her table. She was a wonderful cook: she knew it and took a measure of pride from it. That was why she worked for the most prosperous man in the county. And Mr. Tiller liked his dinner to be punctual.
Eyes open, fists clenched; teeth grinding, limbs limp; a shape, a shift; a whimper, a cry; a scream. This is how I wake up each morning. With routine, the terror I feel towards the shadow in the corner has dulled. No longer sharp, it is merely an ache. Yet still, each morning, I scream.
These days I don’t know why I get up at all. There is no job to go to, no friends to see. Maybe it’s for the coffee, or to escape the shadow.
Have you ever sat completely still because to move would be to hurl yourself into a rage? My blood thickens, lapping in viscus waves against straining eardrums. Electricity arcs across my muscles and burns me from the inside out. I twitch and jitter, shaking the cupboards, rattling plates, smashing a mug. I sink to my knees and collect the shattered rabbits lying in pieces on the kitchen floor. Their blood is thin and watery: a light brown fluid smelling faintly of earth and milk. I cry in shuddering tides over ceramic wildlife as the electricity continues to burn.
“What happened?” Yun asked the two scientists standing in front of her.
“The Memory War was almost fifty years ago now, I think.” Dr. Reyes raised her eyebrow, but Dr. O’Quin neither confirmed nor denied.
Instead, Dr. O’Quin said, “Genetic testing revealed the true form of memory in biology, and while the processing of those memories indeed took place in the brain, they were stored throughout the body in our DNA.” Yun nodded. It was a theory she had heard, but it seemed a confirmation of this would be pretty big news.
“Once we figured out how the body stored and processed this information, people started to get creative with that knowledge. Medication came out to improve memory, restore lost memories, and even to help people forget.” Dr. Reyes started unbuckling the clasps that held Yun down on the table.
Dr. O’Quin proceeded, “The medication was only half of the delivery system. After eight hours the patients had to be exposed to a low dosage of radiation, which triggered the Mnemonic Molecules. The medication was cheap to make. We didn’t go to war over the profits of the Memory industry. We went to war over the memories themselves.”
One of my major interests is inner worlds: the subjective experience of being human. Perhaps, then, it goes without saying that I love to write the self, and I love to read the personal accounts of others. So I’ve been thinking about the different ways we choose to do this, and in particular the various methods available for presenting it. Here I share some distinctions I’ve made along the way.
Autobiography is the most ‘objective’ method for writing the self, with the aim of presenting events as they really happened. It will usually (but not always) be in chronological order and span most of a lifetime.
Memoir is a collection of memories from a specific aspect or time period of the author’s life. It is usually presented in an entertaining way, with some distance between the narrator and the subject, some hindsight, but also some intimacy of emotional context.
An Autobiographical Novel is the semi-fictionalisation of real events. It puts more distance between the narrator and the subject, and allows the use of plot devices, imagined events or characters, and heightened drama. There is an expectation that the author will do this not in an attempt to mislead, but to make the text more attractive to readers. Like memoir, autobiographical novels will usually cover a specific aspect or time period in the author’s life.
Micah Thomas is author of the Eudaimonia series – a unique blend of paranormal with literary fiction. In the final interview of our Writers on Lockdown series, he joined me to chat about isolation, spiritual teachers, and layers of meaning.
Hi Micah, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! How are things over there in the US, are you feeling as ‘locked down’ as us?
I have been a shut in for a few years. The isolation certainly has intensified as online friends focus on keeping themselves… I don’t know. Keeping themselves together.
Do you find isolation a help or a hindrance to your creative process?
My creative stages have an isolation mode, where I’m heads down working. The creation place is very private and I don’t like eyes on me. However, my sharing motion needs witnesses and that is tough right now. I’m releasing so much art and writing and it’s really not a good time for it.
So you’ve released two novels so far in the Eudaimonia series, when can we expect the third?
The final novel and the final volume of short stories will both be available in April. I’m formatting Evidence of Changes vol 3 as we speak. The novel will be formatted next month. Then I’m practically done with this Eudaimonia world. Kinda.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, could you talk a bit about what the Eudaimonia world is?
Michael Walters is author of The Complex, an unsettling novel about the human psyche and its relationship with strangers and virtual reality. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, Carl Jung, and the importance of subtext in creating atmosphere.
Hi Michael, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Do you find isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing?
I’m faring well, thank you. I’m very lucky — I have a job that I can do from home, the kids are safe, and our parents are healthy. Being at home all the time with a full-house is challenging sometimes, but some people are going through hell at the moment, so I’m not complaining.
The lockdown is definitely not isolation for me. I like being alone. Being alone is the only way I can let my mind wander. I’m an introvert, so when I have to turn on the extrovert afterburner, I do need to recover. That’s really hard at the moment.
Are you finding the opportunity to work on anything new?
I wrote a short story in January and February which I hope will get published later this year. After finishing that, I wanted to get into my next novel, then coronavirus hit. I’ve been able to flesh out some ideas — I have a map of the location in my head, some characters, a few possible scenes, a title — but I haven’t started the first draft. The momentum is building. I hope I can finish a draft by the autumn. That might be hopelessly optimistic!
I wanted to talk a little about your recent novel, The Complex, which explores the psychological effects of unfamiliar spaces, both virtual and real. Can you tell us about the premise and how you came to write on this theme?
Jonathan D Clark is author of philosophical novel Arcadia, and his short story The Video was published in our recent anthology, Vast. As part of our Writers on Lockdown series, he joined me to discuss isolation, paranoia, and the dark side of our relationship with technology.
Hi Jonathan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Thanks for having me as part of this series. It’s a pleasure.
How are you surviving in these crazy times, do you find isolation is a help or a hindrance to your writing process?
I’ve always been a rather reclusive individual (going to and from my day jobs throughout the years without speaking to anyone), so besides the limitations on what there is to do around town—and having to snipe for groceries—not a whole lot has changed for me due to the lockdown. Although, it did give me the chance to tell my more extroverted friends “welcome to my domain.” And as for productivity, it did witness a spike in the first week, but it has since slowed back down to its original pace.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
For the past year I’ve been working on my next novel, along with the occasional short story here and there when I feel I need a break from the grand narrative.
Canyou tell us anything about the new novel at this stage, or is it top secret?
Unlike Arcadia, my current WIP (titled False Cathedrals) will have a more contemporary setting; taking place in 2012 in the fictional town of Midtown, Vermont—as well as a few chapters taking place in the mid-to-late 90s. At the heart of the novel is Daniel Bloom, a middle-aged psychotherapist who can’t seem to escape the haunting memory of his first wife, Karen; even after fourteen years have passed since her untimely demise at the hands of a crazed shooter, now dormant. Hoping to distract himself, Daniel puts all his focus into helping a patient find lucidity after well over a decade of uncertainty. But it doesn’t help when he hears that the shooter has started a new, violent rampage.
Logan Ryan Smith writes dark, disorientating, and highly imaginative streams of consciousness with a unique sense of humour and madness. In the third of this new series, I caught up with him to talk about isolation, the flow of writing, and the unreliable narrator.
Hi Logan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!
Hi, C.R. Thanks for the invite to participate. Very happy to be a part of this.
How are you faring in these strange times, is isolation a help or a hindrance to your creative process?
Outside of the occasional moment of being overwhelmed emotionally by the terror and beauty of a whole planet trying to achieve something together, in unison, not only for themselves, but for their families, neighbors, and those workers out in public selflessly providing essential services for the rest of us, I guess you could say I’m doing quite well, actually. As I’m betting you’ll hear from most writers, I’m not incredibly social. I’m not antisocial, but the things writers like doing (reading and writing) are things done in isolation already, so it’s not a huge disruption to my life. And I’m in isolation with my favorite people, my family, so why would I complain? So, we’re taking this lockdown very seriously and fortunately they’re like me — not super social. I guess we were all homebodies to begin with, so we’re not dealing with the same stress as those that have a real need to be out and about with bunches of people. So it goes.
As for the creative process, I guess it has stymied it. I usually take a break after releasing a new book, but I likely would have begun a new one by now had this whole thing not happened. I am fine with (some) isolation, but I actually do a lot of my writing out of the house. That’s mostly due to not having any kind of writing studio in our house, which means the kids would be asking every five seconds what I’m doing, what my book is about, and if they can help me write it. But when I say, “Sure. Tell me how many S’s there are in ‘occasional.’ I can’t remember,” they just give me blank expressions and start hitting the keyboard, laughing madly like a couple tiny maniacs. It’s frightening. You should see it. That said, even if I get my writing studio with a door that locks (we’re going to try to convert the garage during this time of lockdown), the six-year-old is already a master lock-picker. So we’ll see how that goes.
Aside from needing space, I’m also not the type to write when my mind is completely occupied by something other than the thing I’m writing at the moment. I turn on the news every morning, hoping against hope that the death and infection rates are slowing, and as yet, it seems to only be increasing. Hard for me to think about my next book when that’s how the day starts. Then of course there’s getting used to working from home. So, sitting all day in the house on the computer for the day job makes it a little daunting. I mean, to basically “clock out” of the day job without having gone anywhere and then to simply “clock in” to the writing job is an abrupt change in gears and I’m much better working when there’s more of a transition from one thing to the next. I hate abruptly changing gears.
All THAT said, the itch to write is a lifelong affliction, and that has returned. I’m ready to get rolling. What that will likely do is inspire me to get to work converting the garage ASAP. So, long story short, this whole crisis has affected me by inspiring me to do some home renovation. Who’d a thunk it?