Filed under: Fiction
The joys and pitfalls of the fictional follow-up.
As the RSL takes on the administration of the Encore Award for best second novel, arts journalist Alex Clark, chair of this year’s judges, reflects on the joys and pitfalls of the fictional follow-up
Numbers always demand a little context, and ordinals particularly: it might take some time for your first child to become an only; a third glass of wine teeters on the edge of becoming a bacchanalia until the second bottle (and perhaps third, fourth or fifth) is well and truly open. And so it is with a second novel, yet to reveal whether it is to be a full stop or merely the end of a paragraph in a writer’s career.
But many factors determine that context, and not all of them have to do with the writer him or herself. In recent years, we’ve become aware of the increasing challenges that face those working across the creative arts, including the ‘content providers’ on whom we depend to bring us the books in the first place. Declining advances, a radically altered marketplace in which the shiniest covers shout their way loudly to the shopfront or home page, a burgeoning prize culture, vanishing review space, editors under pressure: the threats are clear and present. The image of a novelist labouring under the weight of expectation prompted by a plaudit-laden debut begins to seem fanciful, even luxurious – or at least the province of very few. There is perhaps more of a sense of mounting another assault on the city walls rather than returning glorious from the battle-field.
Except, of course, it all looks very different from the writing desk, where there are as many approaches to the next tranche of work as there are novelists. But whether the words feel like they’re being painstakingly chiselled from stone or whether they flow like water, they must take precedence over impatient agents, the demands and distractions of social media and the leaky roof. The first rule of writing a second novel: write it.
Easier said than done. New work doesn’t always come from obvious places. Edmund Gordon’s fascinating biography of Angela Carter draws our attention to the rush of novels that tumbled out at the beginning of her career – the product, in her words, of ‘neurotic compulsion’. And yet that doesn’t mean their genesis was straightforward. The Magic Toyshop, her second novel, first glimmered into Carter’s imagination courtesy of an ambiguous line in Andre Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto: ‘The marvellous alone is beautiful.’ Carter toyed with its possible emphases and meanings – is only the marvellous beautiful? Is alone, in this construction, a noun? – until it began to yield associations, atmosphere, thoughts, and to lead Carter to create her claustrophobic, disturbing Home Counties fairy tale. And an interesting footnote: Gordon points out that Breton’s phrase is only ambiguous when read in translation; in French its meaning is clear. In other words, you fashion your inspiration as much as find it, and bend it to your own purposes.
It doesn’t always work out quite that way: another recent biography, Brendan King’s life of Beryl Bainbridge, notes that her second novel, Another Part of the Wood, saw ‘initial enthusiasm’ wane once the writer was faced with ‘the less joyous task of actually writing it’. That’s likely to be a familiar feeling. In Bainbridge’s case, it’s also noticeable that the novel is not among her best known and that, when it was revised and reissued in 1979, it was not a great success, Bainbridge’s work on editing out some of what might be seen as youthfully excessive prose in fact leading to a certain flattening of tone, a loss of ‘vital spark’. And yet, after her second novel came a run of wonderful books in the shape of Harriet Said…, The Dressmaker (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and The Bottle Factory Outing.
Some novelists seem to hit a remarkable seam on their second outings. Nearly a decade after his first novel, The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace gave the world Infinite Jest, his immense, dystopian take on American society via the world of a tennis academy and a rehab centre – and a novel that makes especially painful reading in today’s dizzying times. Three years after his 1963 debut novel, The Collector, John Fowles swapped a tiny setting – the cellar of the house in which a butterfly fetishist imprisons a young woman – for that of a fictional Greek island; but although The Magus also operates in clear geographical boundaries, its reach to embrace the mythological, the psychological, the occult, is staggering.
The Magus also offers us a different problem. It was in fact almost Fowles’s first novel, written in draft before, but completed and published after, The Collector; he also revised it a decade after publication. Clearly it exerted a particular kind of hold over him. And literature is studded with such little diversions. If, for example, we were to take Graham Greene at his word, and not count in the early work that he subsequently disowned, his second novel would be Stamboul Train. Similarly, Vile Bodies is Evelyn Waugh’s second novel because he destroyed a first. How, too, does one treat groups of works – for example, Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, which were followed by The Cossacks, or novellas, such as Dostoevsky’s The Double?
But these are, in a sense, bibliographic games of little real importance. Suffice to say that, among the second novels that have earned their place in history, we may count The Mill on the Floss, The Master and Margarita, Fahrenheit 451 and Midnight’s Children. More? Well, how about O Pioneers!, On the Road and Pride and Prejudice.
As amply demonstrated, all writers are different, and all writing lives must develop in their own ways. Marilynne Robinson, a novelist of such powers that somehow reading her work does seem like a sort of practice rather than an activity, so much does one have to allow it to settle and work on the mind, wrote her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. Her second, Gilead, appeared 24 years later; in between, she had taught and written essays and academic works of great distinction. Lucky enough to interview her for the Observer – around the time of her remarkable conversation with her most famous fan, Barack Obama – I asked her about that gap, mindful that I was not the first. She was, as she is, exceptionally patient, and humorous.
‘Well, you know,’ she replied, ‘I became a strange novelist, if not simply a strange person outright. I tend to do what I want to do. For a long time I didn’t want to write fiction. Then suddenly a fictional world was in my imagination, so I wrote it. It’s ridiculous to say I’m passive in relation to these things, because obviously I do exactly what I want to do… I’m a sort of hedonist in the sense that I want to enjoy my life, and sometimes that means writing fiction and sometimes it means writing non-fiction.’
If that’s hedonism, then it looks exceptionally good to me.
Three novelists consider their own second novels
Starting out as a novelist is to be surrounded by naysayers. When you tell people you are writing your first novel all they talk about is how hard it is to get published. When you manage that they shake their heads and murmur, All very well to write a first novel but what about a second? There’s the challenge. Frankly, I find all my books a challenge. I did not study creative writing and so I learned everything at the coalface of my first novel. I had to learn how to best use tense, perspective, dialogue, how to begin and end a story, to create a voice for each character, and I learned why writing a debut novel in four first-person narratives was not the best idea. When I came to my second novel, The Memory of Love, I had at least some sense of what I was supposed to be doing. The book involved months of research and was nearly three years in the writing. By the end of it I was hardly able to stand up straight, my hands were crabbed. The novelist Linda Grant told me I had ‘writer’s back’ and she sent me straight to see a physiotherapist. I’ve learned to take more care of myself when I’m writing now. The Memory of Love was my most successful novel and people still write to me about it. There are some things, technical things, I know could be improved but that’s just a sign of growing as a writer. I still love the characters: Elias, Kai, Adrian, Mamakay. I have never stopped thinking about them, where they are and what they might be doing. I recently finished a new novel, Happiness, in which I have brought a character from The Memory of Love back. He was a minor character, not a major character, but I found I could not stop thinking about him. Now he has his own book.
I wrote my second novel in Saudi Arabia, not in the glamorous surroundings supposed to characterise expatriate life, but in my third home within a year, in what was known as the Ten House Compound – a group of prefabs, twenty years past their sell-by date, with rats in the roofs. Enclosed from the city by a big wall, air conditioners spewing mould with every gasp, I sat down to write a violent black comedy set in England in 1984.
My first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, starred Muriel Axon: mad, bad and dangerous to know. In the final chapter she was carried off to a psychiatric hospital. My idea was that ten years later she would be released for ‘care in the community’, free to revisit old haunts and murder people. I hoped to call it Another Day for Mother, but my publisher feared that would tie it too tightly to the first book. I remember her slow spreading smile when I came up with a new title, Vacant Possession.
I hadn’t left a narrative opening for a sequel – I hadn’t thought of it – so I had to be cunning. And if it was to come out with my first paperback, I had to be fast. I wrote every morning. When my husband came home from the Ministry of Mineral Resources I read him the results, at the siesta hour. I had to keep him awake. Each day’s narrative had to be stranger than the last.
It was done in six months. The reviews were great, the sales negligible. I soon got used to this pattern of events. In my time off from writing this second book, I was leading the life (and keeping the journal) that would result in the third. That also was a pattern I would get used to: continuous processing, if not continuous improvement.
No one is more surprised than I at the speed at which my second novel, The Lives of Others [winner of the 2014 Encore Award], came together. I had about 75 pages in September 2010; in two years, it was finished, totalling 650 pages. I am a very slow writer, so this was somewhat of an aberration. I know anecdotal evidence with a data point of one is no evidence at all, but in my case the dreaded second-album syndrome seems not to have struck. It’s difficult to answer why this was so, as it is to answer that ubiquitous question directed at all writers: ‘How did your book come about?’ Let me see if I can reach towards an answer to the former by attempting some kind of response to the latter.
Writers rarely have access to that part of their heads where books originate. One can talk cogently of influences, plotting, putting a book together, structuring, editing, everything, really, but origins are a far cloudier issue, the domain of the unconscious, mostly, so not readily available for truthful discussion. When I say that I don’t know whether my book started life as the story of a joint family in Calcutta at a critical juncture in history or as a reckoning with an ultra-left movement for social justice and equality around which the domestic story was built, I’m not only being truthful by acknowledging my ignorance of what came first, but also saying something else: that way of talking about a book as which narrative came first is always already too late because the origins lie far earlier.
What I can say as a kind of post-hoc explanation is that I wanted to write my big Bengali novel – except in English! – about the city I was born and brought up in, about the Bengali people and their culture and history and the forces shaping their world. Every writer has a reckoning with her history, whether it is personal or political, of a place or time or the general air breathed in; The Lives of Others was mine. There was no need to summon it; it was as if the book had already been there, waiting patiently to be let in; I only had to open the door.
In spring 2017, the RSL will be holding an online ballot to find the nation’s favourite second novel. Please be sure to vote! The result will be published when the winner of the 2017 Encore Award is announced in April.