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From the Listener archive: Arts & Books

May 15-21 2004 Vol 193 No 3340

That difficult fourth novel

Books

That difficult fourth novel

by Neil Cross

In which the author gingerly traces his steps from a dole bludger in the lurid squats of Bristol to a happily married father of two in Wellington – and the journey that led to his new novel, which threatens to make him a mainstream success in England.

Think of a writer, the way they’re played in movies: the geysers of inspiration. The stuffed ashtrays, the whisky. The rheumy eyes; the unforgiving dawn.

There’s an explanation for this fiction. It’s that writers are dull. There’s a good chance the last book you enjoyed wasn’t hammered out in anguished, cinematic inspiration, but assembled by a working parent who got up every day at 5.00am, hoping to craft 500 words before the kids woke up. Chances are the book was better for it: many fulltime authors, untethered from the demands of the -everyday, drift slowly away from any sense of it. These are people who stay at home all week, on their own. Typing. Often, they socialise mainly with other writers, giving them the opportunity to bitch about the miseries of being a writer: bad reviews, no reviews, warm chardonnay. Many become their own favourite subject, which is why so many books have novelists for characters. Novelists think they’re interesting. They don’t know any better. If they ever did, they’ve forgotten.

Even so, to be a writer was my only ambition. I never considered anything else, not once. For most of my life, it was considered at best an impractical daydream, a bit of a joke, actually. Childhood had been tangled and not happy. Adolescence was an earthquake. I was in trouble with the police; in trouble with everyone. At 15, I was expelled from school, and invited to leave home by my charming stepfather. I spent years in the lurid squats and dingy bed-sitters of Bristol, then the butter-yellow, peeling Georgian terraces of Brighton. Claiming dole. To admit I wanted to be a novelist was the stuff of hilarity. But all the time, I was writing.

Finally, I applied to study for a degree. The consensus of those who knew me was that I was temperamentally unsuitable as well as academically unqualified. But it wasn’t a consensus shared by Leeds University, which awarded me a First, which I followed with an MA. And all the time, holed up in redbrick tenements, the crammed streets where Peter Sutcliffe had walked, I was

writing.

I moved to London, and onto a career in publishing. It was a good job, and for a while I loved it. I loved my colleagues. I loved the books, the arcana, the lore. I loved helping to nurture a fragile manuscript, sometimes to robust publication and sometimes to a slow, choking death. It’s a conservative industry in a quickening world, staffed largely by people who got there by accident. It was a laugh.

And all the time, after travelling in the cramped Tubes and the late-night cabs, I was writing. In 1998, my first novel was published. It was well received, and it sold pretty well. But I didn’t feel like a writer. I felt like someone who’d had a book published. Big difference. I disliked the first stirrings of authorial -neurosis, the kind of thing I’d seen in others and despised – the guilty enthralment to seeking out one’s own novel on the shelves, followed by inevitable, nauseating anxiety: too few copies on display in a bookshop, you’re worried that nobody can find it. Too many, you’re worried that nobody’s buying it.

Mr In-Between was a moderate success. It was followed by Christendom, which was not. I was surprised by how similar the two conditions felt. I started another novel, wrote a couple of chapters. Put it away. Stopped writing.

The job was chewing up my days and most of my evenings, then spitting me out for exhausted weekends. I was enjoying it less and less. Intriguing colleagues had become tiresome alcoholics. Meetings that once had been enjoyable – I felt I shouldn’t be there, in a boardroom: that somehow I’d slipped under the wire – became monotonous. The books began to look the same. I stopped caring.

What I cared about was a colleague called Nadya, with whom I spent a great deal of time. She was my best friend; had been for years. I’d suffered a tsunami of a crush, never supposing it might be reciprocated. Then we kissed. It was outside St Martins in the Fields: 3.00am in the London rain, sodium lights shimmering in puddles. A few months later, we married. Less than a year after that, our first child was born. Everything else was drop-kicked from the centre of my life.


M

emories I’d long chosen to disregard boiled and gobbetted to the surface. Infatuated with my tiny son, I became fixated on his frailty: by what the world would do to him, if the world were given half a chance. The ferocity of the joy I took in his birth, in the awesome fact of his existence, was attended by terror. It was not an en-nobling emotion. It was bestial. I wanted to protect him beyond my ability, beyond anyone’s. I headed for an inclination that makes redundant any dexterity with words: the urge to splinter, to kill anybody who hurt him. Anybody who thought to.


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