Books do strange and unexpected and sometimes disturbing things, independent of their creators. It’s one of the saving joys of being a writer. Exhibit one: The Wake: a labour of love and strangeness and stubbornness, a book that came from somewhere old in me and from somewhere outside me too, and that I thought would have a small audience if any audience at all. I expected to have to self-publish it, and that didn’t matter because books are not written to be published: the publishing is a bonus, and anything that happens after that is a privelege and usually a source of anxiety too. Writers are anxious people. Or is that just me?
But The Wake has been my most successful book, in worldly terms. It has been garlanded with praise. It won a prize and was listed for a couple of others, including the Man Booker, which is more of an industry than a prize but certainly gets you noticed. It’s found a great American publisher. It’s had rave reviews all over the place and I’ve now sold the film rights to the one person – the actor Mark Rylance – who I imagined playing the central character in my idle daydreams during the writing. I’ve sold a few of the things too.
This is all heady stuff. If it had happened to me when I was 25 it would have been a disaster, but I’m old and cynical enough now to take it in my stride. I’ve had enough years in which my writing was ignored or misunderstood to know that this is just another turn of the wheel. It’s been a welcome one, but I’ve been trying to get through it all by treating it as if I were an intrigued observer rather than a participant. As my wise and experienced publisher said to me just the other day: ‘prizes are lovely, as long as you don’t mistake them for anything that matters.’
What matters? For a writer, writing. Robinson Jeffers advised his peers to ‘write, and be quiet’, and that is exactly what I intend to do now as this unexpected year comes to a close. I have plenty of work to do. One of the other things that happened to me this year, as a result of The Wake’s success, was that Faber and Faber have lured me into their stable and will be publishing my three next books (here’s a piece from The Bookseller with some more detail.) I didn’t take much luring. In an age of corporate conglomerates and depressing e-books, Faber are the last great independent British publisher, one that still takes risks and does interesting things with physical books, and their backlist reads like a who’s who of most of the authors I loved when I was younger, from William Golding to Ted Hughes.
For Faber (and for Graywolf in the US), I’ll be writing a new non-fiction book – my first for a decade. It’ll be an examination of the implications of the rising age of the Machine, of all-encompassing technology in the age of extinction, and how we can stay rooted to places as it envelops us. It’s a biggy, and I’m looking forward to taking it on. But it’s a few years off yet, because I have something else to do first.
That something is the second novel in what, it turns out, will be a trilogy begun by The Wake. This wasn’t the intention when I wrote it, but I now see The Wake as the first of three books which delve into the mythical and actual landscapes of England across two thousand years of time, linked by their related protagonists and by other coincidences and connections. The next book in the trilogy, Beast, is set in the present day. The final one will be set a thousand years in the future. Call me ambitious. Or call me an idiot. I don’t mind.
It’s Beast that I’m sitting down to write now. I’ve built a small hut in the field behind my house and it’s time to retreat there with my books and candles and laptop and shut the door. As part of the bedding-in that this requires, I’m going to be retiring from social media for a long while, and spending less time in the shouty mess of the online world in general. I find the righteous mobs of Twitter, the What-Happened-Next-Will-Change-Your-Life-ness of Facebook, the angry comments on every site on Earth, the News that isn’t News at all, the Things Designed To Make You Angry – all of this is anathema to the kind of delving silences I need to write. So I’ll be conserving my energies in the hope I can focus them. I’ve come to learn over the years that a book, in its creation, is a living thing, which has needs and demands. You have to respect them, and give them what they need.
All of which means you’ll be hearing less from me for a while, which you might well be looking forward to as much as I am. When I come out of the other end, perhaps I’ll have something to offer you. I hope so.