Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Fantasy: A Secret Childhood Game

As a child, I had a favourite if secret game. I would cover a book with brown paper that we used for covering our text books. On the newly concealed spine, I would painstakingly write my name with a dark coloured, felt-tip marker. This was the particularly arduous part as I have never been good at colouring within the lines, or indeed drawing straight lines (Let psychologists make of this what they will!).

Then I would find a particularly good spot on a bookshelf. Luckily my grandmother's house had many of these. Somewhere between works by my favourite writers of the moment, I would place the newly created volume, now with my own name on that covetted spine. The very first time, I played this game, I remember placing the book between Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl in School (which my aunt said was really about me) and Arkady Gaidar's Timur and His Squad (which is what I desperately wanted to become).  For much of the afternoon, I pretended that I had written a book that some other little girl loved as much as I loved those two novels.

Then as the afternoon drew to a close, and the family began to rise from their siesta, I took the brown paper off my English grammar exercise textbook and threw it away.

Over the years, as I grew, I played that game over and over again. Alistair McLean and Jane Austen; Jack Higgins and Charles Dickens; Emily Bronte and Leo Tolstoy. At times, I would leave the brown-paper covered book on the shelf for an evening, wondering if anyone would discover it.  Then I would suffer absolute spasms of stress: equal measure of curiosity, anxiety, and an absolute terror of the teasing from my cousins that would follow should my act of literary fantasy be discovered.  It is a feeling I have grown to know well: equal measures of desperation that someone should read my work and a deep dread that they shall loathe it.

Some times, I would play in my uncle's room, a small den at the back of the house with all sorts of hefty, arcane medical tomes on the bookshelves (and Playboys hidden under the bed).  Once I covered one of his books with a fictional title: How to Save Lives, written of course by a ten-year-old me.  That was a superb afternoon of fantasy: of saving humanity from itself, of turning into a hero!

Perhaps that is really at the root of wanting to be a writer: a combination of wild fantasy of needing a story, alongside a terrifying awareness that one can never be a hero.  It is at least what drove me in those early days: I was too little to be of much use, too protected and weak to battle great dragons. There was little recourse but to tell stories where, if I couldn't become a hero, at least I could create one.

As I grew, the game changed a little. I no longer needed to cover textbooks to see my own name on spines. Instead, it became a "safer" game: I could walk into any library or bookstore, look out at any bookshelf which held my favourite writers and I could - in my mind - imagine my own name on a spine nestled between those greats.  As my ability to fantasize (and knowledge of literature) grew, so did my ambitions:  Dante, Thackerey, and Rimbaud;  Doctorow, Golding, and Garcia Marquez; Tagore, Lessing and Potok.

I am convinced this fantasy pushed me to not only finish my first novel but also to expose myself to nearly three years of critique and rejection before I found a publisher.  No matter how dejected I got, no matter how deep the depression, somewhere in the back of my mind was always a bookshelf that held my favourite writers and me!

In the past ten years, since my first novel was published, I have published other things: more books, some which have been translated; short stories, that have been published and read in various parts of the world; articles, essays, even this blog.

In these past ten years, I have walked into bookstores and libraries and seen my book on sale, and each time felt that jolt of recognition and excitement.  Once in France, at a FNAC, I had to pinch myself to believe what I was seeing:  my book was in the section for literature in translation, sitting just at the end of the shelf, just after Rushdie and Saramago.  Yes, I know it was alphabetically arranged, but I still hugged myself with joy and walked on air for a long time after!

I suppose this is what keeps me focussed on writing: I was never interested in money, except to the measure it gives me my independence. Fame is interesting but most of it seems a little ridiculous and distracting: I know Rushdie famously said that all writers wanted to be rockstars (just noticed that I have managed to throw his name around twice in this piece)!  But I just wanted to be accepted into that elite club that beamed down from our bookshelves.

As I look back over the ten years since the publication of my first novel, I do recognise the milestones: not only what I have published but all that I have written; there is an increased control over my craft; the growing clarity of my own thoughts; a persistant need to improve not only what I write but how I write it. Of all these, I am proud.

But what really matters to me is something quite different:  every time a piece of mine is published, I draw one step closer to realising my childhood dream.  I still haven't written enough or of sufficient quality to satisfy myself, but there have been some great moments on the way: seeing my name in a publication alongside Isabella Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or JG Ballard should be reward enough.  Yet I still hanker after that elusive book-spine with my name running along its side that can sit with ease amongst the greats.

At the end, my definition of my own success as a writer is simple, and for that reason, all the more difficult. In my mind, I will succeed if a child somewhere, in another time, will look up at my name on a bookshelf and desperately want what I wanted: to be counted alongside.

PS: I had been thinking about this for the past few weeks. Then yesterday Jose Saramago died and I realised that less than a year ago, I had achieved a personal milestone: a short story of mine had been included in the same magazine as him. I don't know if he noticed or even looked at that magazine, but I would like to think he did.  Saramago: storyweaver and teller of truths. RIP


  1. A beautifully written piece - possibly one of the best on this blog. I hope - nay, pray - that the little girl who so loved Enid Blyton & Arkady Gaidar will see her dream realised soon enough. Maybe she will take succour from the fact that this blog alone has enough readers that look forward to the next post as eagerly as we do for the next "big" novelist's work.

  2. Many thanks. Enjoying the writing on yours...the freewheeling vignettes have an evocatively Faulkernian feel to them.