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