Saturday, 14 June 2014

The dead vast and middle of the book - Dennis Hamley

I've got a problem which, though it's urgent, difficult, extremely annoying and possibly terminal (though for the book, not for me), l'm really rather glad to be having.  It's just like old times.

I've blogged already about my two books for Walker Books, Ellen's People, set in World War 1, and Divided Loyalties, set in World War 2, and how, because of the two anniversaries, I'm putting both on Kindle this year as my contributions to the celebrations, if that's the right word.That's easy enough. But there's a third anniversary this year and this one really will be a celebration because it's the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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The original covers. The superb photograph on the lower half of Divided Loyalties has to be changed for my editions because I'm not paying £376 for it.

Back in 2008, when Walker published Divided Loyalties, I proposed  a third novel to complete the trilogy which would take us up to the day of the wall's actual fall. Thus I would have given my take on the great European convulsion which was the central story of the twentieth century. Both Walker and my agent at the time seemed quite keen on the idea so I started writing.

I wrote 84 pages and was quite pleased with them. But I was slightly worried because there was such a deafening silence from Walker. My agent couldn't seem to get any more answers out of them either. I still don't have a letter or email which says 'We are not going to publish this book.' It was just that, day by day, it was progressively more and more obvious that they weren't. And when I asked for the rights to Ellen and Loyalties to be reverted, the unhesitating speed of their positive reply told me all I needed to know. Ironically, my Walker editor, Caroline Royds, was at the launch party for Jan's Wild Wood last month and told me that it was a pity they didn't still have the rights to the books because they would have reissued them both this year. Caroline fought hard to keep them in print and to allow the third, so all I can say to the powers behind Walker Books is, 'You should have thought of that before.'

Anyway, I'm afraid I lost heart when I realised that the trilogy wouldn't be finished. The 84 pages were often looked at, polished, rewritten, but when I started trying to extend them I just stuck. 'Ah well,' I thought. 'It seemed a good idea at the time but now I know it's not to be.'

But now it might after all. As far as writing is concerned, I haven't been entirely idle. Over the last two years I've written two short novels for Ransom, The Team with a Ghost Player and Sixteen Bricks Down, both due out in September, reshaped Bright Sea, Dark Graves and got deeply into The Second Man From Porlock, my Coleridge novel. I did considerable new writing for Spirit of the Place and Out of the Mouths of Babes as well.  So I haven't lost it entirely. Old, unquestioned habits are trying to assert themselves again. Now I'm desperately trying to finish the third, provisionally titled Unfinished Business, before the Berlin Wall falls in front of us yet again on TV and in the newspapers.

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A 'crime caper' (official) and a ghost. I'm quite pleased with both.

Meeting Ellen's family again was a joy. When I reread the 'abandoned' tranche of UB I was reasonably satisfied with it. Making it easy for myself when I started again, I wrote forty pages which I'd long been pondering on and which leads up to a conclusion shaped in my mind. But it's all very well - and relatively easy - writing beginnings and endings. It's the middle which is bugging me. I sometimes tell students to write the middle first (and have an exercise to prove it's possible) but in this case it wouldn't work. I have to build a firm bridge between the island on which I'm now precariously standing to the easy safety on the other side. All I've done towards it so far is elaborate avoidance strategy 

These three novels have a very specific structure. Divided Loyalties is written in twelve separate parts. Each concentrates on one character, though the total effect is to present the whole time scale - 1935 to 1946 - chronologically. I differentiate between each section with a definite narrative method. Some are first person, others are third. Some are in the past tense, some are in the present. This isn't arbitrary and I don't do it just to vary the monotony. Tense and point of view can be used as expressions of character. A main character of huge importance, though he deliberately sets himself against the deep structure of the story, is Walter, Ellen's oldest son. Yet with all his faults, he's the character I like best and, in some ways, have most in common with. He is the mainspring of three of the book's sections. His difficulties and his fate resonate throughout all three books because the situation at the end of Ellen's People, years before he was born, defines what his life will be and its consequences haunt UB.  I present him in the third person and the present tense in all three of his sections. He's third person because I don't see him as having a deep inner life. He's present tense because he's a creature of strong feeling and impulsive decision. I think the format is not just a convenience but an expression of his personality and his way of, in Aristotle's phrase, 'issuing in action.'

So it is with the others: all have their separate narrative mode. However, Ellen's is a rather unusual family. The way their lives and relationships have developed  mean that they fit - I hope naturally and logically -  into a lot of crucial situations between 1914 and 1989, not as leaders, movers and shakers but as participants whether they want to be or not. And it's this that's led me into difficulties and where I'm stuck.

Paul, Walter's young brother, is also a very important character. He is a good linguist: he started early because his father made sure he spoke German as soon as he could talk. After the war, the last year of which he spent in the Intelligence Corps, he at last went to university and studied Russian. This had a profound effect on him. He became a communist and was a journalist on the Daily Worker. Then he was invited to Russia, thinking he was going to work in the Foreign Languages House. Well, in the end, he does. But here he meets a Russian woman, they fall in love and so Paul is faced with a real dilemma.

At least one reader of this blog will recognise some of this. It's based on the experiences Jim Riordan presents in Comrade Jim. When, three years ago, I dreamed up this scenario I was going to talk long and hard to Jim about it. He gave his blessing to my idea. But  he died in 2012. Perhaps I should have thought again about putting Paul in Moscow.. But the situation is so absolutely right for this book that I have to go on with it. The time-scale in UB is 43 years, not the four years of Ellen or the ten of Loyalties, so every encounter has to reverberate.

I've written about 7,000 words of this section. It started well enough and I feel it works. But suddenly, I'm completely stuck. The preliminaries are over. I'm entering a part of the Soviet Union which is close to the ideological heart and Paul will suffer for it. So, I know the outline of what will happen, I know where and I know when. But I don't know how. I need to know what the Foreign Languages Printing House on Bukovsky Boulevard looked like inside, what the conditions of work were, how easy it was to make friendships. I know Paul's relationship would be frowned on, discouraged, but I don't know what sanctions would be imposed on him as a foreigner from a potentially hostile country and what their severity will be. I don't know the precise workings of the Soviet State apparatus. I have a fair idea, as do we all, but I'm writing a novel, not a polemic, and I must be sure. This was the Cold War and I must work credibly within its parameters. The Russia in this book is a long way from the magical place about which I wrote last month.

The arrest
Arrest in Moscow. For all I know at the moment, this might be Paul's fate

I've trawled the internet but have so far  found nothing really useful. Nor have I found a satisfactory book. One of the bugbears of writing anything based on history, especially, strangely, modern history, is finding a trustworthy framework. I could just go on writing, winging it, busking, turning the story into a rootless dystopian fantasy. But if I did, my tongue would be bursting through my cheek within ten pages and I would hate it. Several times in my writing career I've felt out of my depth but I've been able to pull it round. This is the furthest down that I have plumbed: a writer's block of a sort which I haven't experienced before

So. Does anyone have advice, suggestions, sources of real information? I'd be so grateful because I want Unfinished Business to be a fitting end to a project I care a lot about.

7 comments:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I lived and worked in Poland for a year during the Cold War, but I suspect it was an entirely different experience since most Poles considered themselves to be living in an occupied country and were constantly subversive in small ways. I can only guess at what it must have been like living in Russia. Could the British Council help to put you in touch with somebody? I was teaching English in Wroclaw under the auspices of the BC and I think they must have had people going to Russia as well. I remember that we had to sign the official secrets act and were also given talks on the fact that our phones would be tapped (they were) and that there would be deliberately placed agents of the state in our classes, so we mustn't ever touch on politics. This was hard since the students certainly wanted to talk about politics! Even now, I find myself wondering about the utterly charming young man who dared to say things the others wouldn't. Was he a plant? We also had to surrender our passports. An American colleague on a Fullbright Fellowship was convinced that he was being quietly poisoned, but I don't think he was - I think he was stressed. In spite of all this, it was a very good year! But it was late late in the Cold War and Solidarity were already growing. I wrote a play about it when I came home. Hope you can find what you need. It was such a fascinating period in a best of times, worst of times kind of way!

Dennis Hamley said...

Thanks, Catherine. British Council might well be a good way in. To have direct experience of life under Communism, however unnerving must, for the writer, seem almost like a privilege. Jim's account shows there was quite a bit of subversion going on in the 60s in the USSR. I don't know whether I find that cheering or sad.

Lydia Bennet said...

I was in Moscow and Leningrad briefly during Gorby's glasnost. A wonderful experience. Dennis, have you tried appealing on facebook and twitter? people seem to be able to find pretty much anything/anyone that way. Or leave a notice in the Albion Beatnik? Good luck!

Kathleen Jones said...

I've just read 'Farewell - The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century' by Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud (translated from the Russian) and found it very interesting as an insiders account of the workings of the KGB, the Russian foreign office and various bureaucracies. It's about a Russian who became a double agent working for the French. A lot of detail, so not an easy read, but the last part, when he's no longer allowed to travel outside Russia was quite informative. Might give you some ideas and it's available as a Kindle.

Kathleen Jones said...

Also, novelist Alice Jolly worked in Russia and her novel 'If only you knew' is set in Moscows's Glasnost. It's good for atmosphere and what it was like to be there.

Dennis Hamley said...

Thank you all. I shall follow these yp.

julia jones said...

I wish I could help but my ignorance too great. I remember Francis absolutely loving Stasiland by Anna Funder (East Germany) and giving it the ? Costa prize when in the same year Anne Applebaum's work was a major contender. Best of luck