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The Prospect from the Silver Hill - Genesis
In the early 1980s I was in a very fortunate position for a writer. I was already earning my living as a freelance features journalist for, mostly, the Telegraph Sunday Magazine. But I had published a couple of short stories in a prominent and influential magazine, The New Review, and as a result had been offered a contract for an as-yet unwritten novel by several publishing houses. I hadn’t got the faintest idea what that book might turn out to be, but I was happy to cash their cheque and take my chances. I had no strong desire to abandon journalism which I considered -and still do- more influential (in the short-term at least) than literary fiction. Many of my colleagues at the time were in the opposite position – they were desperate to leave journalism, they had already completed their fiction manuscripts, and were now hunting for a publisher and a liberating cheque.
I was -and continue to be- a political activist, so predictably I wanted to write a strongly polemical and progressive book, something that would change the hearts and minds of its readers. I set about writing a realist novel about my generation of Left Wing progressives and set it in a community which was an almost exact mirror image of Moseley in Birmingham where I was living at the time and where I have lived ever since. The trouble was that the novel itself didn’t seem to want to exist. Writing it was like pushing a heavy weight uphill. Not only did I not know where the narrative was going, I didn’t even know where each individual sentence was going. The few chapters I did complete sounded like a newspaper article or a political diatribe but hardly like a novel, with a convincing set of invented characters and an organic narrative. Nobody in their right minds would publish such a novel. It was bombastic and one-dimensional. I began to fear that I would have to pay back my publisher’s advance, even though the money had been spent long since.
Then I struck lucky. I was asked to review In Evil Hour, the new novel from the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was, of course, a great work as were the other Marquez books that I studied– but I didn’t admire them. I didn’t admire them because -arrogantly- I felt that I could see the scaffolding behind the books’ structures and that scaffolding was exactly the kind that I used instinctively when I was telling stories or recounting anecdotes orally and socially. That is, Marquez’s novels were constructed from entirely invented ingredients and not assembled from mirrored versions of the actual world. Marquez was not a realist, he was a fabulist, a fantasist, a magic realist. I could be the same. Effortlessly. I had -by chance- recognized my own natural writing voice.
I sat down straight away and wrote the first of the seven sections of my debut novel (or themed sequence of stories) Continent, which considered the current disparities between the rich Western World and what was then known as the Third World. Not only could I now immediately tell where each individual sentence was going and where the narrative was heading, I also understood what the book might deliver when it was finished. Indeed, almost at once, I had a faint but fortifying image of what my next three books would be.
As Continent proceeded -joyfully and easily- I began to recognize and submit to a further unexpected characteristic of fiction writing - when the narrative is going well, then it abandons you the writer and starts to assert itself. If you are wise, you let it. But I was not very wise at that point. I was still a novice and I was still clinging on to my political "purity" and my instinctive prejudice in favour of progress and against the traditional, superstitious ways of humankind. It seemed to me that the more I allowed the book to abandon me, the more reactionary Continent became, the more it favoured the old over the new. I had hoped that the book would be a clarion call for financial and technological advance in all those places which had yet to benefit from cars, industry, electricity, liberal democracy, domestic abundance. Instead, my stories seemed to be more ambivalent, favouring the Jungian notion that everything new worth having is always paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping.
What I couldn’t deny (if you will excuse my lack of modesty) was that the ambivalent finished stories were much more affecting and successful than my uncompromising, politically correct versions would have been. It was as if narrative itself had an internal set of values and an innate architecture that would surface if you allowed it to. And why would it not, after all? Narrative is one of humankind’s ancient skills. It has been with us for eons and must confer upon us some kind of advantage, otherwise it would have atrophied like our tails or most of our body hair. So, by the time I was nearing the end of Continent, I was ready to submit my political certainties - in my fiction only - to the satisfying ambivalence of the narrative tradition, to allow my stories to express themselves rather than be mere vehicles for my own ideas.
However, I had one grandiloquent - critics would say histrionic - closing piece missing from my seven-cycle book. I simply decided to clear my mind and let the almost finished book complete itself intuitively. The result was the keystone piece in Continent, a story called "The Prospect from the Silver Hill." I could regale you with a detailed explanation of how each stage of that story presented and arranged itself, but I would be deceiving you. I would also be deceiving you if I pretended to more than a partial understanding of the emotional and intellectual provenances of my subsequent eight novels. Writers are not necessarily the most reliable analysts of their own work, no matter what they might like to pretend. All I know is that I nudged The Prospect from the Silver Hill vaguely in the direction of its chosen subject matter, how we exploit the planet earth and hollow it out for its riches with scant regard for its future. Of course, as a keen walker and natural historian I had the background to invent the narrative and the setting. When I described the landscape of individual stones all I had to do was reach across my desk and study some of the many rock souvenirs that I have bought back to Britain from around the world. But I cannot explain the hollowed out main character in the story and how his madness became such a sorrowful hymn for the state of the universe, nor can I account for the story’s savage sadness.
When it was finished, however, the piece seemed whole and intended and inevitable. I was delighted, but thankful rather than proud. The story had been an undeserved gift (something I would pay tribute to in my next novel which acknowledged the generosity of humankind’s narrative gene, The Gift of Stones). I had been simply like the helmsman of a sailing boat driven across the seas by a mighty wind, my skills not counting for much except to keep the water out and save myself from drowning. Even the title itself seemed like a gift. It call upon all four meanings of the word prospect: that is, 1) the possibility of future events, 2) potential chances for success or wealth, 3) a place likely to yield mineral deposits, and 4) an extensive view of landscape. Perfect.
Sometimes I feel so grateful to the English language, for its resourcefulness, its breadth - and for its looseness.
Read more... Writers who have inspired me
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