Fear and self-loathing: in other words, that difficult first novel

I look in the mirror and reflect on what, in parts of Ireland, might be called a face `like a pig's arse'
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The Independent Culture
NOT THAT you asked or are even remotely interested, but it has been a wretched week.

Home from foreign travels, I'd been planning a soft landing on the planet domestica. But trouble is stirring. The carpenter has entered his sixth week in the kitchen (small terraced Victorian house) and announced that he needs more time and more money. I am weak and incompetent in these situations and so prepare to fork out. Six weeks! I mean to be stern, but what's the point? Friends assure me that it will take as long as it takes, whatever that means.

Then there has been the unremitting torment of work. More of it than I have had for a very long time. Television, radio, newspapers, projects long postponed now biting at my heels. Here there is ample scope for self- hatred. Much of it could have been done before now.

If only I had timetabled properly. If only I were neat and practical, drew up lists and kept to rigorous schedules. I remember my wounded pride when a newspaper described me as somebody of "legendary personal dishevelment". Just now I feel the writer was being rather generous. It has been a week when the hollow phrase "should have done, should have done" has followed on my heels from very early morning to late night. There have been numerous deadlines of varying degrees of hysterical urgency. The phones ring with frantic messages as the year totters to a close and every promise made in the last 12 months comes rolling home.

I looked in the mirror last night and reflected on a countenance of unremitting stupidity: what might, in the remoter parts of Ireland, be called a face "like a pig's arse". "You big ejit," I said. "Why do you take on so much?"

The face could not answer me, and I crept to bed muttering curses against myself. But the greatest injunction bearing down on me is not my work for the BBC or my column for this organ. It is that most terrifying of all propositions - the first novel. Quite a few seasons have passed since I first raised the idea with my literary agent, a woman of great skill and legendary toughness. She was excited by the prospect and encouraged me to get cracking. However, like all those who live by the immediate deadline, I was easily distracted. A crisis in Africa, a drama in Asia, another agony in Ireland. All had prior claim on my attentions.

Sometimes in faraway hotel rooms I would sit down with my laptop and attempt to get started. But my mind was invariably far away, too tired or tipsy or preoccupied with the day's events. Time raced on. My agent dropped a gentle reminder here and there, but she is not the kind of woman to put the pressure on until she really needs to.

In the middle of my avoidance I met a friend for a drink and he asked me how the novel was going. "Ah it's grand," I said feebly. The truth was that work had ground to a standstill. He smiled generously and proceeded to tell me the story of the two aspirant writers meeting in a Dublin pub. One of them announces tentatively: "I'm writing a novel." His colleague adopts a wary expression and replies: "Neither am I." My friend allowed the message to sink in and smiled again, this time without generosity. "Get your skates on Keane," he growled.

It should not have been such a terrifying prospect. I had already produced three works of non-fiction. All had been well received, and one had gone to the top of the best-seller lists. "Be confident, get organised," I told myself. If I was honest I would have admitted to a large measure of fear. Fear of not being good enough, of not having what it takes; fear of being savaged by the critics; most of all the fear of failure.

I've had plenty of praise and also some criticism for my broadcasting work. The latter you take as part of the territory. If you think you can live by praise alone, get out of the business. The really good critics, even those who are occasionally cruel, can help to keep us honest. I believe in the adage "never complain, never explain". But a novel - now that is a higher level of risk altogether, one that involves a much greater degree of self-investment and exposure.

It was my wife, my editor of first resort, who finally shunted me into action. She gave me a present of the collected prose and letters of Osip Mandelstam, a giant of 20th century Russian literature and a victim of Stalin's camps. I love Mandelstam's poetry and last year read the twin masterpieces written by his wife, Nadezhda, about their life together and their forced separation: Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Handing me the collected prose my wife seemed to be saying: "See what this man sacrificed for his writing. Get going." She understood, of course, that guilt is the quickest route to an Irish Catholic's heart.

A deadline has been set for the completion of a portion of the book. And that deadline is the only reality I understand. The date sits marked in red crayon on a piece of paper directly above my desk. My agent reminds me constantly of how excited she is at the prospect of receiving a solid chunk of the work in progress. My anxiety level soars every time I hear this. But it will happen. It honestly will.

I am now fully on message, writing in every spare moment I can find. In the past, when writing non-fiction, I would get up very early in the morning to write. But that was before I had a toddler roaming the house. Try getting up and started before a two-and-a-half-year-old. Impossible. You are lovingly ambushed, dragged into the maw of breakfast and dressing and endless questions. And, as a parent who still spends a lot of time on the road, it is inconceivable to retreat from your child's outstretched arms.

A friend whose father is a well known novelist described how he and his brothers would creep around the house whenever their father was writing. Their childhood was burdened by this authorial silence. Whatever distraction is caused in my house, there will be no tyranny of silence. Let laughter and crying and tantrums and happiness reign.

This may, of course, mean that I am not a proper writer. From time to time I tell myself that a truly committed novelist would not be distracted by the domestic world, much less by the temporary thrills and passing glories of daily journalism. After thinking this for a few minutes I conclude that I know better. I write when I can, whenever I can. This is generally at night after the child has gone to sleep. I am a late-night animal. It is only then that my brain cranks into top gear.

In his book on writing, For Love and Money, Jonathan Raban has described the routine beautifully: "It is a curious occupation, this business of short-distance commuting between the bedroom and the study..." My study is in the attic, looking out over the narrow gardens of London W4. Through the window in the roof I can see the jets stacking up before Heathrow; through the side window comes the frequent noise of tomcats battling it out in the gardens of Chiswick. There are many of them, and they are fierce.

I had always imagined writing a novel in some rural idyll in Ireland, walking on the beach to clear my head after crafting a thousand or so beautiful words. But now that the words have started to come and the plot and characters are beginning to seem real, I need only the quiet and solitude of a house where everybody else is asleep. They are sleeping now. It is high time I was writing.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent

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