Going off the rails, and other stories: Some are wiped, some are stolen, and an alarming number are left on trains. Manuscripts and their authors, Marianne Brace discovers, are easily parted

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LISA ST AUBIN de Teran was black and blue after she lost hers, and V S Naipaul still won't discuss how it happened to him. Susan Minot felt 'devastated', Peter Dexter went berserk. 'There's a stool in my kitchen made of oak with a seat an inch thick,' says Dexter. 'I hit it as hard as I could. I didn't even dent it and my hand got all swollen up. And I said to my wife: 'God, I've lost my book and I've lost my punch. I don't wanna live'.'

For a writer, few things compare to losing a manuscript. Imagine nearing the end of something that has taken months, maybe years. Suddenly it's gone. What do you do?

The American author Susan Minot began again. After losing the draft of what was to be Lust and Other Stories, Minot realised she had better rewrite quickly. 'Part of me didn't want to face that I had to,' she says. 'But I was worried that if I didn't I would forget the stories.'

A drunken Desmond Hogan mislaid his novel, A Curious Street, in an American bar. 'In a stupor I wandered around the rubbish bins in Iowa City looking for the manuscript, which I never found. It was horrible. It took months to get over.'

A S Byatt, whose working notebook for Possession went missing when her bag was snatched, is still getting over it - like 'losing a bit of your brain'.

She's in good company. Carlyle, Tennyson, De Quincey, T E Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Hemingway and Malcom Lowry all lost work. Computers, back- up disks and photocopiers have replaced the quill, but accidents still happen. Agents drive off with newly-delivered manuscripts on the roofs of their cars. Burglars help themselves to word-processors, and along with them go the invaluable disks.

Loss by fire is a common mishap; Carlyle's History of The French Revolution was burnt by a maid who thought it waste paper. More recently, some of V S Naipaul's early writings, stored in a warehouse, were mistaken for accounts and destroyed. Another popular motif is the missing briefcase. Garrison Keillor lost two stories in the men's room of Portland Station. 'As we rode south,' he writes in Lake Wobegon Days, 'the two lost stories seemed funnier and funnier to me, the best work I'd ever done in my life.'

Ultramarine, Lowry's debut novel, was lost when an editor left the manuscript in a suitcase stolen from his car. Without a carbon, Lowry had to piece together a copy. The novel was then rejected. Hemingway's wife packed all his unpublished work into a suitcase. It was stolen before the train left the station.

It was on a train, too, that T E Lawrence mislaid six and a half of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But plucky Lisa St Aubin de Teran fought the man who was making off with her briefcase. She didn't notice the thief until he flung her briefcase out of the window of the Italian train and tried to follow it. As the case contained the manuscript of Joanna, the author hung on to the thief's legs, knowing that if she didn't, eight years of work would vanish too. Joanna was recovered from the tracks.

'It was the two journals and the first draft material I really felt the loss of,' says Susan Minot, whose work disappeared from her rented car. Travelling in Italy, Minot had kept her writings with her, reluctant to trust such precious material to the post. She could rework the stories but the journals were different. 'That was the stuff jotted down once, to be gone back to. I was really writing in a fever for those couple of months in Tuscany.' Minot wanted to go back and see how good it was. 'But I'll never know.'

Italy must be bestrewn with orphaned manuscripts. A S Byatt's irreplaceable notebook was lost outside Rome, grabbed by a thief on a motorbike while her car waited at a red light. He left the writer 'completely distraught. But by absolute luck I had been mugged in my own street the week before. So I'd done what I had never done before and photocopied the notebook before travelling with it. I owe that mugger an enormous debt'. Gone forever were 20 pages written after the photocopy was made.

For A S Byatt that loss made her feel 'violated, as if someone had taken a part of me. In many ways my notes are much more important to me than the texts. They are very complicated - great depths of literary quotations, research, dates and phrases'. Acquaintances 'mistakenly said it would have been worse if I'd lost the manuscript, and I kept trying to explain that it wouldn't have been. The notebooks are somehow the real infrastructure, the shape of the mind thinking. My notebooks generate my text. I could do the text again if I had the notebooks, but not the other way around.'

For those who must rewrite, there's the suspicion that the second attempt isn't as good. Susan Minot's stories were 'already very stripped down. Having to go over them made me strip them down more, to keep my interest. They maybe got a little anaemic. Often it's the odd way of putting something that gives it a little extra life. I couldn't get back those things'.

For a writer, what could be worse? Susan Minot tells the story of Delmore Schwartz. 'He was working on a novel and misplaced it. He went through agonies of feeling he could never do it again, and suddenly got a new slant on it and so started rewriting. When he was three-quarters of the way through he found the original manuscript under the seat of his station-wagon. There he was with two manuscripts, three-quarters done . . . and he had to go with one.'

(Photograph omitted)