The truly wonderful thing about being a painter, writer, or musician is escaping the self

To lose oneself in making art is an incomparable way of living life

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My 13th novel was published on Thursday. Throw in non-fiction and that’s 18 publication days. You’d think I’d be relaxed about the whole business by now. Ho-hum, another bloody book... what’s for lunch.

But it doesn’t seem to work like that for me. I still go on thinking the world will look physically different on publication day – splendour in the grass, glory in the flower, an overarching rainbow of jubilation. And even more unreasonably I still go on thinking I will look different too. A new spring in my step, a new insouciance. But the world wakes, as it has for 18 books, with its usual cruel indifference, and I remain the fretful novelist of old.

So why, exactly, the fretting? I think it’s the necessary condition of making something that requires approval. If one wrote for oneself, happy in the act of creation alone, there’d be none of this. To lose oneself in making art – all questions of quality apart – is an incomparable way of living life. Never mind self-expression. The truly wonderful thing about being a painter, a writer or a musician is escaping self. You light the touch paper, step back, and watch the pages or the canvas explode.

People ask writers where they get their ideas. The answer is – from the work. Start with an idea and you’re dead in the water. Inspiration doesn’t precede the work, it finds itself in it. Down you go into the deep dark tunnel which is writing, wondering when, if ever, you will find the light, and so long as you are down there, unsure, perplexed, not someone you recognise, not anyone at all, just a thing that burrows, you are happy.

But then, alas, the light, at which moment you see what you have done, declare it good, like God on the morning of the sixth day, and from then on start wondering if others will see what you have done as well. Call this the corruption of art, when the letting it make you is over, when noise and self obtrude on silence and mystery, and the mechanical side – vanity, reward, applause – takes control.

The best writerly advice I’ve ever heard was Kingsley Amis’s. As soon as you’ve finished one book start another. That way you get the better of disappointment. Fall out of love with the book that’s done (and probably won’t succeed) and fall in love immediately with another. For infidelity mends a broken heart. The other justification for this is that it keeps you in the domain of art, still tunnelling in the dark, far from the treacherous blandishments of public notice. Do this and publication days will come and go as chaff before the wind. That’s the theory. But the flesh is weak and up we come, in spite of art, to collect our wage among the living.

 

The other thing I have against publication day is the morbidity it engenders. Another book, another two years gone, another 300 pages closer to the grave. In order to dispel such thoughts I cast my mind back to the moment when my first novel was accepted. Time has passed but at least I’m a little less green now than I was then.

There, as I choose to remember it, I stand, looking in perplexity from the poet Dennis Enright to the biographer Jeremy Lewis, guardians in those days of the fiction portals of Chatto and Windus, wondering why they were looking in perplexity at each other, all three of us lost for words, because they hadn’t quite said yes, so I couldn’t quite say thank you.

In the end, they told me that what was needed was an outside arbiter of taste, someone who could confirm or otherwise what they did or didn’t think of what I’d written – in other words, an agent – and when I asked where one went for one of those, they pointed with their thumbs and said, “Upstairs”.

Up the single flight I therefore went, knocked on the door of Mark Hamilton of AM Heath, mentioned who’d sent me (though I think he guessed), left my manuscript, and returned seven days later as he told me to. Enright and Lewis were waiting for me. Perhaps they’d been there all week. They watched me mount the stairs and watched me come back down again. “Well?” Enright asked. “He seems to like it,” I said. “Wonderful!” exclaimed Jeremy Lewis, pumping my hand. And that was that. Publishing as it used to be. One building, one flight of steps, few words, small advance.

So yes, I’m less green but not less all the other things. Indeed, the shock of coming up from the tunnel is even greater this time than before. I’m not sure whether that’s because I was down a little longer, or was led a little deeper, or because the beckoning spirits were not ones with whom I was familiar. They joked with me and jossed me less for one thing. And there were more women among them than men.

Prufrock heard the mermaids singing each to each but didn’t think they would sing to him. That’s faintness of heart speaking. The mermaids will sing to anyone who’ll listen. But what determines which voices a writer will listen to and why he will suddenly listen to new ones? I have no answer to that. Maybe he just gets tired of those who normally keep him company. I heard women’s voices, anyway, as I wrote J, and let them take me wherever they wanted to go. And when they told me to shut up for a change, I did their bidding.

Among the reasons that the title of this novel is J with two strokes across it, like a musical notation, or as though the letter is being smoked the way a tramp smokes a fag end he’s found in a rubbish bin, is that it’s a hushed story about hushed events. Unowned memories hang in the narrative like photographs taken one doesn’t know by whom. Never trust the teller, DH Lawrence said, trust the tale. So don’t look to me to tell you what I’ve done. I’m still rubbing my eyes against the light.

J is published by Jonathan Cape

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