My new novel arrived today.
It fell in a lump into my mental lap, rather as I imagine telepathy would happen if it did, just as I was scooting round a particularly tricky little pair of mini-roundabouts by Brockley Station. (My fellow south east Londoners know exactly where I mean.) I was on my way to Goldsmiths to lead a seminar, and my students were very tolerant of how long it took me to wrench my mind away from the new novel towards John Donne and Allen Ginsburg.
Of course it's not really a hand-me-down from the Muse, though I do see why it's so often describe in those terms. I've been letting myself think about all the different bits properly but undirectedly, open-endedly, un-demandingly, in the gaps of the rest of life, for about six months now or even a year, ever since I began to see the light at the end of A Secret Alchemy. (Maybe when it comes to writing novels I'm just naturally adulterous.) Sometimes I've decided to think about it, even to sitting down with pen and paper for notes and diagrams, and sometimes the reverse happens: it decides to borrow my brain to work itself out. This can result in my buying all the wrong things in the supermarket, but is basically A Good Thing.
Whereas with The Mathematics of Love I had a longstanding character - Stephen - who needed to tell his story, and with A Secret Alchemy I have two real people whose story is irresistible, the new novel has come from something I want to explore... embody... anatomise. An idea at the core of humanness, which I want to gut. If that sounds a bit physical, maybe that's right: novels are physical things, or they are when I write them. They're about bodies: touches, looks, eyes and ears, wounds and scars, passionate sex and off-balance love, the electric charge across your skin when a particular person looks at you, the pain of an old battle injury which is also an unfathomable kind of guilt. 'Theme' is too abstract a word for fiction - it belongs to the absolute abstraction of music - and for some reason I'm allergic to using it about my writing. For me writing is all about embodying ideas in real, exact, detailed, particular existence. I find I think more in terms of not themes but threads: from dark to brilliant light, from smooth silk to lumpy twine, from coarse hemp to fine cotton to fragile spider's web. And there are other threads too, of plot, of voice, of 'now' and of 'then', of love and hate and indifference, of all the material things which embody so much more than material existence.
I've known the actors of my drama for a while, though I don't yet know them as what writers commonly call characters, and I've known which voices will tell their story and on what terms since Sunday: that's another thing which suddenly arrived after weeks of not-really-thinking about it. What came to me today is the basics of plot and structure: the mainspring which will power the interaction of events and relationships which is a novel. All I want to do now is submerge, to plan, to write the first sentence knowing the rest will follow.
But I can't. There's the commentary on A Secret Alchemy for my PhD to finish, manuscript reports to write, seminars to prepare, essays to mark, clothes to wash, children to feed, a Mother's Day card to buy. Until now, I could just let the new novel do as it wanted, think or be thought, speak or be silent. Now it's not silent, it's crying out.