Belated Happy Christmas
Building the bridge

Under the bugle-beaded bonnet

A few weeks ago, in the piece I did for the Independent's My Book of a Lifetime slot, I found myself saying, "Both my first novel, The Mathematics of Love, and now A Secret Alchemy are about love, war, and the life of the spirit. At the most fundamental level, I sometimes think, what else is there to write about?" The rhetorical question was designed to get readers disagreeing, and of course it's only partly true of my own work, let alone anyone else's. There are a million other things to write about, from being conceived, to hunting a great white whale, to chasing a nose which grows legs and joins the Russian civil service.

But both Kindred and Affinity and the little squeaks of a new story, maybe novel-sized, which I can hear in the gaps, are probably also encompassed in that definition (prescription?) of 'love, war and the life of the spirit'. This evening - maybe it's the New Year's Day blues - I'm wondering if it's a bad thing to stick with these same basic preoccupations; or is it simply a bad thing that I've become aware that I do? After all, a novel by definition is novel: something new.

And I'm also aware that the first two preoccupations, at least, are in some ways the easy option, the safe bet for writers who can't be bothered or aren't able to try harder and write fresher, and whose fiction is therefore dull, formulaic or actively meretricious: cheap in the aesthetic rather than the financial or literary sense. Am I doing the same? Goodness knows I don't sit and think 'war sells' or 'love makes readers cry', any more than I sat down and decided that The Mathematics of Love was going to be a cross between Possession and Birdsong (not least because I hadn't read either). But here are my characters - people, times and places - and the more specific themes I want to explore - say voyeurism, surrogate fathers, enclosed societies. I start to think about how and where to build those lives so as to give the themes a chance to grow and set shoots, to dramatise them in different shapes and times. And the answer to how and where so often seems to be love and war, under the eye of a God or some transcendant and immanent force which my characters - some of them, sometimes - seem to believe in.

And yet when I look at the work of any writer I admire, I see that they, too, return time and time again to the same fundamental meditations, even if each time what the novel dramatises is individual lives: contingent, particular and, yes, new. Granted, as a human being you can't entirely escape your particular preoccupations and tastes, but to turn the question on its head why, if you're driven to examine fundamental things, keep dressing them in new clothes?

I think the newness of a novel is not accidental, nor is it superficial, but equally the oldness is neither laziness nor tedium. Perhaps it's because only it's only new things which we look at properly, being lured by their novelty into examining each bugle-beaded bonnet or pagan tattoo hard enough to see the shapes beneath: the old, fundamental things which underlie them. In other words, perhaps the oldness only works if the newness does too. A small child asks for the same story over and over again not because they've forgotten what happens - heaven help you if you change a word - but because they want to re-live the fear of the wild things, and then the comfort of getting home: it's the new (re-)speaking of the words which conjures up the oldest feelings in the world.

For my own work, I don't know. Because what I most notice in excellent writing is the things I couldn't do myself, and someone else's ideas which I must work to apprehend, I associate excellent writing with ideas and things I don't do. In which case my writing - which by definition is ideas and things which I do do - is not excellent. But maybe I'm just having a wobble about how crude the basics - for which read oldnesses - of one's writing can look, because any broad generalisation, whether it's a blurb or an elevator pitch or a snide, dismissive review, can seem a reductio ad absurdum of the complex of ideas and feelings which is a novel. The whole novel, on the other hand, not reduced thus, gives those ideas and feelings human form, so that they can dwell among us humans, and we in them.