Sex Sells
Living, breathing oddity

One frosty-misty evening

There have been times in the last few days I've thought that my head - my writing head, that is - would explode.

Somehow, in just over a month, I've written longhand two first-draft chapters of Kindred & Affinity and after sixteen hours' sorting-out-and-typing of Chapter Two at the weekend, discovered that I've got 31,500 words. By the plan (which, of course, is never set in stone) that's a fifth of the whole thing, which would make it 10,000 words longer than The Mathematics of Love. Yes, there are already 150 separate notes that will take anything from a minute to a day to resolve. Yes, I don't know how it ends, not exactly, though I know who will be there at the end, and I'm not even thinking about the fine-polishing, not least because I'm still not convinced by one of the voices. But it's there, and I'm reasonably sure that the big bones, the architecture, is right. And because it's there, the remaining four-fifths are feeling much more distinct and substantial in my mind too.

To that end, in lunchtimes, in bed, in the bath, on the train, I'm reading Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason, which is so brilliantly written (you don't know how witty and erudite can be combined till you've read Porter at his best) that it's only when you sit back that you realise just how densely argued and swift-moving it is. My desk has four piles of reference books - food, maps, London, costume, crafts, politics, art, religion, thesaurus, manners, morals, sex, love, marriage - ten or twelve deep, and that's only what's accumulated since I last chased them back onto their shelves a couple of weeks ago.

Next week is packed with writing, or at least book-trade things. For my reading at the University of Surrey next Tuesday I must go back to both The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy, decide on a theme, choose the right extracts to read and work out how to link them. Less writerly are the launch of In Bed With on Wednesday and the launch of Ruth Padel's new book, Darwin: a life in poems on Thursday 12th, Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Ruth is my third cousin, and by way of our two publicists I've got an advance copy, but have I had to chance to open it? I don't really like reading handsome new hardbacks in the bath.

I've agreed to lead some writing workshops for - well - Writer's Workshop. They're all-day affairs, the first on Getting Started with Your Novel, and the next on Self-editing Your Novel, upstairs at Waterstones in Picadilly. The basic shape of the course is settled, but I've still got to think hard about the details. This is, after all, where it really happens, in the ship's engine room of writing: hot, grubby, noisy, liable to crush your fingers, and if you get it wrong, it might, just might, roll over and drown you. By comparison, readings are like steering a well-built cruiser down the river on a summer's day, and launches are just the bunting flippeting in the breeze.

Sometime before the end of May I must write a talk for The Playful Paradox, a conference on Creative Writing on Campus, which I went to last year. I came away with some very strong feelings both good and bad about what goes on in that world, so when the organisers asked me back as one of the keynote speakers and said I could be as controversial as I liked, how could I resist? Indeed, as I work my way closer to the end of my PhD, I find myself looking back and thinking about how it's shaped my writing life, and wondering what would have been different if I hadn't chosen that - context, I suppose you'd call it, in which to write A Secret Alchemy.

Then there's the PhD commentary itself. One of the things it's taken me till my present great age to realise is that just because there's a clichéd way to feel about something, doesn't mean you can stop yourself feeling like it. Everyone gets weary, bored, stale, flat and unprofitable about their PhD. It's the nature of the beast. So why can't I stop myself feeling like that? It won't be over till it's over, so I'd better just get on with it. I know that when I roll up my sleeves there'll be solid, craftsmanly pleasure to be got from doing it properly. But compared to the drunken obsessiveness of writing fiction it's journeyman stuff.

And finally, there's - yes - oh, horrors, help! - a new novel in my head, at least half a first-draft too early. It arrived at Christmas: on a walk one frosty-misty evening I saw across the valley a house I've known vaguely all my life, and that moment, that vision, suddenly melted together with two people I already had in my head. And now everywhere I turn I see or smell or think or hear something with that little flickery glow about it which means it matters. A scrap of a piece on Radio Three about Fay Godwin, a flash of a memory of something in Dickens, something about Puccini. Three pages of scraps and bits and thoughts in my big moleskin, and growing. Is it 'just' a short story? I don't know - I suspect not, though I might write one to pin down that moment I saw. It's Suffolk, I know, and maybe, just maybe, there are echoes of The Mathematics of Love about it, in place and other things. I've always said I have no impulse to write a sequel, and I'm sure (almost sure) I never will, not about those characters. But there are things in it I want to explore more, to find out further. And what's going on in that house? Why is there a man, trudging up the path across the field to the front door (to this day there's no road to it). Is it even a man? Maybe not. I'll just have to find out, won't I?

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