|Odysseus loses a few sailors to Scylla (the six-headed |
monster) while steering clear of Charybdis (the whirlpool)
There's one question that other writers frequently get asked that isn't (in my experience, at any rate) put to historical novelists - and it's this: "Is your work autobiographical?"
In interviews and at events connected with VIII - my novel told from the viewpoint of Henry VIII - I've been asked about research, about my enthusiasm for Tudor history and about putting words into the mouth of this famous king, but no one has yet asked me if I've written this novel about myself. (Don't get me wrong - I can see why not!)
Still, in a recent interview at the London Book Fair, Patrick Ness commented that every book is emotionally autobiographical - every book is about its writer (it's a great interview, and you can see it here). It's a subtle point - making the distinction between what you might call straightforwardly autobiographical and emotionally autobiographical - and I reckon he's absolutely right. The version of Henry I've created is, necessarily, the product of my imagination, my interests, my own psyche. As part of my research, I read psychological studies to help me unpick Henry's story, and what I took from them must have been what struck a chord with me, consciously or subconsciously - how could it be otherwise?
With my current work in progress - a novel about Henry's elder daughter Mary - a similar process is unfolding. I am doing heaps of research and being as objective as I can, but - like every other writer of fiction or non-fiction who has approached the subject - I am conjuring my Mary, just as VIII was my Henry.
In both Mary's case & Henry's I've been thinking a great deal about idealism and perfectionism. Exploring the idea that Mary was trained to be an ambitious perfectionist is leading me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about her life... but also - precisely because the subject is of interest to me - a whole number of my own bells of recognition are also clanging! This week I've been reading a wonderful book by Canadian analyst Marion Woodman called Addiction to Perfection (Inner City Books, 1982). It is largely about eating disorders, but in the preface, Woodman writes about another kind of addiction to perfection that reared its head in her own writing process:
This book… has been hewn out of the hard rock of an addiction to perfection. Repeatedly, I have done battle with the black crow sitting on my left shoulder croaking, “It isn’t good enough. You haven’t anything new to say. You don’t say it well enough.” Repeatedly, I have had to stop trying to perfect a sentence here, a paragraph there, while the rest of the book remained unwritten. Fortunately there were deadlines to be met, or I would never have struck this book out of the rock in which it was buried. And the crow croaks, “Just as well.” …Thus I have steered my course through the Scylla and Charybdis of rigid scholarly methods and a whirlpool of material and landed my creation, rough-hewn, as delicately as possible without falling into my own addiction.”
Set aside Mary for one moment, as a writer sitting at my desk, this passage made me cheer. Whirlpool of material? Yes - just look at the tottering piles of books around my feet. Rigid scholarly methods? How I fear making some terrible historical blunder! And I know that crow - how does Marion Woodman know that crow? It's my crow!
Is it just me, or is there not a temptation for writers to focus on the end-product too soon, to try to get things too right on the first draft, and to that end to read just one more research book... oh, and that one... oh, and that one too...
...and to WORRY so much about whether the darn thing's going to work and hang together and do what you wanted it to that, should anyone ask you how it's coming along, you're in danger of developing a twitch rather along the lines of Herbert Lom playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus, boss of Inspector Closeau...
...not to mention forgetting, in the rush to the finished 'perfected' work, that the creative process has absolutely zilch to do with getting it 'right' and being 'good enough' and a whole lot more to do with that wonderful thing they do in nurseries called 'messy play'... Try out that crazy idea. Make a splurge. Play. Enjoy. Dare. Don't be neat. Leave those ends hanging out.
Of course the tidying up needs to happen. It can come later. Editors are great at helping with it.
I have a suspicion I'm writing this simply as a note-to-self, and that you, dear reader, have no such problem when you put pen to paper or finger to keypad. Try to make it 'good' too early? Worry about the faults before you've filled that blank page? Nah, you say, that'd be crazy! In which case, forgive me. But, doubling back in a structurally imperfect way, let me ask you: if you write, are your books about you in some way? And if you don't write but read novels, why do you think you are drawn to some subjects and not others?
I will leave you with those questions... oh, and with a postscript on the subject of perfection.
A very good place to get addicted to the pursuit of perfection is at ballet school. I went to one. And I was so desperately far off even the lowest foothills of Mount Perfect that I gave ballet up altogether (with a large dollop of self-disgust) at the age of 15. However, in my late twenties I worked at The Royal Ballet for a few years with dancers who had reached the higher slopes. Some of them, in fact, were as close to the summit as it is humanly possible to be. The very best dancers in the world are, quite simply, astonishing. Here are two very different short film clips as demonstration of that fact (and I must add, with deepest regret, that I did not work with either of these men).
First, please ignore the poor quality of the film and the fact that he's wearing a strange 1970s tiara; concentrate instead on Mikhail Baryshnikov's flawless virtuosity:
Mikhail Baryshnikov - Le Corsaire
Secondly, here is Fred Astaire. All right, so his singing perhaps isn't entirely sublime - but the dancing, for me, puts him right at the top of that mountain (the dance proper starts at 1 min 30 secs):
Fred Astaire - Puttin' On the Ritz
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK and by Penguin in Australia. It is now available in paperback, hardback & ebook format.
H.M. Castor's website is here.