My book is about an 11- or 12-year-old field slave, Washington, on a Barbados plantation, who finds himself taken to live in the quarters of his masters newly arrived brother, Christopher Wilde (or Titch). The prospect is terrifying. Every interaction with a white man has only begotten cruelty; he is convinced it is a death sentence. But Titch is a gentleman scientist, and most importantly, an abolitionist. It is through this reprieve from field life that Washington begins to see himself as a fully realised human being, one with his own gifts to offer the world.
The novel has its origins in the case of the
Tichborne Claimant. A decade ago, I read a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which he touches very lightly on the case. At the time, Id believed he had made up every outlandish detail. How surprised I was, then, to walk though the National Portrait Gallery in London years later and see depictions of all the flesh-and-blood people involved.
Something of a cause celebre in Victorian England, pitting the working class against the gentry, the Claimant case centred around Roger Tichborne, a 25-year-old aristocrat who was shipwrecked and presumed dead. His mother, Lady Tichborne, consulted a clairvoyant who assured her that Roger was living under an assumed name in a far-off part of the world. She put advertisements in newspapers, and some years later made contact with a man in Australia who was claiming to be her son. She was fully convinced, but wanted someone who had known Roger in his youth to make the final identification. By chance, Andrew Bogle, one of her old servants, had retired to Sydney and would eventually act as the main witness for the defence when the question of the claimants identity went to trial.
In Elizabethan England, Bogle meant phantom. This seems fitting for a man whose place in history remains so ghostly, so illegible. What we know of his early years can be reduced to his status as a slave: he was born on Hope plantation in St Andrew, Jamaica, property of the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. Bogle was secretly stolen away by Sir Edward Tichborne, who had come to do some brief work at the estate and for unknown reasons decided to leave with him. From there on, what we know of Bogles life is minimal: he travelled all around Europe as Sir Edwards valet; he became a devout Roman Catholic; he married an Englishwoman called Elizabeth Young, and when she died, married again. The breadth of his legacy, then, is defined entirely by his entanglements with the Tichborne clan. He remains nearly forgotten, his inner life wholly unknown.
It was that inner life that most interested me. In beginning
Washington Black, I set out to write a novel that depicted the case through the lens of Bogle. But almost from the outset, the story began to drift and stray, evolving so far from Tichborne that only the barest of details remain: Rogers family background and nickname; Bogles origin story. Less than the trials machinations, I found myself interested in the psychology and voice of a figure like Bogle, who had been plucked from the brutal circumstances of one existence and taken to places that were drastically different from all that he had known. What complications would such a life hold?
The character of Titch also interested me a liberal, high-minded idealist who does so much in the service of those ideals but then ends up, quite unthinkingly, betraying them. It seemed a sad eventuality in a society so rigorously defined by inequality and cruelty. In this world, every good act has a dark underpinning.
The novel came to be about many things. What stood at the forefront for me was its exploration of freedom: what constitutes true freedom, what is within our power to grant ourselves and others, and what its value is. Washingtons first understanding of what it means to be free is granted to him by Big Kit, his first protector and friend, who teaches him that in slavery only death is freedom. When her plans go awry, she gives Washington a somewhat less brutal idea: freedom, she says, is the choice to eschew work, to remain silent, and above all, to be divorced from human entanglements. And it is this more basic idea of freedom that he carries out into the world and finds wanting, as he struggles to get his foothold in societies where he can only remain a stranger. Beyond the unchained body are liberties much more difficult to grasp and to hold. Free will, personal dignity, the sense of having some power over ones life these needs are as urgent as love, and too often, just as elusive.
The Mars Room
Heres a line I toyed with when I was just starting to think about this novel that became The Mars Room: I took a Luger into Peter Lugers.
I heard it in answer to the question: What got you arrested?
Peter Lugers is a fancy ye olde style steakhouse in Brooklyn. A luger is obviously … a luger. Why did I like this line? Its funny. And sadly very American, even if the luger is a German pistol. The line got at something Ive witnessed among people whove been cuffed, busted, convicted, and thrown together in a jail or sheriffs bus or prison. People talk up a big game. In that context, fiction is better understood than it is by fiction writers. People know to exaggerate. Their exaggerations are a kind of truth, the virtuoso-true, as a friend of mine puts it, lying only in order to tell you, accurately, just what kind of motherfucker you are dealing with.
I had a friend in high school who would be face down on the ground, hands behind his back, and hed insult the cop with a boot in his neck. He didnt care. To win in that situation you have to be willing to lose everything. This same friend once escaped from jail. When he was caught, a paramilitary Swat team surrounded him on another friends roof. These ninja Swat turtles were screaming commands, in full gear, weapons raised. My friend was going to prison, no question. Later, prison killed him. But in that moment, on the roof, in front of his buddies, he took a drag of his cigarette, and said: Man, you guys watch way too much TV.
None of this is in my novel. Its background. Tone. Personal. And also: artistic imperative. If I didnt make my novel funny, I would have failed to make it true. I didnt need the luger gag. But my character Conan, who is the secret heart of the novel, would make such a claim if he could get away with it.
After I wrote the novel, although I felt I succeeded in cracking into the humour of my invented world, a world meant to harbour the dirty and beautiful secrets of the real one, something more significant was at stake, and had been all along. The novel is not polemical; Im a broken record on this. And it shouldnt be wedged into the entertainment column, either. How do people not understand this? The novelist is not competing with TV, for instance. The novel aims to be a work of art. It doesnt aim to have a purpose, whether its to comfort, enrage, or inform its reader. Art is much more mysterious. What did Kant say? Purposive without purpose. What did Nietzsche say? Beyond good and evil, baby. Minus the baby. Here is what I say: art must be made with a pure intent, and a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it. My book is smarter than I am about one particular thing, which I didnt understand until after I made it, and that one thing is this: there are many who acknowledge that those whove gone to prison have been born without luck, and that bad luck can shape a person, unfairly. That is not so difficult.
But few are willing to see the reverse of it, that the lucky, too, are shaped by their luck. It is deeply tempting to count oneself among the good. To see goodness as goodness, and not as luck. But that is an illusion. In a modern, stratified, bourgeois society, life mostly goes how it goes due to circumstance. You arent good. Youre lucky. Which isnt to say that youre bad. But your life could have gone wildly different.
This is a confrontational truth that some might arrive at after reading my book, even as I did not drive toward, or intend for, the book to have that effect. And yet, Im OK with it.
I took a job as a professor in the English department at Stanford University, in the heart of Californias Silicon Valley. Its an intense place with an insane amount of money flowing through it: the global HQs for Google, Apple, Intel, HP, eBay, Facebook, Netflix, Yahoo, Tesla and all kinds of other world-changing companies. The feel of the Valley is a little like science fiction at its most utopian.
Just to the west run the Santa Cruz mountains, full of regrowing redwood forests that were cut down to build and rebuild San Francisco. I loved to hike up and disappear into this ghostly remnant of Americas past, whenever the future became a little more than I could bear.
Walking underneath the Santa Cruz regrowth, intoxicated by the look and smells of those cloister-like forests I forgot that the enormous creatures above me were mostly youngsters. One day, I came across a truly old one which, for whatever accidents of history, had never been cut. It was like seeing a blue whale swimming among a pod of dolphins. I had trouble believing what I was looking at: a single living thing wider than a house, taller than a football pitch is long, and almost as old as Christianity.
I began to realise what these forests must have been like before they were cut. A tremendous reservoir of natural capital engines of creation and endless diversity had been sacrificed in the building of what would become San Francisco, and by extension, Stanford and Silicon Valley. Though some part of a forest had grown back, something much larger, richer and more complex had been lost.
When I came back down to the Valley after seeing the Methuselah tree, life changed for me. I became obsessed with reading everything about trees and forests that I could lay my hands on. It stunned me to discover that, of the four immense original forests that had covered America before the Europeans arrived, roughly 98% had been cut down. Then I learned that ancient California redwoods, not to mention other centuries-old trees in the few remaining acres of Americas old-growth forests, were still being cut down to fuel whatever it is that were trying to become next. The late stages of a great and largely ignored drama were playing out in a way that I had never seen treated in literary fiction. Id written 11 novels myself and had never taken Earths 3 trillion trees seriously as an essential part of who we are.
My novel came together quickly after that, as if the pieces had all been there for a long time, waiting to be assembled into a narrative whole. The human characters were composites of people Ive known and people Id read about: nine protagonists who, for various reasons, achieve tree consciousness or have it thrust upon them. They each get caught up in the war between humans and non-humans, the struggle for destiny that we mistakenly believe was decided a long time ago. Once you begin to see trees, they start to reveal themselves as creatures with agency and intention, with intricate behaviour and intrinsic meaning. Recent research over the last several decades has discovered that trees are in fact immensely social beings, communicating with each other both over the air and through underground fungal networks. And we humans have always been part of those networks, changed by, changing, and dependent on them. Weve become what we are by virtue of what trees have allowed us to be.
My goal in
was to treat trees as people, to let them become central characters in a story much larger and older than the ones we usually tell about ourselves. We humans have this idea that we are exceptional, the only interesting and essential actors worth paying attention to, and that all other living things are incidental resources, here for our dominion. The truth is, were all in this business of life together. Its time to get to know the neighbours and to come back home. The Overstory
Someone said to me recently: Im not going to ask you what your books about. I want you to tell me what you intended your book to do. He stressed that end bit and I thought, what a question from this person Ive only just been introduced to at this party. I answered: I cant say anything more about my book. Im talked out. My brain has pulled over the curtains. Although true, this was also code for, Please dont. I need a rest. Stop.
Later, with no stopwatch ticking down the seconds to hurry me into a soundbite answer, I thought about his question. It had seemed strange, unanticipated. The ones I had been getting about
, and so have started more and more to expect, are: Why have you not put names?; Why pages of paragraphs?; Is this really you in the book?; Why Ireland again when you could be getting on with your life?; About this language you use in the book I can see now that my brain has opened the curtains again that the mans question was the same as: What started you writing your book? The only answer I can give is that I started writing it because it wanted to come. Milkman
I dont mean this as a brush-off. I mean, this is how I write. The smallest intention I could say I did have initially for
Milkman, and one that fell away immediately on my attempting to put it into action, was that I thought to take a few hundred words that were superfluous in a novel I was currently writing, and see if I could write up a short story from them. Instead, they turned into Milkman. The point is, I cant intend anything in my writing, or demand anything of my writing. I have no idea what is going to come.
Except the characters. They come. Usually. Unless Im being seriously desperate and grabby and controlling and fearful and in a hurry and showing it. They dont like that. I dont blame them. Also, they would be astonished, then amused, if they thought they were to show only for me to give them instructions. My characters tell me who they are and what it is they want me to do. Im allowed to enthusiastically second-guess, they dont mind that, which is nice of them. They let me have this fantasy, and they dont frown on my audacity or mock or hinder me or push on my insecurity complexes. However, they also pay no attention to me.
When it comes to the end, to wrap up time, I realise once again that my characters have ignored all my clever guesswork and my insightful assumptions as to the progression of our novel. Theyll have deleted bits of writing that they allowed me for the duration but to which they never had any intention of giving the confirmatory thumbs up. Into the bin these writings go. Or Ill awake in the morning and theyll have dashed out of the computer on to the living room floor all my latest squashed-in bits of great ideas and precious writing. Ruthlessly, it is they who kill my darlings, then shrug and suggest I get over it. You need a strong constitution in my position, also a certain amount of forgiving forbearance, in order to deal with the desire, also the dread, of working with that lot.
The Long Take
After nine books, including five poetry collections and a Selected Poems, I felt Id reached a crossroads. Having enjoyed writing an extended historical sequence, and invented Scots folk narratives, I decided on a bigger canvas: one that would allow me to address subjects that seemed beyond the dense cats cradle of the lyric poem. Ive lived in London most of my life, but Ive almost never written about cities. I was interested in recalling my own ambivalence when I first came down from my small world in north-east Scotland to become another outsider in the metropolis. The contradictions were immediately evident: the city as escape excitement, anonymity, endless possibilities. And the city as trauma: sensory overload, poverty, squalor and crime.
I spent many hours watching film noir. In late-70s London, the unusual atmosphere of those movies made perfect sense: here was my disorientation and desire, my dread. Even though I came from the same landmass, and had the same language, I was now an alien. These movies were made by extreme outsiders: migr directors and cinematographers who fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood. Theirs was a style, a way of seeing, that had clear sociopolitical origins and could be characterised as one character remarks in my book as German Expressionism meets the American Dream.
Once I knew I was writing about cities, I knew they had to be the cities of America, and the book should be set in the decade after the second world war, which seems to me to be a pivotal period.The dream had faltered during the Depression, and again through the forced entry into the conflict after Pearl Harbor. The US was traumatised and exposed, paranoid about communism and the nuclear threat, and riddled with corruption, organised crime and social and racial division. Its sympathy for the huddled masses who had built the country was now being overtaken by its fear and distrust of the outsider. America was 170 years old at the end of that war, and it was already failing. Here begins as I see it a narrative line that goes, in 60 years, from the McCarthy witch-hunts to the cold war and Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and the current regime.
Into this postwar decade I dropped Walker, a former soldier from Nova Scotia, ravaged by PTSD and scarred by what hes seen and done in the war. Hes looking for everything hes lost decency, love, a community but Walker finds only brittle illusions, transience and isolation. Its when he gets to the streets of Los Angeles a city in constant flux, being endlessly demolished and rebuilt (like a speeded-up war) that he finds a kind of home: a way back into himself.
took four years to research and write. I read extensively: histories of America, accounts of the Normandy landings (and, in particular, the experiences of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders), but I mostly watched films about 500 from the mid 40s to the late 50s for style and tone, for language, but also for geographical detail. I have to experience landscape to write about it, and I could walk through Inverness County in Cape Breton, or down the old streets of Manhattan and San Francisco, but the area of Los Angeles that I concentrate on in the book, Bunker Hill, no longer exists. This once-genteel residential district high above downtown was targeted by corrupt property developers and, in the late 50s, its 130 acres of community housing was demolished and the hill levelled by 100 feet. Apart from being home to more than 8,000 people, Bunker Hill had been used since Charlie Chaplins day as a free open-air film set, because the Queen Anne houses were shabby and interesting, and the elevation of the hill with its views and its stairs and tunnels made for dramatic location shots. The angles looked even better at night, so it became film noirs outdoor shooting stage. There are almost no contemporary maps of the area, so I had to piece together the geography of this lost heart of LA from still photographs and all these hundreds of movies. Like my protagonist I was looking for a way to fix this world, so I watched the films and drew it. I made myself a map. The Long Take
It is hard to know now why I first began writing . Why that idea, rather than any other, was the one that finally stuck and could not be shaken loose. I was working on the collection of stories that would later become Everything Under my first book, . I had an itch to write something longer that would challenge me in a different way. I had become obsessed with the idea of retelling. I loved the act of destruction that was required, the way a new story could emerge from the bones of an old one. I had always been inspired by myth, particularly Greek myth, and its befuddlement of metamorphosis, beauty and violence. Friends were working on feminist retellings of Orpheus the musician with his lyre who descends into the underworld to rescue his love but I knew I wanted something darker. Fen
The myth I decided on is taut with violence and horror, a tumbling shocker of a story that drags you to its inevitable, fated end. I was drawn to the gaps I imagined I would be able to fill, the characters who seemed nearly silenced. I was reading
short stories by Sarah Hall, Kelly Link, Claire Vaye Watkins and Karen Russell. I appreciated their bold weirdness, the way the normal was infected with strangeness. I was thinking a lot about the uncanny, the idea of home a seeming place of comfort turned dangerous and forbidding. I loved apocalyptic fiction with the sense of impending doom and nature turned villain. I carried a number of books around with me that I knew were doing something similar to what I wanted to do: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow by Peter Heg, White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi.
I could feel the idea of a story trembling inside me. I always find the early days of a project fraught and exciting, the ideas composting, mulching together.
Id written novels before but never successfully. I felt I was learning as I went along, fumbling for the right way. The first draft was no good. The second, third, fourth and fifth draft were also no good, the setting was wrong, or the voice or the characters. It was lifeless. I wrote quickly and deleted almost everything. I despaired, but I was also learning what the book was about, hacking the story out of the mess.
One summer, my partner and I borrowed a canal boat and motored around the Oxford waterways. The river was tangled and thick with undergrowth. I heaved open the locks and watched the water spilling in or seeping away. I saw a dead sheep half submerged and began to almost believe that lurking roots and branches were creatures in the murky water. Id been working on
Everything Under for a few years and the setting had changed three or four times, never seeming quite right. The first night on the boat I couldnt sleep for the noise of animals in the undergrowth and, perhaps, in the water; the cold through the hull. When I got home I began rewriting the book again and this time it was about a girl living on a boat with her mother and a boy who comes walking down the river towards them.
I dont like to think there is magic or mystery in writing rather than simply hard work, but sometimes it does feel like digging for a box you know is buried somewhere beneath you.
Everything Under is about memory and its tenuous hold, the impact of language on our nature, the way rural wildness can inhabit us. It is a book about family and female relationships. It is a book I have lived and fought with for nearly four years and it is both wonderful and terrifying to relinquish my hold and accept that it no longer belongs to me.
The winner will be announced on 16 October.