Today we are delighted to present a guest blog by the novelist and Capuchin foreword writer Anthony Gardner.
Many books have been published years after they were first written. Proust was long dead by the time his early novel Jean Santeuil appeared; the same is true of Stendhal and Memoirs of an Egotist. But should the author be still alive when his work finally sees the light of day, there is an irritating question to be faced: what adjustments need to be made to reflect a changing world?
Ideally, the answer would be none. Any self-respecting writer aims to produce a book which is above fashion and ephemera: one which reflects the age in which it is set, but deals in eternal truths. Unfortunately, the whirligig of time has a way of tripping us up, as I discovered with my newly published novel The Rivers of Heaven, written sixteen years ago.
The story of its emergence is a strange one. Last year I finished another, very different novel – a thriller – which I showed to an aficionado of the genre; she was so enthusiastic that she took it upon herself to send it to a publisher. He rang me to say that while he admired it, it was not the sort of book he was looking for; however, if I would care to meet him he would tell me what he was after. The answer proved to be a short, dense literary novel – a description which immediately put me in mind of an earlier book. The Rivers of Heaven, in which a realistic story line alternated with a newborn child’s memories of its life before birth, had long been consigned to the bottom drawer. I dug it out, sent it off, and on a bright spring morning received a phone call with an offer of publication.
The immediate challenge was the novel’s chronology. The story was set in the early 1990s, but – its theme being the urge to recapture the past – there were many passages looking back to the narrator’s childhood in the 1960s.
My instinct was simply to preface the book with the date ‘1993’; my publisher, however, considered this to be cheating. The narrator, he insisted, must be telling his tale in the present day. This meant that I had to devise a double time scheme in which a character in 2009 remembered himself in the Nineties remembering the Sixties; I also had to decide what had happened to the other characters in the intervening years. Had they died? Had their marriages ended? ‘Much too complicated!’ I protested; but my publisher stuck to his guns. How far I succeeded in meeting his demands is for the reader to decide.
What surprised me on returning to the book was how much attitudes had changed. One of the characters, Stella, is both an unmarried mother and a white woman dating a black man – both causes of social stigma at the time of writing, though seldom considered shocking today. Would my readers recognise what she was up against? I felt confident that they would.
Similarly, I believed that they would make allowances for twentieth-century technology (part of the plot depends on the postal service being more reliable than the telephone.) I did, however, decide to remove a reference to eight-track cartridges – a recording format which readers under 40 were unlikely ever to have heard of.
A greater problem was that, as time goes by, words and names can acquire an unexpected resonance. In my original version, one of the characters was called Blair – a name not yet associated with a prominent politician. But in 2009 (or so my wife argued) no one could read the book without being reminded of weapons of mass destruction. So Blair became Clyde: a small change on the face of it, but one which involved checking the rhythm and assonance of every sentence in which the name appeared.
In the end, there was only one passage which I deleted in its entirety. This described the discomforts of a charter flight to Turkey – then something outside most people’s experience. But in an age when the miseries of Ryanair are common currency, I decided it was no longer worth dwelling on: however gruesome I made my account, someone would have a story to cap it.