Thursday, November 3, 2011

Karen Brooks on Giving Birth to a Book

Is there anything Karen Brooks hasn't done? An academic known internationally for her work on popular culture, an award-winning teacher who's also written eight novels and an acclaimed non-fiction book, Consuming Innocence – Popular Culture and Our Children, Karen is also a social commentator who appears regularly in print media, radio and TV. Oh, and among many other things she's also been a checkout chick, an actress and an army officer. Whatever Karen has to say is worth listening to and today she's talking about giving birth to a book – and a bit on the side.

Many authors liken the process of writing a book, never mind finishing one, to giving birth. Having just completed my ninth one, I’ve had cause to examine this analogy and, for the most part, wholeheartedly agree. Just like childbirth, books or word-babies are brought into the world amidst great joy, pain, struggle, exhaustion and with the aid of assorted medicinals – usually, the liquid kind. The latter self-administered and in varying quantities. For a lucky few, some books make their entry more easily and with less hangovers.

Whichever way the work arrives and no matter how many you’ve written, the end result is fundamentally the same: you’re the mother or father of a beautiful lexical child. At least, that’s how you consider it until someone tells you otherwise. The one guarantee about being a writer and birthing a book, as opposed to a human, is that there’s always someone out there prepared to tell you that’s one ugly baby you delivered.

Now that I’ve reached the end of The Curse of the Bond Riders trilogy, having recently handed to my publisher my 220,00 word-child, titled Illumination, replete with structural flaws, grammatical foibles and syntactical problems (that like a good midwife/paediatrician, she’ll help me smooth over so people don’t scream when they peep in the crib), I’ve decided that completing Book Three wasn’t so much like giving birth as ending a long-term but deliciously complex and demanding relationship.

It’s not that I’m going through a divorce so much as a separation – one I’ve initiated – but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’m heartbroken. I find myself turning to Shakespeare and quoting Romeo and Julietto describe how I feel: “parting is such sweet sorrow” seems to almost capture it. I feel the wrench of disconnection, the void of absence.

But, there’s another emotion alongside all these roiling ones and it’s threatening to dominate. To be utterly frank, I’m also experiencing relief – relief that after all this time, it’s finally over.

And that makes me feel guilty.

For the last six years, I’ve devoted most of my waking hours and spare time, some of it very intimate, to Bond Riders, and its rich and decadent world. I’ve neglected my partner, children and friends and been immersed in a different time and space and come to know all these wonderful and diverse characters who leapt from my imagination and onto the page. I’ve seen them and they’ve seen me, on our finest and very worst days. I’d even reached the stage of dreaming about them. I think it’s understandable then that I have a sense of ambivalence about our time together drawing to a close. On the one hand, I’m despondent about saying farewell to my beloved, but on the other, there’s also a tiny bit of me that feels liberated. Well, actually, a big part. You see, I have a confession to make…

For a short time, I’ve not been true to this relationship.

I’ve been having a bit on the side.

There, I admit it. Like an unfaithful lover, when I should have been focussed on Bond Riders, my thoughts wandered into a different tale. I started to fantasise about spending time with these new people and ideas. It’s not that Bond Riders lost its appeal; on the contrary, I loved it more than ever. But I also knew that just as my relationship with it must end, so a fresh one had to begin. It’s part of the deal of being a writer: that as one book cover closes, another opens. That this process started before I’d broken up with my last novel wasn’t intended. Really. I didn’t go looking for this. I didn’t ask for it to happen. It just did. Despite setting my trilogy in Renaissance Venice, I am no Casanova.

Call me a scarlet writer, a fallen novelist, I really don’t care. I am so thankful. You see, by moving on before my last writing affair is over, I’ve avoided something many authors, me included, fear: that when one piece of work is finished, there will be no inspiration or ideas for another one. That somehow, the old Writer’s Block will erect itself, the muse will take a holiday or resign in disgust, or the well of imagination will dry. I know some authors who wait months if not years before finding their next tale. So to discover mine when I did is beyond a reprieve: it’s a gift and I will take it with gratitude.

Now, I straddle an imaginary crossroads, where one book ends and another commences. I know the paths in both directions are beset with challenges even though they disappear into a mist-bound distance. It’s both a comfortable and awkward position to be in. I am Janus-faced: looking forwards to a virgin story and backwards to my old flame and its publication and reception simultaneously. Second-guessing my familiar work on the one hand, wondering what changes I’ll have to make, where I’ll spit and polish the manuscript, while on the other, creating afresh the triumphs and tragedies of a new world.

With Illumination off being edited and farewells almost complete, I’m just about free to consummate this new literary relationship. Currently, we’re still flirting, with ideas, characters and plotlines. At present, my tentative, rather shy steps have taken me into Fourteenth Century Britain and Flanders, the Hanseatic League, trade in various commodities, and into the lives of a strict merchant family with a dark and wonderful secret.

I am all a-tingle over this. One would think I should behave with more decorum, act my age and in a manner more appropriate to my writing experience. Truth is, I can’t help myself. Maybe it’s too strong a comparison to suggest I relate to the poet John Keats when he first read Chapman’s Homer and likened the encounter to being “some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken…”, or the explorer Cortez who shared with this men the vista of the Pacific and was stunned into silence. There’s no doubt, I’m dazzled; I feel like I’m voyaging through untrammelled frontiers and the excitement is visceral and acute. It’s hard not to shout for joy from a mountain peak and become lost in the journey.

Even so, I won’t forget what brought me to this point, the relationship I laboured over with love and impatience for so many years.

Like all my books past, present and future, no matter whether it’s regarded by others as beautiful, ugly or with indifference, The Curse of the Bond Riders will always hold a special place in my writing life and heart.

Thank you for those lovely insights, Karen. It's left me with much to think about, and I welcome readers' comments.

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