Daniel Williams recounts the 25 year gestation of his first novel.
I like a challenge. My first novel, The Edge of the Object – written when I was around the age of 25 and being published by the Half Pint Press only now that I am past 50 – resulted from at least a couple of challenges, if not more.
In 1996, I walked out of a flat in Archway, north London, with five slim brown A4 envelopes in my hand. My heart was fluttering upwards into my throat and mouth when, ten minutes later, beneath the black tower which rose above the plaza outside the tube station, I approached the postbox into which I was going to deposit those envelopes. They contained sample chapters from a novel at that time entitled Kerplunk! (It was about a music industry photographer losing his marbles in France.) I distinctly remember the other-worldly, out-of-body feeling which came over me in those moments, so that I could no longer feel the hard slabs of pavement beneath my feet, nor breathe the thickly polluted north London air. I felt vulnerable – exposing myself to the harsh forces of criticism and rejection – but also that I was on the verge of something – if not a new life, then a new way of living within an established life, with attendant chances to grow and expand and perhaps even influence and inspire, as I had been by my favourite writers.
And then… nothing. If – just after I’d let those envelopes fall from my fingers – you had taken me aside and told me that I’d have to wait 25 years for the book to be published, I’d have been more than a little disappointed. Crushed would be about right.
I started laying siege to the publishing industry around the time that a search engine called Google made its appearance in beta form on the computers I used at work; as an information-hungry medical librarian, it soon became essential to my days. It’s hard to convey just how limited a writer’s options seemed, before the publishing industry made its own leisurely, suspicious way online, lagging way behind medicine. The magazines, journals, and presses which might publish you were finite in number and seemed remote, even if you lived a stone’s throw from the centre of London, where a good many of them were located. Whereas now, there is potentially an instantly accessible home for anything you might write, of any type, about any subject. The difference being that in the meantime, there has been an exponential rise in the number of aspiring writers. It’s as hard to stand out from the crowd as it seemed to me to convince an old-school industry of the worth of my edgy, unconventionally typeset novel. For I wanted each page of text to form the recognisable shape of an object, either as an outline, or by cutting blank space into the usual justified rectangles, in an effort to produce a work which was both visually engaging and mentally stimulating.
In the accompanying synopsis, I tried to explain my approach:
‘The shapes idea is linked to the character being a photographer; it is related to the still life genre, and emphasises the ways in which photography and writing make us look at familiar objects anew. The shapes are also symbols that the writing does not necessarily point out or overstate. As a sequence, they mimic the idea of a series of photographs, and more than this, will hopefully give some sense of the shape of the character’s life, and the things that have helped to shape it.’
Back then, with the certainty of youth and the conviction of an artist with unshakeable faith in what seemed an innovative idea, I had been in no doubt that what was in those envelopes I posted would surprise and perhaps even delight the addressees when they opened them. But I was sadly mistaken. Here are some of the reactions I got from the publishers and agents I approached:
‘I enjoyed reading Kerplunk very much. It is very clever and inventive and, I see from your proposal, very well thought out. However, as a traditionalist, I do feel that words should be laid out conventionally and the story allowed to speak for itself, with no artificial support, especially if the work is a novel.’
‘While you are clearly brimming with ideas… any press will think hard about putting out a book in the form you suggest.’
‘This is different but I’m afraid I found the reading difficult.’
‘Whilst I enjoyed your writing, I did feel that there was some way to go before it would attract a publisher and after much thought, feel that I am not the right agent to help you with the book. I found the second person narrator to be alienating and also the shaped version puzzled rather than illuminated.’
‘A little bit too amazing and idiosyncratic for our taste.’
Did this indicate a lack of vision on the publishing industry’s part, a relative conservatism, in comparison to, say, the music business or the art world? Was my fiction too autofictional, by the literary standards of the day? Or was the writing simply not good enough, by any literary standard (a conclusion with which – self-critical to a fault – I was fully ready to concur)? The responses suggested that those first readers found the second person in which the text was written to be ‘alienating’. But that in part was the point. The character was alienated from himself, as was the second person protagonist in Georges Perec’s A Man Asleep, a key inspiration for Kerplunk!
The novel was set in France, and Perec was part of the reason why I had chosen to spend an extended period of time there, but I was also enamoured with a great many other French writers: Jules Verne, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Violette Leduc, Stendhal, Colette, Françoise Sagan, François Mauriac, Andre Gide, Paul Valéry, Raymond Queneau, and Albert Camus (although for some inexplicable reason I have always resisted reading either Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir). I had also immersed myself in French film, heading to the Institute of Contemporary Arts and other independent cinemas in London to watch films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, and Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime (the first of his Tales of the Four Seasons). The Jean-Jacques Beineix film Diva, and the Delacorta crime novel it was based on, together with the first and third books in the series, Nana and Luna, also played into the mythological France in which I was immersing myself, as did Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris. At college, I had studied politics, sociology, and philosophy but it was in fact music fanzines which led me to read the work of the situationists Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem; I ended up writing my dissertation about them. Via the music of Scott Walker and Momus, I also found my way to the chansons of Jacques Brel. All of the above fed into the urge to visit France, informed my real life experience of it, and stayed with me during the writing of the novel upon my return to England.
But there was another rationale for making France my destination, another challenge in play: to make up for the mistake of not having done French at A level. Deeply affected by the messy, traumatic separation and divorce of my parents, I had become an especially introverted and shy fifteen year old; studying French beyond sixteen would mean regularly exposing myself to the horror of speaking aloud in class. Back then I blamed a disinclination to spend time with the teachers I would have had, but the truth lies squarely with a damaged psyche and the self-conscious timidity it resulted in. And yet by the time I was midway through my A levels, propelled by the music produced by the groups who formed the roster of the early Creation Records, as well as the Smiths, I had rediscovered a little of the confidence that had been mine in early boyhood, enough to defy the rules by wearing a spiky flat-top hairstyle to school. One of the French teachers I would have had laughed at me when she first saw it – so unexpected was the transformation – but suddenly and at last, I had the attention of at least a few of the sixth form girls, and I could have coped with any amount of ridicule for that.
At the same time my collection of punk and independent music-oriented fanzines was burgeoning, exposing me to a barrage of amateur, anything goes graphic design, ranging from the conventionally staid through the haphazardly chaotic to the genuinely inventive. These had become my staple reading as soon as I started listening to John Peel regularly around the age of fourteen, and were second only to him and ahead of the weekly music press in terms of influencing my taste. Top of the pile in graphic terms, as well as being a fiercely independent (some said ‘monomaniacal’), intelligent and often humorous read, was Are You Scared to Get Happy? produced initially in partnership by Matt Haynes and Mark Carnell, and then by Matt alone. Taking ultimate inspiration from the graphics of punk as first exemplified by Jamie Reid’s work for the Sex Pistols, photos and illustrations were cleverly interwoven with typed and handwritten text, not to mention Pollock-esque splashes of paint, all printed in a variety of colours which rendered the end result a work of (pop) art. Content and presentation were in perfect alignment. Why shouldn’t the printed page look as glorious as this, whatever the form? This notion stuck with me as I set about writing and designing my own music fanzines, and stayed with me when it came to thinking about the appearance of my first novel.
(I was only dimly aware of concrete poetry, where texts were laboriously fashioned via manual typewriters into geometric shapes, and usually nothing much more fancy than that, owing to the constraints of technology. I may even have seen the odd concrete poem at school, but I don’t believe it informed my shapes idea, unless subconsciously. It was only recently that I came across George Herbert’s poem Easter Wings, written in 1633, and shaped as two pairs of angels’ wings. Even before then, the ancient Greeks had been at it – Simmias of Rhodes shaped poems into wings, an egg, and a hatchet. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.)
This then was the background to the idea of a book of shaped texts, but the exact moment of inspiration came when I was writing a short story about my time in France. Called Monster, it pitted human solipsism against divine intervention, with God emerging victorious. At some point during the writing, or the typing up, I had the idea to set a blank cross into the middle of the page of text, a knowing sleight of hand clearly meant to represent God’s ultimate dominance, and the youthful folly of believing yourself to be more or less on a par with the son of God. But I also had in mind the calvaries and crosses I would pass as I cycled the country lanes of Normandy.
The short story got me thinking about sustaining this trick across the course of a novel. I was determined that what I wrote and how I presented it would be as different from everything else at the time as I could manage. So many of my favourite writers had taught me that, Georges Perec among them. Set yourself apart, and sooner or later, an audience may recognise and appreciate the difference.
After three or four years of writing, revising, and laboriously testing the shapes idea on a manual electric typewriter (my partner’s Amstrad computer not being up to the job), a graphic designer friend helped me produce five or six sample shapes using his desktop publishing software, basing the shapes on the sketching skills of another friend. I arrived in front of that post box in Archway knowing that the technology existed to produce the book as I envisaged it, but that was to no avail. The publishing industry said no.
In retrospect it seems obvious that I should have persevered, contacting as many publishing folk as it took until I landed my work in front of the right person at the right moment; and if that didn’t work, I should have self-published my ‘unpublishable’ novel, just as many of my favourite bands had formed their own record label to put out a first single which then put them on John Peel’s radar. But that would have meant calling in time-consuming favours on both DTP and artwork fronts, or spending outlay I simply didn’t have. And besides, there were other things I wanted to write. So that’s what I got on and did.
It wasn’t until many, many years later that Kerplunk! began to arise from its archival grave. One old friend of mine met another in a bar in Amsterdam, and over some Trappist Belgian beer told him that my novel was his favourite work of art produced by anyone in his circle of acquaintance. The other friend was about to set up his own letterpress press. Things rarely happen in any form of art without champions. Those old friends, Jack Boulter and Tim Hopkins, have been mine for this novel. And in (literally) shaping the book with me, Tim has applied both serious amounts of lateral thinking and the visual gifts that have made his previous work as the Half Pint Press so spectacular. The end result is far beyond what I ever imagined possible all those years ago.
In the second preface to Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson writes, ‘Sir Max Beerbohm has a fine reflection on revising one of his early works; he said he tried to remember how angry he would have been when he wrote it if an elderly pedant had made corrections, and how certain he would have felt that the man was wrong.’ In revising the text of Kerplunk! for publication in a different century, I tried as far as possible to stay true to the younger man I was when I wrote it, softening neither the character’s nor the writing’s edges. Any flaws or prejudice exhibited by the lead character are in keeping with the where and the when and the why of the story. But for copyright reasons, the title of the novel had to change, and so Kerplunk! has become The Edge of the Object, a phrase suggested in a moment’s inspiration by my partner Rachel, when none of the many possibilities on my list felt quite right. In just five words, that summed up the whole thing, perfectly.