Fri 14 August 2020
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The Information: On writing novels
Writing a second novel isn't any easier than writing your first. Or at least I don't think it should be.

My first novel, Shark, was ambitious in terms of style and content. But rather than shy away from what are pressing contemporary concerns (the loss of vigorous manhood, the rise of the far right, soldiers returning to civilian life) – it was right to pursue these themes. Stylistially, I was going for something between John Updike's Rabbit, Run and David Peace's Red Riding Quartet. This largely meant a present-tense, localised third-person perspective that carried us through the narrative with a great deal of detail with intermittent second-person flashbacks to John Usher's time in Iraq.

The research and drafting of the flashback scenes too the better part of six months to write. I rewrote the 65 000 word novel about twice and spent a greater span of time working sentences into shape, sat up, late night, breathing syllables to myself and seeing if my, or indeed, John Usher's perceptions were accurately recorded on the page.

The difficulty with a first novel is you don't know if it's any good. And the task is so long, so engrossing – nearly two years in this case – you're not sure if anybody is still with you. If anybody is still listening. What might take you six months to write can be read in six hours. Maintaining focus and losing your sense of proportion is a problem.

In some ways, a second novel should be easier. You might think that you've found a method and you stick to it. But to write properly, to write freely, ecstatically, you have to extend  consciousness. If writing is freedom – freedom must always be pushed to its fullest. So everything you learned in your previous novel is pretty much redundant. There's a new style to appropriate; new characters, new settings, a different world to supervise, God-like.

I'm currently working on When Lights Are Bright, a multi-perspective state of the nation novel based in Leeds. It focuses on people who live in the shadows – beyond the nexus of the media gaze and the professional classes. It's hero is a guy called James Oisin. He was working class and now pretty much middle class but fancies himself as a some sort of Christopher Hitchens style contrarian. His sense of self is shattered when his girlfriend leaves him, he's destroyed in an argument and he almost loses his mother. Instead of picking his targets as latte liberals on the arts scene, he was to go to the "underworld" of Leeds. In search of an era defining story on the Shannan Matthews disappearance, James descends into world where bouncers are the symbolic gatekeepers to another world of poverty, amorality, danger, compassion and struggle.

When Lights Are Bright will be four past-tense "movements" sandwiched between a present-tense prologue and an epilogue where all the characters cameo as they're caught up in an English Defense League March. Circularities of time and consistency of motif are essential to the novel. The first movement, The Myth of Progress, follows Jame's downfall and trouble with bourgeois life. The second, Variations on a Theme, follows a gang of bouncers and EDL members as they go to Wembley to watch an England game. The other two are yet to be written!

Not many people write with great facility. John Updike could – he wrote prolifically, profusely and probably too much. He wrote over fifty novels, books of short stories, poetry and criticism. Martin Amis has speculated that a "pressure on the brain" is the cause of his prodigious output. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Invitation to a Beheading in only three weeks. But I think, beyond the exceptions, writing is a hair-pulling, arse-scratching, self-critical, anxious and ambitious process. The two good bits of advice I've come across are: stop writing mid sentence. That way it's easier to pick up (Hemingway). And, “Writers are like prize fighters,” said Norman Mailer. “You wake up, sit down at your desk, put yourself through your paces – and wait for the critical blows to fall.”

Wes Brown will be reading from Shark and When Lights Are Bright as part of Headingley LitFest.