Finished. What an intriguing word – as it has so many multifaceted meanings. Consider: “He’s finished’ – which has an almost dismissive, gangster-like quality to it (“Louis, you’re finished” is a line I’m certain I heard Edward G. Robinson deliver in far too many Warner Brothers films of the 1930s). And then there’s “We’re finished’ – which is one choice and direct phrase when it comes to denoting the end of love… though the French version – ‘c’est foutu - is more pungent, as the word ‘foutu’ has a certain scatalogical lyricism to it.
And let us not forget: “Are we finished here?” which is a politely impatient way of informing someone, ‘enough is enough’, as this meeting/conversation/seance is something you really want to escape now. As a friend in Paris once noted about affairs of the heart: “Always be aware there is a door marked ‘Exit’, and it is closer than you think when your things turns toxic”.
But then there is – for a novelist anyway – the words you privately long to write from the outset of a book:
I’ve written those words in faxes (back in the day when they were the hi-tech norm) and emails and texts to my editors, agents, and friends over the past twenty-six years of my writing life. From the moment I delivered my first book, ‘Beyond the Pyramids’, in 1986 to a moment around ninety minutes ago when I typed the last word – at precisely 3.42am this morning in Geneva, Switzerland (I’m here on a book tour) - I have written “It’s Finished” fourteen times.
Indeed this new novel - ”Five Days” is my eleventh, with three non-fiction narrative travel books also on the shelf. If I was asked what is the most intriguing ongoing aspect of my metier as novelist I’d have to say: the fact that when I start a novel, not only do I never have it planned out or detailed (even though my novels are highly structured), but I can also never tell how long it will take me to travel that distance between the first sentence and the dissemination of that missive which reads: “It’s finished”.
‘Five Days’, took just over thirteen months to write. The previous novel, ‘The Moment’, involved two straight years of work to punch out the first draft – but then again, it is about eighty thousand words longer and I was also writing it while a passenger on that emotional anti-gravity funfair ride, better known as a divorce.
I remember a French journalist-turned-novelist once proclaiming to me that his new tome (it was about 800 pages in length) was a true masterpiece because it took him seven years to write. Now I always found this chap to be living on the wrong side of arrogance, so I cheerfully reminded him that Mozart wrote his 36thSymphony, the Linz, in four days. And why? Because the Count of Linz had his orchestra coming to court that Friday and he wanted a new symphony for a party that night, and he knew that Mozart was, as always, in debt. Four days to write not just a symphony, but one of the great late symphonies that marked the composer’s final years.
The French journalist turned novelist no doubt filed me away under “connard” after this exchange. But my point – beside making the guy know that any writer who proclaims his book to be a masterpiece is a ‘clown in my book – is the fact that it doesn’t matter if it took you twenty years to write a novel or two weeks (as it took the hyper-prolific and frequently brilliant Georges Simenon to punch out one of 200 novels). All that ultimately matters is if the work speaks to others and make your reader want to turn the page. Great creative work can be done at high velocity – and can benefit from deadline pressures Just as work done over a wildly long period of time can suffer from ‘important-itis” – the need to be proclaim its grandness.
The great Stephen Sondheim wrote one of the most intelligent and heartbreakingly lucid explorations of love’s larger contradictions, ‘Send in the Clowns’, overnight in a Boston hotel room because the show in question (“A Little Night Music”) needed a last-minute ballad to underscore the melancholy of its principle woman character. ‘Send in the Clowns’ has since been covered by everybody from Sinatra to Hawaiian aloha bands. Even when badly sung it still has its own intrinsic power because it speaks so directly to the desperate need we all have to connect; a need that is at the heart of the human condition. And it just took Sondheim a night to write it. But, then again, what allowed him to write such a major song in such a fantastically short amount of time was (at the time) twenty years of songwriting experience for the Broadway stage.
So remember: when people dismiss quickly achieved work as facile and lengthily achieved work as substantial, all that really matters is: can you engage with it? Is it involving you? Do you want to stay with it? As such, who cares if the writer lived for ten years in a cave on the Mongolian steepe, existing only on yak milk as he composed the Great Obscurantist American Novel? In the end, the fact that the writer suffered ongoing frostbite - and so hated the all-meat Attila the Hun diet out there than he turned Orthodox Vegan on his return to the States – might be anecdotally interesting, but has no bearing on the novel itself. So what if it was a decade in the making? All the writer should care about now is:
Will the reader actually want to turn the page… especially in a novel about yak milk?
To which, in reply, I can only offer this thought:
Anything is possible with good storytelling.