The other day I found some notes I made when writing The Land of Decoration. I don't have any other record of what was going through my mind at that time of writing so I was happy to find them. This is how some of it goes:
'Godhood, God as self. Materialisation ex nihilo, something from nothing, things from words. Who is speaking, who is writing, who is in place of? Something standing in the space of something else. Death necessary. Eye for an eye. Sacrifice. God and Judith talking under the pine trees [in the first version of TLOD there was a parallel narrative about Christ on earth and Judith and God converse as if spectators in a play on his life]. Sun going down. You sent your son. Death to prevent dying. What about forgiving? Can't forgive Adam and Eve. Because their children were born into sin, death for them too. Everything One, at some point.'
I've included some of the notes here because it shows that what I was interested in when writing the book wasn't bullying, religion, or father and daughter relationships. Bearing in mind the possibility that a writer may not know what their own work is about, I still maintain the book is not really about these things and is pointed in a different direction altogether. Whenever I have tentatively mentioned what I was interested in at the time of writing TLOD in interviews it has been cut, I suppose because it is not as interesting to readers as details of the writer's own life. However, for what it is worth, and because I am uncensored here, I am going to talk about it.
The Land of Decoration is nothing if not a 'little' book; it flaunts its littleness as other books flaunt their considerable size. The protagonist is a ten year-old child, the stage a model world she has made from rubbish, and a lot of the time the action takes place in no more than a few square feet of space. Like Judith herself, the novel is also 'young'; it is written poorly in so many places. It does however attempt to dramatise some large ideas and give life to emotions so overwhelming they threaten to completely disassemble their small vessel.
The dichotomous nature of the book seems to have been mirrored in the mixed responses to it. Some reviewers praised the plot, others derided it, some said the novel was 'melodramatic', others that it was 'deeply affecting', some saw Judith as 'convenient and uncomplicated', others as psychologically convincing, some took issue with the writing itself, labelling it pedestrian or precocious, others found it 'powerful' and 'deep'. Nearly all reviewers tried to deduce some sort of moral - 'the failure of religion to offer solace' being one (this one as misguided as the general content of the review, whose author spent the whole article criticising the novel because he believed I had located it in the present and that it was littered with anachronisms). Another eminent voice wrote: 'sadly the novel isn't written tightly enough for the cultural and psychological issues it wants to explore'. But the fact is I didn't want to explore any 'cultural and psychological issues'. In any case, I don't believe novels can or should do such things.
While I understand, as Will Self says, it is every good writer's prerogative to be misunderstood as much as possible, I want to say a few things for the record: I didn't set out to write about religion, I just worked backwards from the passage which spawned the novel ('In the beginning there was an empty room...'), decided the protagonist was probably religious, probably a child, and probably eccentric. Religion just happens to be part of the fabric of Judith's world, a context in which to couch her psyche and provides the boundaries for her exploration of a reality. I didn't particularly want to explore the topics of bullying, revenge, father and daughter relationships, or myself (although it's probably impossible for a writer not to explore themselves even if they aren't conscious of doing so). Any 'cultural and psychological issues' that are present in The Land of Decoration are a by-product, the props, flats, scenery that enabled me to create a space to move through.
The most common criticism levelled against the novel was that it was 'simple'. The legacy of postmodernism is a culture that worships at the shrine of inscrutability, strangeness and experimentation, partly, sometimes I think, for their own sake, and perhaps it was inevitable that The Land of Decoration would be belittled (perhaps an apt fate for a book concerned with miniaturisation). I wanted the novel to be 'simple', as simple as possible; as uncomplicated, as untainted and 'pure' as a fable or a children's story. In fact, my models were children's stories and myths and parables. I wanted to create something which adhered inexorably to a pattern, formula and proportion as a play in ancient Greece. I even had a chorus at one point. I wanted to create something perfectly balanced (the theme of balance being reflected in the action itself in the motif of ransoming and exchange of equals), archetypal and 'whole'. There was another factor however in the form the story took and the language in which it was expressed: I thought that unless the novel was fast paced and accessible, as a first novel, it would be unlikely to have been published at all.
So The Land of Decoration was an experiment and it was a compromise, and it became marketed as a certain type of novel, and at one point, like Judith looking on in horror at what she has created, I wanted to stop what I had begun. But I couldn't, it was already out there.
Except that it wasn't. I felt the publisher's, book-seller's novel was 'out there' and mine had disappeared. I now understand that this happens to every novelist to some degree.
The Land of Decoration
Reading from The Land of Decoration
A candid chat about my experience of publication