In The Land of Decoration God is a protagonist. He was the easiest part of the whole book to write. I had read in a book about how to write a novel that one thing you should never do was make God a character, but I think He is one of the strongest parts of my book. (What that says about the book is up to the reader to decide).
The other day I found a bit of advice I wrote to myself while writing TLOD which I didn't follow; if I had I doubt the book would have been published, though it might have been a lot better: 'Be God and write to yourself'. The problem with every bit of advice I came up with for myself when I was writing novels was that it was always contradicted, sooner or later, by its opposite. For instance:
1. 'write to yourself' was countered at another time by something I wrote on another scrap of paper: 'you are writing for real people that you know. If people you know wouldn't want to hear this in real life they won't read on and turn the page'.
2. 'show don't tell'. I'd been told this by a well-respected writer friend - and heard it nearly everywhere; it's the mantra (or was the mantra) of creative writing courses across the land. This method does work for most novelists, and most novels; but then I came across people like Roberto Bolano, who 'states' virtually everything in his mammoth 2666 and W. G. Sebald, who does the same: if someone is grieving, he says they are. Simple as. And then I remembered so many other novelists - so of them my favourites - who also did (the Brontes, D. H. Lawrence, Hemmingway, Woolf, Thomas Mann, etc, etc, etc).
3. 'If you aren't going through hell and struggling it isn't any good,' is another common belief that I think I subconsciously ascribed to. But now I would say that if you are writing and you are going through hell and struggling the thing isn't really there or isn't really working, is not really natural to you or you haven't found a voice. If you are labouring, if you are ill at ease, it will show in the language and the reader will feel the same. Unless you are very clever and can camouflage the agony (in some sections of my novels when I hit a desert-like stretch, this is what I did; and I was clever enough, I think, to hide it partly; but only in part). I am pretty sure that you can tell when a writer is revelling in his medium, and those books are usually very readable, even if you wouldn't normally read that sort of thing; for example Possession by A. S. Byatt, Hilary Mantel's work, or even the Harry Potter books. Just like 'being with' people, a writer is 'with' (or is not) his or her reader, and the reader picks up on whatever energy he is experiencing, whether that be flat or excited or contented or involved; as in life so in writing; as in performing; as in anything; others take their cue from us, and in order to make readers comfortable reading a writer has to feel comfortable writing themselves.
And yet - there are many great works which proved to be intractable, and agony for their authors to write (we know Kafka wrote in snatches, bursts, tormented by the sounds of his family just beyond the door, driven nearly out of his mind by the tedium of his bureaucratic deskjob, that's why he often wrote at night; we know about Woolf, about the terror sometimes attendant upon every line, every word; we feel it there; that beautiful, glittering, shifting edge; we know about Jean Rhys; Plath; Sexton; Foster-Wallace). And many great writers who have attested to that agony: 'I'm not interested in writing short stories,' Cormac McCarthy said. 'Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.' 'I write to save my life,' Louise Erdrich has been reported as saying. 'I needed a way to go at life. I needed meaning. I might have chosen something more self-destructive had I not found writing.' And Artonin Artaud said: 'No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell.'
The fact is all great novels and novelists break many 'rules' about how to write a novel. No piece of advice works for every writer and the more individual a writer is he may well find that his strengths lie in doing exactly the opposite of what a good creative writing teacher would have him do. Kafka would no doubt have been thrown out of a contemporary creative writing school (so sure was I of this that during the only creative writing course I ever took, an evening class, I submitted a lesser-known extract of his to my teacher; as expected, it came back riddled with suggestions for improvement).
'God' made one universe - the only one as far as we know - in which every thing and every person was a subject or object in that universe. He made His own rules and everyone must follow them. A novelist creates a world which will be held up against other universes and judged by other 'gods' and must discover which rules work for them. In the Christian tradition, depending on the particular denomination's belief, God also gave His life, or His son for this world. In order that it might not be destroyed. He had to do this because Adam and Eve rebelled; His creation went wrong, in other words; his story wasn't working. Whether He foresaw this is endlessly debatable. The story wasn't working, it required something more - so He stepped into it Himself - and ransomed it back. I used to believe in - almost literally - sacrificing myself for my work. Now I am not so sure about that. But I am sure that if a writer doesn't bring themselves body and soul to the work - does not enter it - it will go wrong and stay wrong. No one else can do that in your stead.
I think what I was trying to get at when I wrote that first bit of advice for myself was that I needed to be myself, answer only to myself and trust implicity in my own inner ear and eye. Be my own 'God' in other words, not in an egotistical way, but in the sense that the holy men in the Bible were said to 'walk with God'; to be in deep and intimate relationship with Him. A deep and intimate relationship with our own 'still small voice' is all we have as a writer. If we continually defer to outside opinions and advice we are nowhere - and everywhere. If we fail badly (there is always some failure) then at least we failed, and not Malcolm Bradbury or Jeannette Winterson or Sylvia Plath. The world doesn't need more amorphous approximations or examples of 'good' writing; it needs - and has always only needed - idiosyncracy, idiomatic, beautiful differentiation (it could be argued that genius is nothing more than extreme particularity and originality). We are all all that we have.
That said, if you do want a nuts and bolts guide to writing a novel - and an entertaining tour of the concomittant pitfalls and follies of that profession - try How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes to Avoid At All Costs If You Ever Want to Get Published, the canny authors of which have included such indispensable reminders as: 'Unless somebody actually figures into your plot, we do not need to meet the person'.
Why the Novelist's Job
is Harder than God's
Reading from The Land of Decoration