The Writing of Novels
Rubens, Robert, Contemporary Review
Throughout this year there will be a series of articles examining the English Novel in this century. These will range from reminiscences of a particular novelist, such as Barbara Pym, to the role of Salman Rushdie and other novelists from the Indian tradition. The series begins with a novelist discussing how he goes about his writing.
THE WRITING OF NOVELS
As a novelist I feel that the only rule in the writing of fiction is that there are no rules. It seems to me that a novel can be approached through almost any method or any technique. It can be a direct narrative or an indirect narrative. It can be written in the first person, the second person, the first and second person or even in a montage of varying first person monologues interspersed with journals, diaries, letters or the recounting of dreams and fantasies.
As to the subject matter, I feel that any subject - any kind of person or ambience is valid material for fiction so long as the author has an understanding of and compassion for his characters as well as something original to say about them. For me the actual subject has little to do with the artistic merit of a novel. What gives a novel its vitality is an author,s original vision of the world he is describing.
I also feel that it is a mistake for a writer to consciously look for a subject. In my own experience I have found that the subject of a novel invariably emerges in my mind when I am least expecting it, and gradually takes the form of the characters and situations in my books. I have never started a book with a carefully worked out theme. I have never said to myself: `I am going to write a novel about the problems of adolescence' or `the difficulties of old age' or `the social conflicts in Brixton'. To me this approach to fiction produces a form of hollow reportage which is not really creative writing.
When I am asked why I write novels, I can only reply that creating fiction is an essential part of my nature which produces an exhilaration, quite unrelated to the actual events in my life, yet equally as intense and real. For me these two events have gone on concurrently since as a child I invented stories about imaginary grown-ups which I wrote down in a little school notebook that I kept on my bedside table.
I have found that there are three kinds of subjects which for me can trigger off the idea for a novel. These can be either a character, a situation or a place. I have never taken a character directly from real life nor would I want to. What happens to me is that suddenly the face and sometimes the voice of a character emerges in my thoughts and if that same face or voice continues to recur, then I know that he or she will eventually become an important figure in a novel. At that early stage I have no idea what is going to happen to this person in my book; that comes later. An example of this is that some years ago a character occurred to me almost from nowhere. She seemed to be standing in front of a curtain, in a spotlight and she was holding a microphone. I could see her quite clearly, she was fair, not young (about forty) with finely chiselled features and an alert and amused expression on her face as she sang a torch song in a rather husky voice with a foreign accent.
It was clear to me that she was a cabaret singer and as I know almost nothing about show business and have never been involved in that world, I discarded her - thinking that I couldn't possibly write about an entertainer. However she was very persistent and she began coming back into my thoughts, always holding her microphone and always singing in the same voice. After she had appeared in my mind's eye for the fourth or fifth time, I knew that I had no choice, that she would have to be a character - and an important one - in a novel. But what, I asked myself, did I know about cabaret singers? And what did I know about middle-European emigrees? …