Issue One of The Lonely Crowd features an exclusive extract from Gary Raymond’s forthcoming debut novel, For Those Who Come After (Parthian). Here, he discusses the genesis of that book and the creative process in general.
Where does a novel come from? A thousand impulses and compulsions over time. A novel – this one, at least – is an unassailable compendium of experiences that result in a pure fiction. Here is a loose telling of an event I witnessed; here is a character made up of the ghosts of people I knew; here is my distillation of a poem, pressed and kneaded into a conversation in a sweaty Spanish tavern. Nothing ever looks like the place from which it came; but that is why writing is addictive – you want to see what comes out.
The trick is to make use of these things, to know where they go and how unbound every experience is. It sounds, and sometimes might feel, like instinct; but this ‘instinct’ comes from studiousness and obsession with the ideas that make great fiction. And writing fiction is an obsession just like any other – football, church, sex – and just as earthbound.
For Those Who Come After, for me, is a massive work – although how it comes to be read, if it is read at all, will be interesting. It is, to some extent, a book about memory, and so trying to remember how it was put together is probably an ironic task, and one as filled with doubt as the testimony of Hal Buren, the novel’s narrator.
I do know it started as a short story. In 2007 it was the tale of a man who could not find his way out from under a shadow – his mother blamed him for his brother’s vanishing. That is the basic place For Those Who Come After came from. So it has been eight years since that five thousand word birth. Around that time I read Orwell’s Spanish works, and decided I had, in that country’s revolution, an extremely complex and largely misunderstood historical backdrop. A place where everything – something – would come to a head. The Spanish Civil War is the apex of the novel, just as it was the apex of the early part of the twentieth century – the microcosmic experiment for a new form of barbarity. The world watched on, and the naïve got involved. (The artists are always naïve in novels, and I suppose, no matter how noble they may be, they are no different in mine). But I was not interested in writing a war novel, or even an historical novel; I was interested in writing a novel about people trying to find their place in the world. I don’t think there’s a single character in the entire book who is truly sure of themselves in that sense. Maybe the lawyer, who gets about six sentences.
I read Joseph Pearce’s book on Roy Campbell and I felt long before the end that I had the basis for a character there. Campbell is the bulb from which my novel’s catalytic character Ki Monroe grew. He is not Roy Campbell, but Campbell’s life was, in parts, better than what I might have made up. There are stories told in my book about Monroe’s past, which sound like mythologising, and they are meant to sound that way, but they are taken wholesale from Campbell’s life. Water-jousting with French peasants, for example. The novel goes through a ‘Bloomsbury’ phase, when the characters become immersed in the literati parties and politics of London in the 1930’s. That it all ends in war, in bullets flying in the shale of the Spanish hills, is blamed very much on Monroe (the Campbell-character). But I hope he’s more sympathetic to the reader than he is to the other characters. In fact, I hope the reader feels more for all the characters than the world inside the novel has done.
And the world of the novel is a harsh one. Piers Buren, the brother, Hal’s opposite and doppelganger, is the one corruptible by purity. Bess – who I wrote as the main character, but who eventually moved herself out of the limelight – is my reaction to ‘the war wife’, depicted as tearfully reading letters from her guy on the front line. I wanted her to be Anna Karenina in a Patrick White novel. She didn’t end up that way – but nothing ever does. Just like in the real world, the internal world of the novel sculpts the characters as you create it. Your children never turn out the way you envisaged.
So as the short story became the first blip on the radar, the first fabric that matched the ideas I wanted to explore; then the characters began to come in, and then the world began to colour. If I had to give that high-concept pitch, the one line, I would say For Those Who Come After is a book about myth-making. The very act of writing the book was an exercise in it. But every character is a victim of this trait in one way or another. I wouldn’t call Hal Buren an unreliable narrator, but he’s not to be trusted in the same way nobody is. And the fact that his testimony, which is the narrative of the novel, is presented so forcefully as a ‘pure truth’ is reason enough to be wary. None of us are capable of resisting myth when it comes to memory. The simple act of vocalising a memory envelopes that happening in the language of the story-teller, the myth-maker. What is the reaction, when you’re telling a story to friends in the pub, if your story turns out to have no narrative arch? What if it has no beginning, middle or end? It – you – are rejected. We are bound to the breath of the storyteller.
Hal Buren’s greatest fear, as is established at the outset of the novel, is that he has wasted his time on earth; that he has had time, humankind’s most valuable commodity, and done nothing of worth with it. Perhaps that is where the very basic idea of story-telling comes from – to make things seem worthwhile. And that is the crux of For Those Who Come After; Hal Buren’s testament is to try and lay things out so that in perhaps some small way the next century can learn something from his experience of the last. Of course that is perhaps the greatest irony, and tragedy, of Hal Buren. We rarely learn from those who try to explain their lives to us – we learn from looking at their lives on our own accord. Hal Buren’s difficulty is that he is trying to teach lessons while he has failed in learning anything himself. But I have tried to make him human, at least.
Copyright © Gary Raymond, 2015.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, short story writer, critic, and lecturer in English and Creative Writing. As well as a regular voice in Wales Arts Review, Gary has written for The Guardian, Rolling Stone Magazine, is a theatre critic for The Arts Desk, and is a regular commentator on arts and culture for BBC Wales. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and a PGCE in higher education. In 2013, Gary published JRR Tolkien: A Visual Biography of Fantasy’s Most Revered Writer with Ivy Press, and his novel, For Those Who Come After, is out in October 2015 via Parthian Books.
Artwork: Copyright © Dean Lewis, 2015.
Issue One of The Lonely Crowd features an exclusive extract from For Those Who Come After and can be bought here.