Author’s photo, Warsaw c1987, taken from the Palace of Culture
I am not sure about the compulsion to write. Many authors, when asked why they do it, reply that they write because they have to, or words to that effect. Are they addicted to it? Does their body require it? Perhaps I am missing out on something. Perhaps the reason I have written so little, and so unsuccessfully, is because they have something I have not got.
But I do write. I do it every day. I didn’t use to. For almost all of my adult life I was a teacher, who wrote lesson plans and reports and comments on students’ work, but little that would be termed creative. I did write a novel, and it took me 16 years: that’s how long a novel takes when you are a full-time teacher. For most of those years I wasn’t writing at all, although the story was always nagging away in the background. I would say, that novel did have to be written: it was the only way I could shrug it off.
Perhaps that’s what the compulsion to write actually is: a shrugging off. Once the idea has entered the head, the only way of dispelling it is to write it out. Write it out on the screen, write it out of the system. That feels true in my case. The novel I am currently writing (for now, I am calling it Europejski) has sat inside me in various forms for thirty years. I did try to write it out once before, in a novella I called Outsidelines. I failed to get it published – and re-reading it now, I see why – but it served its purpose at the time. The ideas I was grappling with then were dealt with and I could move on. The fact that I have returned to the core of those ideas only goes to show that ‘shrugging off’ might be an incomplete action. The idea may be mightier than the pen.
‘The idea’. That makes it sound like a complete thing. It also makes it sound important, original, essential. I wish it were so! My idea is probably none of those things and it certainly is not complete. Mine is shape-shifting, irregular and of a state somewhere between a gas and a solid. It is here right in front of me, but it’s also over there in a yet-unrecovered memory. Writing it out, then, is also an attempt to give it a form, to fix it. The form it takes must be the best possible representation of the original idea. That’s the job of the writer. That’s what I must do.
What’s my idea, and where did it come from? Europejski is a spy story and a political intrigue. It deals with a group of student friends in Warsaw in the late 1980s, one of whom is Irish; ten years later they are forced to confront again what they did as youths, and the implications this may have for the country. This is the form my novel is taking, and the idea of it. It is about trust when it is tested, and about the kinds of love that endure. Or, rather, that’s what I want it to be about – that’s how I want the thoughts in my head to take shape.
How these thoughts got into my head could also be a novel, if I wanted this to be autobiographical. Europejski is not my experience, but my experience has made me knowledgeable of the events I describe and invent. I first went to Poland in 1986 and returned every year until I moved to live there for three years in the early 1990s. I had a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, Marcus Wheeler, who nurtured my historical and cultural interests in the country. I had friends at the Warsaw university at the centre of the novel, some of whom are my great friends still. There were political demonstrations among students and others at the times I describe, and the pivotal moment I have filched from an historical source. I have invented nearly every character, but inevitably for a novel set in a real place amongst real events there are people I name who did exist, and I have made them do things they never did. That’s one of the troubling definitions of fiction: it tells lies in order to get at the truth. I am not a character in the novel; no one I know personally is. I stretched my imagination far enough to embrace students, their families and teachers, some journalists, and a spy and her government controller. I have navigated between three cities across two timeframes.
Nowadays my full-time job is not teaching, so I can write every day. Every day I try to fix the idea to the page. Every day I fail a little. But I am shrugging it off.