How I wrote Trading Futures

The problem is that I’m not entirely sure how I wrote it. This is partly a fault of memory, and partly because the novel had no single origin, no notes and no coherent development.  

Novels can be conceived and written in many different ways, I now know. In that respect, The Breaking of Eggs was easy. It had a clear starting point and developed in a straight line until the published version. It also had a synopsis of nearly 28,000 words, so – when I was writing it – I knew what came next.

It was a product of the rational mind, appropriately so, seeing that its protagonist considered himself a supreme rationalist.

Matthew Oxenhay, the narrator of Trading Futures, is not a rationalist, supreme or otherwise. By the time the novel starts, he is supreme only at insulting people and getting drunk. While musing on how he has reached that position, he concludes that ‘there are about twenty-seven different explanations and the mix ’n’ match option is available.’ Much the same could be said about how the novel came to be written.

These (I think) were the main ingredients. By early 2013, I had been struggling for about three years to write an acceptable second novel and by then I was feeling rather tentative about things. I had started writing a novel in autumn 2012, which plainly didn’t work, but which contained one chapter I liked. It survives, almost verbatim, in Trading Futures – the retrospective chapter set in 1967.

This chapter in turn had echoes of a previous novel, written before Eggs and never published. Although the two have few surface similarities, they do have themes in common, including the archetypal lost teenage lover, named Anna in both cases. I wasn’t aware of all the similarities when I embarked on Trading Futures, but the earlier work became part of the novel’s subconscious development. Then there was the true story (allegedly) of someone I used to work with, who couldn’t decide whether or not to end his marriage and made his choice in the way described in the opening paragraph.

The other thing I had was the title. Trading Futures, or its alternative Buying Futures, had been rattling around in my mind for several years, first appearing in a song I wrote about the 2008 financial crisis, with the chorus:
“And it all goes round in circles, and the circles never end,
and we will buy the futures that we never get to spend.”
I cannot remember the extent to which the title influenced what later followed. At the very least, it must have provided Matthew’s occupation.

So I now had an opening for the novel, which also served as background suspense throughout, two main characters, a subsequent chapter, a few themes and a title. Beyond these assorted gewgaws there was nothing. There was no synopsis, not even a sketch of chapters. In Matthew’s words again, ‘to take these disparate elements, to transform them, to substantiate them, to make them into something beyond the nebulous bric-a-brac they were, was the business of the day.’

In describing what happened next, I am indebted to Microsoft for kindly telling me when I created each chapter file. I wrote some chapters in January and February 2013 and then saved them as something misleadingly called “first draft”. It was in fact a few specimen chapters from a partial novel. But I needed reassurance that I wasn’t wasting my time again, so this draft went to my wife, Kay, and to my mentor, David Llewelyn. They both thought I should continue with it.

By early March, I had the storyline, with one exception. I felt it was lacking something that would raise the novel a notch higher. That month, I visited the area on the Somerset/Devon border where much of the story is set. On a muddy country lane, miles from anywhere, except perhaps from Anna’s cottage, the missing ingredient occurred to me. Between February and May, I completed the proper first draft, alias the second draft.

Probably because of the way it had been written, I felt more confused about what I had written than I had with Eggs. Then, no one suggested any reordering of the text: just deletions where the story dragged. Trading Futures was badly in need of an editor, so it was lucky that I am married to one. Kay took the manuscript, reordered it, and risked stormy reactions by putting red lines through passages of exquisite prose.

The result was a vast improvement. By late June, there was a third draft. David Llewelyn then suggested further improvements to make Matthew a (slightly) more sympathetic character. There was a lot of reworking, far more than for Eggs. By October 2013, I had something very close to the published version.

Having said all that, what is the novel actually about? The proper response from a novelist is to say “read it and make up your own mind”. (At a Literary Festival, asked by an audience member to explain what Flaubert’s Parrot was about, Julian Barnes politely suggested she should read the novel again if she didn’t know.) I broke that rule with Eggs, but I don’t feel inclined to break it again in any detail.

All I will say is this. To some extent, Trading Futures is the story of what could be any man’s mid-life crisis. But it also represents the mid-life crisis of a generation. Those of us who grew up in the ’60s came to adulthood on a wave of optimism, possibly unparalleled in British history and certainly not repeated since. For this reason, while the world we have since encountered is no worse than the world other generations have encountered, the sense of a let-down is far greater. The gap between expectation and reality has been immense, and into that gap falls Matthew Oxenhay.