Things We Nearly Knew

Next Thursday, 11 January, my third novel is published by Picador: Things We Nearly Knew. It is nothing like my first novel, The Breaking of Eggs (2010, Weidenfeld & Nicolson UK/Penguin US) and nothing like my second novel, Trading Futures (2016, Picador) One day, I may get to the point where I have to repeat myself. But I’m not there yet, and hope never to be. So Nearly New, as we like to call it, is in fact entirely new. This is the story of how it was conceived and written.  

It started with a dream. I woke in the middle of the night with the first few lines in my head, as well as the name and personality of the main character, the city she came from, and the gist of what the novel was about. Instead of turning over and going back to sleep, I got up and wrote it down. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. Maybe other novels lie among the debris of my forgotten dreams.

It was all rather inconvenient. Trading Futures was barely completed and had yet to find a publisher. I had no intention of writing another novel at that moment. So the scrap of paper went in a folder marked ‘Ideas for Novels’, already the graveyard of many once brilliant thoughts. Except that this one refused to stay there. It demanded to be let out and written. Immediately. So I obeyed.

The idea is encapsulated in the title. The word ‘know’ is too often misused. We say it to describe things we feel, or think, or suspect, or believe, or would like to believe. What any of us really knows is small. What we nearly know is huge. I wanted to write about the many forms of nearly knowing.

To be true to the novel’s nature, the writing and the story needed to be opaque and elusive. The reader should not feel confused, but should feel uncertain. Uncertain of what he or she is reading, and where it is leading. I decided that the best way for the reader to feel that way was for the writer to feel it too.

So I started to write with no notes, no storyline, and no characters apart from the one in the dream and a narrator. I didn’t want to write the novel in sequence because that would have given a sense of direction too soon. Nor did I want to write it too quickly. For good or ill, and it is probably a bit of both, I am a fast writer. I can’t help myself. In a full day, I will write several thousand words. They may be good, bad or mediocre words, but there will unfailingly be several thousand of them. This time, I limited myself to 400 words a day, which amounted to about an hour of writing.

Each day started with a blank Word document and a new idea, unrelated to what I had written previously. The ideas came mostly from poems I had written as a teenager. However bad the poems, and believe me they were, many had an interesting thought that had prompted them, or contained an unusual turn of phrase. I have always felt that bad poems can make good prose, and this was my chance to prove it. Perhaps more to the point, the poems were unrelated to each other, which suited the purpose of this novel. And the thoughts or phrases were already there, so I didn’t need to think of new ones.

Over time, other characters emerged, unplanned. Frankie Albertino, who first appears at the beginning of Chapter 3, was unpremeditated. He popped into my head one morning, fully formed, and demanded a presence in the novel commensurate with his own ego. Further characters emerged more diffidently, and then parts of a storyline. I began to use the fragments as building blocks, although none of them yet amounted to much more than 1,000 words. I never re-read what I had written on a previous day. At about the 20,000-word and 45,000-word marks only, I read everything through, to get some sense of what was emerging, and to remind myself what I had already written. By the end, there were 62 fragments. Stitching them together was like sewing a patchwork quilt, and there were many ways it could have been done.

I hope the end result is comprehensible, but also that it remains opaque and elusive. Very few of the events described are known for certain. All of them are known as nearly as they can be. I don’t know any of those things myself. That may sound like an affectation: how can a writer not know the story he is writing? But it is true, and it is deliberate. I wanted the reader to be in the same state of nearly knowing as the narrator, and for the narrator to be in the same state of nearly knowing as the writer. There is one thing, and one thing only, at which the writer hints, and which has not occurred to the narrator. I hope it will be apparent to the reader. Otherwise, we are all in the same place.

We still don’t know exactly where in America the novel is set, and I have not done any research, or looked at a map, to establish it. We don’t know exactly when it is set, although cultural references suggest it is somewhere between the mid-’70s and the advent of mobile phones. And we don’t know who is telling the story, although I’m prepared to hazard a guess at that one.

‘Why is it set in America?’ I am asked. Two answers. The dream said that Arlene came from Pittsburgh, so she did. Probably. Also, I cannot see it being set anywhere else. I tried, but I failed. This is an American novel, but a universal story.