Why do we write what we do?
A prolific Canadian writer friend accused me (in a kindly manner) of trying to ‘write for immortality’. ‘Nothing lasts, except you’ he said. I think he hoped to persuade me to make my life easier, and write forgettable vampire books that might have a hope of readers. So why did I republish a modern Under Milkwood after it had languished unread for eight years? Was life not difficult enough?
Let me take you back to its genesis so you might understand this resurrection of a favoured child.
The Story Behind the Story
In 1969 I was living is a windblown shack on a desolate beach in Yucatan with two children, both under four, sleeping in a hammock and keeping a bottle by my ‘bed’ that I could smash against a wall as a weapon in an emergency. There was no electricity, but a Stygian darkness after sundown. The bottle also held a single candle. My nearest and only neighbours were members of the Tonton Macoute, the Haitian henchmen of Papa Doc Duvalier, known for easy murders, gang rape (and voodoo). I was hanging out for a divorce and waiting for a summons when it had been achieved. The sharks that cruised past with scimitar fins were waiting too. For me. Every night black hand prints, dipped in pitch, were left on the shutters of the shack.
Suddenly, and unexpectedly, a family arrived to set up tents nearby. It afforded great comfort. They looked like ordinary people, an American couple with a cluster of small children, minded by a ‘nanny’. She was neither family nor friend, and too mature to be a minion. Puzzling. Her hours ‘off’ were late at night when we got talking, with wine if we struck lucky.
Then she told me her story which made my own, comparatively, a walk in the park. It was a story so unlikely, so mythical and personally tragic that it lay untouched in the mind. My divorce came through. We kissed goodbye, and I never saw her again.
Ten years later I had remarried and had a child; a last ever child. In that post-delivery haze of delicate and transparent euphoria, floating above the ground, in the attic of a modest Victorian semi in Wiltshire, I remembered that blazing beach of light and terror in which a young woman told me of the loss of her baby. My own lay in a Moses basket at my side.
So I wrote it for her, a tribute to her tragedy, and it flowed mixed with milk and gall.It was the due paid, and yes, I wanted her mythical story as immortal as modest words could make it. I was blest, she bereft. Her suffering was mythical. I still hope one day she might find it.
It almost wrote itself over a compulsive three weeks of sleepless nights, and I hardly changed a word. I am still far from sure I was really the ‘author.’ If you read the book you can decide who might have been.
To follow that generous coverage can I add an equally generous dollop of cream in the form of a review by Chris Rose. One of those ‘pinch-me- don’t- quite- believe-it reviews that vindicated the madness of belief that a poetic novella written in the hope of a BBC still remembering Dylan Thomas might try again some long- form poetry.Still I’ll settle for ‘a masterpiece’ for now!
To read Chris Rose’s Review travel here
To read others (equally generous) go here.
The book is among those offered for free for one day December 9th (Read Tuesday) You can find the authors contributing their books here