In an earlier post (4/7/2020) I explained how my first novel came to be, the individuals I’d met or encountered whose physical attributes, and the interior lives and circumstances I imagined for them, became the characters and story line for Strays.
In a book on writing published ten years ago which I’ve only just come across, Colm Tóibín explains how the last great novel Henry James wrote, The Golden Bowl, was conceived. Five years after The Portrait of a Lady was published, one of the two people whose villa in Florence inspired that novel got married. James then wrote to the father, introducing him to Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was on her way to Florence. His purpose was to have these four people—the younger married couple, and the older pair of new acquaintance—living in proximity, to stimulate his imagination. As Tóibín puts it in All a Novelist Needs (2010):
“In other words, James in London could contemplate the four of them in Florence—the father severed from his only daughter, to whom he was devoted, by her marriage, and the arrival of the outsider to offer comfort or provide company for the father. All four living in close proximity.”
It would be another seventeen years until James even started writing the book that was the product of all this rumination, and his notes written in journals down all the years. But the book is not about those real-life characters; it’s the product of contemplation, about their plight as they go about their lives in close proximity. Tóibín continues:
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.”
More recently, in conversation on stage with Richard Ford (https://vimeo.com/192459241)
Tóibín says more about these early stages of the writing:
"A novelist's job is almost to be as stupid as possible, except in the cunning moment when you need to structure something, when you need to be very intelligent indeed.”
That structuring will come later, Tóibín says, but for now:
“[Y]ou need almost an empty mind, where you can let any image in, follow it along, and allow an emotional charge, almost the way actors and singers can work.”
One needs to sit and watch and listen, he says, to the characters as they interact with each other and meet situations some of which they hadn’t counted on; and to those around them who want something else, something inconsistent perhaps with what your main characters want. For this work, you clear your mind and go on instinct, not intelligence.
“The more instinct you have as a novelist the better."
At least until that “cunning moment.”
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .