Behind the Words: Christmas, 1990
So this is The Waves Burn Bright, my third novel. At its core is the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988, where 167 men lost their lives. It was published by Freight in 2016, received some excellent reviews and got me invited to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and then went out of print less that a year later when Freight went under (I have to stress the connections between publication of this book and the demise of the publishing company are only indirect. To date I have yet to single-handedly bring down a publisher).
TWBB is a family drama, the relationship between Marcus (who survives Piper Alpha) and his daughter Carrie (who is collateral damage in Marcus’s ensuing PTSD and alcoholism) being both the heart and the drive of the book. It pains me that this is out of print, partly because five years on, and despite some flaws that time and developing craft have revealed to me, I think this is still a very good book. The rights are mine and available, so I live in hope that one day it will make its return to the world stage and become the film Danny Boyle is destined to direct (I see Ewan McGregor as Marcus, since you ask, and Lynsey-Anne Moffat as present-day Carrie, but I’ll leave the final casting up to you, Danny).
As a family drama, Christmas necessarily plays a role. Two separate Christmas Days make an appearance, 1990 (this extract) and 2000 which will be next week’s post. It may be a well-worn trope, but I find a traumatic Christmas to be unbearably sad. It’s why the best (only good?) bit of Love Actually is Emma Thompson’s narrative: for some reason heartbreak on Christmas morning is worse than on any other day. I guess given expectations, you have further to fall.
Carrie’s childhood Christmases are awful, and none of it is her fault. 1990 is the worst. She is sixteen. Her mother has gone, living with her new partner. Her father is in the grips of alcoholism, self-medicating to treat his PTSD, a treatment that does not work. She comes down on Christmas morning to evidence of that - a living room destroyed in a drunken rage, her father missing, clearly having driven off regardless of his state.
Writing this book, writing scenes like this, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Rarely did a day at the desk went by without me ending up in tears. Writing, like acting, is a form of ventriloquism - for me at least. I have to become my characters, method writing to a certain extent, in order to see the world from their perspective. If I don’t, they end up just being an extension of me.
Putting myself in Marcus and Carrie’s roles was upsetting. Writing this book did a lot of damage to my mental health. It forced me to relive a lot of bad memories (I never experience anything like Carrie did, I should add, but my parents also divorced and living through that psychological upheaval once has hard enough; reliving it was far from pleasant). I can fully understand how Virginia Woolf would take to her bed upon completion of a novel, mentally decimated by the experience. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the publication of TWBB was followed by a four year gap and then a return with a (mostly) comedic memoir. I tread carefully on the shores of the novel form; I need to literally psyche myself up before diving in.
This is a book full of echoes. Knives and blood; digging; exhausting your body to silence your mind; running, escaping, just getting in the car and driving, leaving without ever looking back. PTSD is, in part, a memory malfunction, flashbacks endless repeats of something the brain can’t process, can’t filter through the usual pathways. My PhD, nearing completion, is on this topic, how fiction can portray the experience of PTSD, and the treatment. It’s a moving, humbling, terrifying subject. Books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Testimony by Felman and Laub are eye-opening, fascinating, horrifying. What memory is, what it can do to you, how integral it is to our sense of self and how far we unravel when the system breaks down. There but for the grace of gods…
There are more pleasant echoes for me in these chapters, memories of inspiration, little touches I put in that make me smile. Marcus’s ruby red Saab is the same car an old family friend had, the man who introduced me to the Goons and Spike Milligan, to Puccini and Pavarotti, to Zen meditation and was the first person I knew to get connected to the internet. There’s something about a red Saab that is powerfully evocative to me, strongly nostalgic.
The bar in the book, Under the Hammer, was a real pub where I worked first as barman while I was a student, then as bar manager during the year I took between my undergrad and my masters. It recently closed down, a victim of the plague times, but it is fondly remembered by all who sailed in her.
Echoes abound. Doing a PhD on your own writing (as creative writing PhDs involve) is an odd thing, academically justifying decisions that generally came in a flash as you were drafting (why a Saab? Because it makes me smile), uncovering things in the text that you put there without realising their significance (Barthes infuriating “death of the author” theory never considered the possibility of creative writing PhDs where the author is the reader objectively analysing their subjective creativity). Mainly however it gave me a chance to revisit this novel, to immerse myself in their world in a way I hadn’t done since drafting, but without having to worry about doing any actual drafting. We tend to avoid re-reading after publication, already onto the next thing, all too aware of the flaws and cracks that are insufficiently papered over, but re-reading TWBB has renewed my desire to see it back out in the world. Perhaps I’ll serialise it here in the future, though only if Danny Boyle passes up the opportunity of a lifetime…
If you haven’t read TWBB and I’ve tweaked your interest, ebooks are available for Kindle via the Death Star, and I still have a handful of print copies so we could work something out through PayPal. Merry Christmas!