I took something down from the wall above my desk, and found this underneath. It had been there since maybe June 2015. I posted the photo on my Instagram, and some friends asked for more info – thanks all! Dermot wondered if it was taken in Berlin, neon_grime asked if it was something to do with forensics, while Andrea said ‘Do tell’. So I will ;)
In fact that’s my handwriting, and the Post-it and the question date from the early stages of writing my 2018 novel The Fountain in the Forest. Meaning that this will be a rare post about some aspects of novel-writing process, behind-the-scenes stuff – so if that’s not your thing look away now.
I was in the early stages of writing the novel – no more than half-a-dozen chapters in – and looking at what I needed to do and to make happen. Hence the question: ‘What is resolved here?’ It’s not that I believe particularly that stories or novels need resolutions per se – even (postmodern) detective novels – but there was something about Chapter 28 that I could see coming a long way off.
When I started work on The Fountain in the Forest I’d found that I needed to draw out a sort of calendar, a 30-panel grid on a sheet of A2 paper, to help me plan and structure the novel; to summarise stories, to visualise its ‘shape’, and how it might work through time. I’d post a photo here, but it would be hard to do without spoilers. The Fountain in the Forest and the next two novels in the trilogy investigate the continuing impact today of a pivotal moment in British social history: the 90 days between the end of the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June 1985. All three novels of the Fountain Trilogy are mapped against this period. So 90 days = 90 chapters in total i.e. 30 chapters per novel. This grid was calendar-like because I was using the French Republican Calendar with its 10-day weeks as a frame for the novel. And viewed through this lens, those 90 days in 1985 become nine revolutionary weeks.
I ended up making three of these calendars, covering the whole 90-chapter trilogy: including Revolutionary Calendar elements, the Oulipo-inspired ‘mandated vocabulary’, etc. (I’ve written and spoken about those sources in more detail elsewhere BTW, not least in the preface and afterword of The Fountain in the Forest itself, but also on the Guardian Books podcast, for the Big Issue North, and on Little Atoms, among others.)
I often pin something on the wall when writing a novel: a list, or some kind of ongoing diagrammatic representation. (Just not usually quite so detailed as with The Fountain in the Forest.) As the writing progresses, there’ll likely be a gradual accretion of highlighter pen, scribbled annotations, and Post-its rather like this one.
When I was writing my novel Foxy-T back in 2000, I drew a tiny map on a Post-it and stuck that on my wall. That map – really just a line running from left to right, west to east – simply showed the main geographical movements of the main characters – Foxy-T, Ruji-Babes and Zafar – in relation to the flow of the narrative, from the start to finish of the novel. After staring at this for a few weeks I finally noticed that it looked a bit like a map of the Central Line on the London Underground: two lines join in the west, travel together for a while, then in the east one line veers off before returning a bit further along, a bit like the Central Line’s so-called ‘Hainault Loop’.
(Incidentally, there’s a great schematic of the Central Line on the wonderful Clive’s Underground Line Guides – to me this still looks a lot like the ‘shape’ of Foxy-T.)
Fast forward a few years to the writing of The Fountain in the Forest and the calendar-like grid on my wall. Probably in common with many writers, I use Post-it notes to record ideas at speed when I’m writing novels (like, actually sitting at my desk and writing) because it’s not too distracting and I can quickly place them on/at some approximately relevant point in the structure – or the diagram of the structure – that is emerging and unfolding as each project progresses. I wrote this Post-it – ‘What is resolved here?’ – and stuck it on or near the panel for Chapter 28 of Fountain… (for short) shortly after realising that for all kinds of reasons Chapter 28 was going to have to be some kind of finale, in the theatrical sense of a prolonged final spectacular sequence of multiple parts, in this case complete with the representation of an actual historical battle.
Here – without Post-its – is how the panel for Chapter 28 looked on the plan. I’d already marked the chapter out for special attention by putting it between a pair of zig-zag lines (no less!) and with a spiral to show that this finale might take the form of some kind of (perhaps psychedelic) ‘vortex’ in the text.
If you’ve read the novel you will know that The Fountain in the Forest (and in fact this applies to the trilogy as a whole) doesn’t simply tell the story of those 90 days in 1985 by plodding through them in chronological order, rather it freely moves backwards and forwards in time and to all points in between.
Gertrude Stein is good on literature not needing to simply relay events in sequence. ‘You can tell that so well,’ she says,
in the difficulty of writing novels or poetry these days. The tradition has always been that you may more or less describe the things that happen you imagine them of course but you more or less describe the things that happen but nowadays everybody all day long knows what is happening and so what is happening is not really interesting, one knows it by radios cinemas newspapers biographies autobiographies until what is happening does not really thrill any one, it excites them a little but it does not really thrill them.Gertrude Stein, WHAT ARE MASTER-PIECES AND WHY ARE THERE SO FEW OF THEM
There’s always more to say about Gertrude Stein, so maybe I’ll save some for later. I’ve been reading Stein since I was a teenager. I’d read an interview with the artist Laurie Anderson, maybe in the NME, the Guardian or Time Out (this must have been in the autumn of 1982, around the time of her Laurie Anderson: Artworks exhibition at the ICA, London, and her performance of the immense United States I-IV as part of ICA:NY, both of which I saw) in which she cited/recommended Stein’s novel The Geographical History of America. And even now, thirty-eight years later I find that I’m not yet finished with Stein’s writing. Just this year I’ve been taking part in a durational group reading/performance of Stein’s The Making of Americans, put together by Irene Revell and Anna Barham, which began in a South London living room, then moved online, and at time of writing is still ongoing, and which you can listen to here.
IIRC, Anderson also mentioned John Dos Passos’ USA, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow perhaps in that same interview – both leads that I also followed up. Incidentally, much of my reading as a teenager came from references in songs and on record sleeves or in the music press, as well as my local public library. I can really relate to that line of Mark Fisher’s in his article ‘Why K?’, which serves as an intro to K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004–2016) – he’s talking about ‘theory’, but it could equally apply to literature:
No sob stories, but for someone from my background it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.
And it’s the more experimental detective novels, by Stein and others, that I remain interested in and which have influenced the Fountain Trilogy. (ICYMI at the time, I wrote about ‘experimental thrillers’ for the Guardian a couple of Christmases back, and followed up with more recommendations drawn from the readers’ comments here.)
So, Chapter 28 of The Fountain in the Forest was marked out early on as a kind of finale. This was for various reasons including that it was just two chapters from the end of what was to be a thirty chapter novel, but it was also because Chapter 28 was aligned with a particular date in 1985 that, when converted into the French Republican Calendar, was dedicated to the Hatchery. A lot of the buried themes and stories threaded and incubated throughout the novel would need to hatch in this finale. The Post-it might just as well have asked, ‘What hatches here?’
With The Fountain in the Forest being the first part of a trilogy, the un-asked question of course is, ‘And which stories are carried over to Volumes II and III?’
Once The Fountain in the Forest was done, I took that old plan down. And a new calendar grid for Volume II of the trilogy got pinned onto the wall in its place, inadvertently covering over this old Post-it. And I forgot all about this question – ‘What is resolved here?’ – until a month or two ago, when I took that later grid down off the wall and found this Post-it still stuck to the wall underneath. Coincidentally, this was when I was approaching writing a sort of finale to the next novel – the forthcoming volume II of the trilogy – but had realised that I needed to visualise aspects of this new novel’s shape, its stories, and its narrative machinery in a different way than a grid.
So for the past month or two there’s been a six-foot-long horizontal scroll hanging along the wall above my desk. I wish I could post a photo, but it would be hard to do without giving away spoilers to the next book. This new scroll has helped me to complete a new novel with a new shape and – compared to The Fountain in the Forest – a completely different series and species of reckonings. I can’t wait to share it with you, although I’m keeping the title under wraps right now ;)
Buy Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest via publisher Faber and Faber
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This work has been supported by an award from Arts Council England through the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund: for individuals.
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