Just over two years ago, I was – to put it plainly – shitting myself. It was January 2011, and the novel I needed to write, the historical novel that was to be the creative component of my PhD in Creative Writing at Flinders University, could no longer be avoided. While, in the first few years of my degree, I had managed to stave off my supervisors’ queries with promises that I was performing ‘very crucial’ research into nineteenth-century Iceland, the time had come for me to finally produce my first attempt at a novel. My supervisors, their smiles slipping, were asking to see the goods. My scholarship – my only income – was rapidly drawing to a rude halt. The problem was, I had no idea how to write a book, and that terrified me.
I first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland. It was 2002, I was 17 years old, and I had left my home town of Adelaide for Sauðárkrókur, an isolated fishing village, where I would live for 12 months. This small town lies snug in the side of a fjord: a clutch of little buildings facing an iron-grey sea, the mountains looming behind. When I arrived it was January, and the days were gripped by darkness, 20 hours at a time. There were no trees. The town’s houses were hostage to snow, and in the distance the North Atlantic Ocean met the north sky in a suggestion of oblivion. It felt like the edge of the world.
I was intensely lonely. The community was tightly knit, and I was an outsider. Everyone knew me as the exchange student – cars would slow to a crawl as passengers gawked out of the window to stare at my foreign face – but few people approached me. For the first time in my life I felt socially isolated, and my feelings of alienation were compounded by the claustrophobic winter darkness, and the constant confinement indoors. I turned to writing for company, to fill the black hours. I sought shelter in libraries, consolation in books.
It was during the first difficult months of my exchange that I travelled through a place called Vatnsdalshólar. It’s an unusual tract of landscape: a valley mouth pimpled with hillocks of earth. When I asked my host parents if the area was significant, they pointed to three small hills, nestled closely together. Over 100 years ago, they said, a woman called Agnes had been beheaded there. She was the last person to be executed in Iceland.
I was immediately intrigued. What had she done? What had happened? Over time I discovered that Agnes was a 34-year-old servant woman who had been beheaded on 12 January 1830 for her role in the 1828 murders of two men. It seemed a tragic tale; Agnes had been unequivocally condemned. Retrospectively, I can only speculate that the strange, isolated place of Agnes’ death made me think of my own feelings of loneliness; that I thought of Agnes as a fellow outsider in a remote Icelandic community, and I identified with her in some small way.
Even as my loneliness eased and I fell deeply in love with Iceland, a compulsion to tell the story of the execution, or more specifically Agnes’ story, continued to grow. Surely there was more to her character than the stereotypical ‘monster’ spoken of in the records of the murder? I felt haunted by Agnes, feelings heightened by my lack of knowledge and understanding about her life and the events that condemned her.
When I returned to Australia and embarked on a Bachelor of Creative Arts, thoughts of Agnes continued to seep through the layers of my consciousness. She stayed with me in such a way that, by the time I graduated with Honours and decided to embark on a higher-research degree in Creative Writing, it seemed logical that I make Agnes’ story the subject of my PhD.
It was, looking back, probably one of the most uninformed and ridiculous decisions I’ve ever made. Unpracticed and unskilled in any form of novel-writing or biographical research, I publically committed myself to writing a full-length manuscript about a historical figure I knew nothing about, set in a country not my own, in a time I was utterly unfamiliar with. Some people kindly called it an ‘ambitious’ project. I think ‘indicative of a student who has no idea what she’s doing’ would have been more appropriate.
The first two years of my PhD went smoothly enough. My research proposal was accepted, and I embarked on a haphazard yet thoroughly enjoyable exploration of nineteenth-century Iceland. Travel diaries written in 1800 by English visitors to the north were devoured. Scholarly articles ranging from ‘Extensive Sheep-Grazing in the North’ to ‘Infant Mortality in Nordic Countries, 1780–1930’ were slowly waded through. I returned to my beloved Halldór Laxness and trawled databases for any information remotely connected to the dark, foggy time that was 1800s Iceland. I sought, too, anything I could find about the murders and the execution, and was rewarded with poems, plays, local histories and some fairly dry judicial records, all of which I then painfully translated.
As time went on, however, I began to grow concerned. Agnes was rarely given more than a few passing references in the sources I found, and yet, when she was mentioned, she seemed no more than a stock character, the necessary ‘evil-doing woman’ required to explain a tragedy resulting in the death of two men. Where was her life story? What sort of person was she truly? Twenty-four months into my PhD I realised – with no small amount of nervous gulping – that I knew only four facts about this elusive woman: her name, the date of her death, that she was a servant, and I knew – from Icelandic naming traditions – that her father was a man called Magnús. It hardly felt like enough to write a book about.
Thankfully, Flinders University came to my aid.
I applied for funding to embark on an overseas field trip in Iceland, and spent six weeks there happily holed up in the national archives, museums and libraries, sifting through ministerial and parish records, censuses, maps, microfilm, logs, and local histories. I visited the sites of the murder and execution and met several Icelanders who generously told me what they knew. Agnes and her life’s sorry trajectory finally emerged from the shadows, and I returned to Australia in late 2010 with the kind of hysterical happiness bestowed only on the severely jetlagged research student who has been allowed to touch very old paper without gloves.
As with any high, however, there comes, inevitably, the crash. Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed by a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd. Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation: just because I was a cat-person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.
The new year of 2011 rang in with a solemn knell of inevitability. Plaintive moans of desperation, and relentless assurance-seeking from my partner aside (‘I can do this, can’t I?’), it was time. I converted our walk-in wardrobe into an ‘office’, where I pinned up my maps of Iceland on the walls, and Blu-tacked photos of the execution site (cheerful!) on my iMac. I scrubbed a good five years of accumulated filth from my keyboard, and placed a coffee coaster strategically on the desk. My schedule was relatively clear: I had no office job, and besides a bit of contract research work, and the usual Kill Your Darlings commitments, I was free to write each day.
But for how long? And what about? Should I start from the beginning of the story and write in a linear fashion, or write the scenes that jump to mind first? If I’m having a bad day, should I leave and go for a walk, or chain myself to the desk, weeping, until I produce something? What do writers actually do when they say they write full time? Is it nine to five? How many words constitute a productive day? Should I start smoking? Will that help? Do they sit there and look out the window, and does that ‘count’?
Uncertain as to what I ought to do, I turned to the Guardian’s ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series for clues. Unfortunately, this brief study of other writers’ day-to-day lives only taught me that there is no uniform working day. Some of the featured authors write in eighteenth-century rooms originally designed by people with names along the lines of Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen (David Starkey); others in former Victorian asylums (Hilary Mantel). Virginia Woolf and Roald Dahl worked in sheds, and Barbara Trapido holes up in an attic. Routines, also, differ wildly. Deborah Moggach needs a fag and coffee before she writes, whereas Kate Mosse only requires ‘a view, light, and to be up high’. Sebastian Faulks works from ten to six. Anne Enright has ‘no set hours’. Trapido sleeps in the attic she writes in two nights a week, rises at three or four o’clock, and then writes cross-legged in bed until nine o’clock. Siri Hustvedt sits down at her desk at ‘around eight o’clock’ and writes until her brain ‘begins to dim – around two o’clock’, and Margaret Drabble does something similar. Some surround themselves with maps, others with photos of loved ones. Will Self has a 400,000-year-old flint hand-axe on his desk. Faulks and Sarah Waters both have copies of the wartime poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ for ‘solid advice on a slow day’ (Faulks), and to ‘focus on in moments of crisis’ (Waters).
It was Sarah Waters’ brief description of her surrounds that struck me as most similar to my own (‘I think all I need […] is a flat surface, a computer, and a closeable door; a large wardrobe would probably do.’).
An admirer of her work, and having interviewed her a few times previously, I decided to try out her writing process for myself (Trapido’s three o’clock start didn’t quite appeal). On Waters’ website she claims that ‘when I’m at the start or middle of a book, writing fresh material every day, I don’t let myself turn off the computer until I’ve written at least 1000 new words.’ This, I decided, I would take as my own goal. I would write 1000 words a day, come hell or high water. Even if, after 100 days, I had 100,000 words of terrible writing, that was better than nothing at all.
I started writing the manuscript that would be Burial Rites on 24 January, and finished the first draft on 9 May.
I worked most weekdays, sitting at my desk at around eight o’clock (a time, I soon discovered, when I was at my brightest and most positive), and remaining there until I had completed 1000 words of new writing. Some days I accomplished this by 11 o’clock, and was then free to do other work, go for a walk, or to read; other days I was still sitting at the computer when night fell, my nerves shattered, and my confidence at a dangerous low. I focused on, and managed to break, my habit of editing the previous day’s writing, as it both deferred the composition of new work, and broke my focus on the narrative as a whole. My partner (who is wise to my tendency to become both depressed and obsessed with writing, and perhaps also aware of my deteriorating posture) gave me an itinerary of scheduled break times, and my own copy of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tea towel, which – as ubiquitous as it has become – was a wonderful reminder to persist in the face of self-doubt. I trawled through my notebooks, hauling out pieces of writing I had drafted during my early days of research, and found that most of them could be resuscitated and incorporated into the manuscript – thus learning the value of never throwing anything away.
Over time, my days fell into a welcome routine, and I discovered that, through experimentation, I could answer my own questions about how to write a book. The problem of whether or not to write the story sequentially was solved by writing the scenes I wanted to write (the advice, also, of my supervisor), then printing out the day’s writing and filing it in a folder, more or less where I thought it should go. On truly bad days, I would go for a walk around Brunswick Street, make some coffee, and then return to my computer to write, even if it was, literally, ‘This is shit, this is shit. I have no idea what I’m doing,’ followed by a stream of consciousness ramble. Sometimes going outside to smoke a cigarette and feel sorry for myself did help, and looking out of the window, even if the view was of a Fitzroy brick wall, did ‘count’.
The fear of not knowing where I was headed and the best way to get there never abated. I had expected that at some point into the first draft a light would go on, and I would understand, finally, how to write a book. This never happened. The process was akin to blindly walking in the dark, feeling my way only by touch, and only recognising dead ends when I smacked into them. Most of the time I worked without the company of a muse; galvanised instead by a reluctance to fail rather than artistic zeal. The thing to do, I discovered, was to keep writing despite my feelings of uncertainty. As TS Eliot once said, ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’.
Finishing the manuscript came as a surprise to me. I had spent most of the morning finishing the last scene, and then I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation, or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad. Grief-stricken, in fact. I put my head down on my desk and sobbed. The first draft was finished, and yet it felt like nothing I had expected. There was no champagne-soaked celebration or private self-congratulation. It felt like breaking up with someone I still had feelings for; I was so forlorn I could barely stand to see the document on my desktop, let alone start editing it. I cried my heart out for the rest of the day, and then put the printed manuscript under my desk. It stayed there, gathering dust, for another five months.
Recently I was asked whether I knew my book was any good at that early stage, before it had been considered by an agent or by publishers. The truth is, I didn’t care – I was so relieved I’d managed to write the thing after years of obsessing about the story – and besides, I had no way of knowing. Having composed the novel, I could never re-enter it as a reader; I knew what was coming; knew the private, unspoken motivations of the characters whether they were on or off the page; saw the setting whether or not it was described. As Margaret Atwood succinctly puts it, I had seen ‘how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat’.
While occasionally I’d wonder whether the manuscript would one day be published, it seemed a far-off possibility. Besides, it needed work before that might ever happen, and the thought of redrafting a book that, in all likelihood, offered no more than a PhD qualification wasn’t as enticing as the $20 review commissions and part-time contracts
I was scraping together to keep myself financially afloat. I was already living back with my parents in Adelaide in an effort to save some money.
Then, in early October 2011, I had coffee with a friend. I’d spent an hour moaning over my latte about my state of pennilessness when my friend interrupted to ask whether I planned on entering my book in the new Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. I explained that, what with trying to save enough for a bond so I could move out of my parents’ house, I couldn’t afford to spend time redrafting the novel. She suggested that maybe I was too preoccupied on the work I was doing for others and it was now ‘time to take advantage of the bigger opportunities out there’. Defensive, I pointed out that the closing date for the award was a week away, and that, at any rate, I had a review due the same day. She told me to email the editor and blankly announce it would be submitted late. Fear of failure was no excuse for prioritising a 250-word review over my own novel. She was right.
For the next few days I worked with a delicious ruthlessness, slashing and burning all superfluous material from my manuscript. It was a week of dishevelment, of long hours and poor personal hygiene, while my very supportive parents – who were no doubt wondering why the hell they didn’t encourage me to pursue accountancy – occasionally knocked on my door to make sure I wasn’t turning into Howard Hughes, circa the later years. With the clarity an impending deadline can bring, I managed to cut 20,000 words from the original 110,000-word manuscript. Fifteen minutes before the competition closed, I entered the novel and its synopsis.
Some weeks later, I received a phone call from Barbara Wiesner, then-director of the SA Writers’ Centre, informing me that Burial Rites had been chosen as the winner out of over 400 entries. I recall being so consumed with disbelief that I made someone slap me across the face, just to make sure that it wasn’t some kind of elaborate daydream. Sounds clichéd, but it’s true.
Winning the WAUMA award was my foot in the door; it got the novel noticed and led to further opportunities. Pippa Masson, of the literary agency Curtis Brown, offered to read the manuscript for consideration, and after I accidentally emailed her 23 copies (then called her, mortified, to explain that it was because my server glitched and not because I was crazy-determined that she read it), she took me on as a client. Geraldine Brooks agreed to mentor me, and thanks to her sound and generous advice I was able to continue drafting, modifying, cutting, adding and polishing through a few more drafts until I was ready for others to read it. Pippa pitched and sent the book to Australian publishers, and from there it leaked internationally, escalating into three separate bidding wars for ANZ, UK and US rights.
The acquisition of Burial Rites was – in many ways – not a conclusion at all, but rather the beginning of a secondary process. A few weeks after my manuscript was sold, I received combined notes from my Australian, English and American publishers, in which they – gently but clearly – pointed out the areas of writing and the characters they thought remained unclear, patchy, or unconvincing, asked questions of me, and made suggestions to include more in some scenes and cut from others. One publisher was concerned about the title (the inevitable confusion about rites/rights; a little reminiscent of crime fiction), and while the other two liked it, alternatives were considered, some of which were quite good (The Dark Shore), others of which didn’t quite work (Absolution). Eventually a decision was made to keep Burial Rites. There was also some discussion over the ending of the book, which took up another character’s point of view, and a suggestion was made that it be altered, or cut. After some hesitation (I adored the final sentence and was reluctant to let it go), I decided to trust in my publishers’ and editors’ experience and deleted the whole thing.
Working through the queries took several weeks in total. Not only was I editing what was there, but I was also writing fresh material – often with a very particular purpose (clarifying character motivation, exploring sub-stories further) in mind. When I returned the new draft to my publishers, it was accompanied by a document where I discussed some of the alterations made (‘Chapter One has had a reshuffle so that there is less confusion over time/pacing’, ‘The new scenes with this character should hopefully suggest a new shift in attitude.’) and explained why I had left certain things alone. (‘The new information I included about this character seemed too explicatory, and lacked emotional truth.’)
After this draft had been read, I was sent more forensic editing reports, which – again – sought clarification, suggested changes, flagged anachronisms, and picked up on mistakes, errors and queried particulars: ‘Why is the room described as so dark? There is a window.’ ‘Revise: many references to people tripping on things.’ ‘Would the washing be dry if it rained the previous night?’ At one stage there was some discussion over whether ‘fart’, ‘piss’ and ‘shit’ seemed ‘too modern’ for the novel’s setting, prompting my UK editor to interject, saying that ‘the first recorded use of these words is 1250, 1300 and 1325 respectively’. The things you learn when you write a book!
I worked more or less continuously on Burial Rites since it was sold, drafting and revising it more times than I ever thought would be necessary. I remember Ron Rash (when I interviewed him for Kill Your Darlings in 2011) telling me that he completes 12 to 14 drafts of each novel. At the time I was both astonished and impressed at his dedication to perfecting his work. But having now gone through the process of preparing a manuscript for submission, and then working through the editorial process (structural edits, copy edits, proof reads, final queries), I understand that 12 to 14 drafts is not immoderate at all, but necessary. Whilst perhaps not quite reaching Rash’s quota of 14 drafts, Burial Rites has been re-written, pulled apart and put back together again so many times that when I pile all my printed drafts together – each covered in post-its and scribbles – the tower of paper stands well over half a metre high. I know this because I measured it.
I’ve been asked why I’ve had such a dream run as a debut author – particularly in times such as these – and I understand why people want to know. However, the truth is that it is a question that troubles me, because I have no answer. Was it hard work? Well yes, that was partly it, but to say that hard work won me a publishing deal is to also suggest that unpublished writers don’t work hard enough, which is untrue and unfair. What was it then? Luck? Was it due to the skilful navigation of an agent familiar with the weird and troubled waters of publishing? Yes, all of these things, perhaps. I’m not sure. I don’t even know if my publishers know. These things do, occasionally, happen. All I know is that I am very grateful that it happened to me.
Despite the nature of the way in which my novel was sold, a publication deal hasn’t extinguished my fears about writing. I still doubt my own abilities, and wonder whether some people, knowing about the auction, might have unfairly high expectations of Burial Rites. Having signed a two-book deal, there is also, unquestionably, an anxiety to write a decent second novel. But these fears have by now become so familiar, that, rather than inducing creative paralysis, they light a fire under me. It is writing, after all, which keeps me burning. Yes, it terrifies me, and it vexes me, and there are many days when I will actively sabotage my own practice. Some days ‘writing’ seems no more than a repeated chorus of muttered expletives, and a hammering of the ‘delete’ button. Yes, there are days when I am able to somehow sever myself loose from the temporal world and fully enter the lives of my characters. Sometimes I do feel that I am putting the best words I can think of in the best order possible, and there are moments when the writing comes swift and thick and pure. I am grateful for these times. But most days fear is my shadow. It drives my writing as much as my love for it does.
Perhaps it’s supposed to be this way. As Anne Enright says, ‘Only bad writers think that their work is really good.’ As terrible as we may believe ourselves to be, maybe the thing to do is to keep calm and carry on, anyway. And perhaps, just perhaps, the only fiction worth reading – the writing that ensnares you wholly, that lays siege to your heart – is that which is born of love and terror, slick with the blood of its creator.