It’s the story? What IS the story?

There have been times when I’ve regretted publishing Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I can’t escape the feeling that it needed one more rewrite. I’m a compulsive rewriter, and often more unwilling than I should be to let a book go, but in the case of Sharon, I sometimes wish I’d written a fifth draft and not stopped after four. Why? Because I hadn’t quite understood what the story was.

I realise that probably sounds ridiculous. I’d written the damn book four times – how could I not know what the story was? Well…

It’s clear when I talk to other writers that every writer works in a different way. Some work out the entire plot and write it down, scene by scene, before starting work on the book. We call that kind of writer plotters; I’m a “pantser” because I work by the seat of my pants. For example, when I started on the book that eventually became Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I wrote the sentence, All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat for half an hour staring at the screen and thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?”

Zappa’s Mam eventually became a 96,000 word novel, and if I hadn’t a clue when I wrote that first sentence what it was going to be about, I knew by the time I’d finished the fifth draft. The fundamental theme of Zappa’s Mam is summed up in a single sentence – only 20 of those 96,000 words:

When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it.

That’s what I mean by “the story.” I didn’t know when I set out to write Zappa’s Mam that the theme was going to be that what matters is not the cards life deals you, but how you play the hand – but I did know that by the time I was finished. I understood what the story was. There was all sorts of other stuff in there – a murder, drugs and prostitution, love, a tragic death, inadequate parenting, a dedicated schoolteacher and others who were anything but dedicated – but in the end it all came down to that fraction of a sentence: it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it.

And what that has to do with Sharon Wright: Butterfly is that I didn’t really know what the story – the theme – of the book was when I published it. I realised later; talking to people about my books at book signings, when I came to Sharon, I would say, “While I was writing this book, I fell in love with Sharon. And falling in love with Sharon would be a very stupid thing to do, as Jackie Gough finds out. Because, when Sharon woos – as she woos Jackie – she does it the way a female mantis might. Knowing that, when she’s done with him, the male may have to die.”

That’s the story of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. Once again, there’s all sorts of other stuff in there; two hired killers, more than one murder, a bent policeman and several straight ones, depressed south London and a canal in the sylvan Nivernais. I thought at one time that the book’s tagline might be:

In the Nivernais, no‑one watches you. But everyone sees what you do.

It didn’t turn out that way; the tagline I ended up with is more suitable:

No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.

Sharon is a very damaged young woman and her most pressing need is simply to survive. She’ll do anything to achieve that. And by “anything,” I mean ANYTHING. If letting Jackie Gough think they’ll be together and happy ever after to spend the money he helps her steal, she’ll do it. Why not? Poor Jackie!

It’s all in the book, but if I’d written just one more draft, I’d have made that central theme clearer. I don’t know why I rushed it. I wasn’t bored by Sharon. I did have a signing coming up, and I was keen to have another book on the table. Perhaps that was it. I’ve regretted it many times.

Which brings me to When the Darkness Comes. I started writing The Darkness ten years ago. It’s been through five complete rewrites, and the hands of a number of editors, agents and beta readers. Some of the rewrites have been responses to suggestions those people made. The protagonist is Ted Bailey and one of the questions I’ve been asked again and again is, “Are we supposed to like this man?” And the answer to that is: “I don’t see how you could. What is there to like?”

The response is always: “But you can’t write a book about someone it’s impossible to like. No one will read it.” And I accept that that is received wisdom. But is it true? Are there no popular, successful books about someone deeply unlikable? I can think of several. And while you might say, “Oh, well, but they all have some character aspect that makes us warm to them,” I would answer, “So does Ted Bailey.”

In any case, I’ve decided to publish it. I’ve got one more rewrite to do and I’ve fixed on the second Tuesday in February 2017 as publication day. But what’s the story? It’s a fairly incident-packed book. Drug running, espionage, and an incident that Ted’s best friend (if he had one) could not describe as anything but rape, though it’s fixed in its context in what amounted to courtship in those days; the girl herself, talking about it much later, says,

“I did not feel as though I’d been raped. This is nineteen sixty-two we’re talking about. It’s a world that’s gone, swept away and quite right too because it had very little to do with the way people really are. It was more the end of the Fifties than the beginning of the Sixties and the Fifties in Britain was a very dishonest decade. But it was real then and we all knew what the rules were. The man…what am I saying, the boy, they weren’t men in those days, not at nineteen, they were boys, the boy would push as hard as he could without hurting you, and if you were a decent girl you had to resist him. If you actually got him to the altar without giving in you got extra points for that but if you’d kept him at bay as long as you could and then passion got the better of the pair of you, or of just him if you couldn’t fight him off, then it was a matter for shame, you couldn’t avoid that, but it wasn’t the end of the world so long as he married you. He had to marry you.”

Her complaint was not that Ted had had sex with her when she didn’t want him to, but that he had not afterwards done his duty and married her.

There’s also murder, police corruption (no, I don’t know why I’m fixated on that. And, if I do, I’m not telling you) and, once again, France is there as well as the UK – but so are several other countries.

And there’s a chat show which is unusual in that one of the guests is on the verge of death and at least three of the others are already dead, so that we get this scene:

Dolan is looking more than a little brassed off and it seems that Betjeman has taken control in that effortless Marlborough College way. To the aristocracy of his day he may have been a parvenu, and foreign with it, but to most of us he was what an upper class English gent should be. ‘When we talk about the Church,’ he is saying, ‘we normally mean the people in it. Starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and embracing all of the clergy and the laity. But when the man on the Clapham omnibus says “the church,” chances are he means his local parish building. Church architecture has influenced the development of the English character as much as the language of the King James Bible, and certainly more than any Jesuitical philosophising.’
Barabbas has been listening to this with an expression of undisguised contempt. He turns sideways and spits on the floor. Not an Italian “pah” type spatter; this is a full blown, greasy hockle, the type of expectoration a miner coming off shift might have used to clear the coal dust out of his mouth and nose before the days of the pit-head bath. Dolan looks at him in silent horror; Betjeman merely wrinkles his nose.
‘What we have to remember,’ Betjeman says, ‘is that the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—took root in lands as harsh and inimical to human life as it is possible to be, where every day was a struggle for survival. Imagine if God had spoken to us through an Eskimo. The teaching we received from the Son of God as mediated through Gospels written…’
’I was the Son of God,’ says Barabbas.
‘Yes, of course, dear boy, in a sense you were…’
‘In a sense?’ I can see rage simmering behind the goatskin wearer’s purple face.
‘As Bar Abbas, the Son of God, of course you were. But I was referring to the Son of God who we know as Jesus of Nazareth.’
Barabbas spits again, as full throated as before, and Dolan half rises from his seat. ‘Will you please stop doing that.’
‘The Son of God who we know as Jesus of Nazareth,’ Betjeman repeats. ‘His teachings came to us first from men for whom every day was a battle simply to stay alive. They are black and white. There is no room for shades of opinion, only what is right and what is wrong. It is the same today in Saudi Arabia. People regard Wahhabism as some form of extremist creed, but what Wahhabis want is adherence to what they see as the pure, original teaching of Mohamed. No shrines, no priests, no mysticism of any kind. They may be seen as simply the Particular Baptists of Islam. There is a difference, of course. If he knows you recognise the authority of a bishop, a Particular Baptist will walk past you in the street without speaking. A Wahhabi meeting a dervish or a sufi will feel entitled to kill him for the greater glory of Allah.
‘And this is how Christianity came to us, at least before the humanising influence of Rome with its wine and its beautiful food and its art and its adultery. But God is an Englishman, and what He wants are English things. Compromise. Tolerance of difference. Politeness. Look at the cathedrals of Ely and Gloucester, the minsters of York and Southwell and you will see God’s will made manifest.’
Barabbas is on his feet, his short hairy skirt swaying. ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew!’ he screams. ‘Like me. The People of God are the Jewish people! You want to know what God wants? He wants this!’ And his clenched fist slams into Betjeman’s face, splatting the nose and shaking loose a tooth. Then Alex says, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I see Haile Selassie emerge from the shadows and stride onto the stage, if a man with such short legs can be said to stride. He is quivering with anger. Barabbas turns to face him, his chin thrust out, looking for a fight.
‘The Jews were the People of God,’ says Haile Selassie. ‘You gave that away when King Solomon violated the Empress Makeda, whom the ignorant call the Queen of Sheba. She was searching for his wisdom, but he was what he was and he jumped her. His own people were so disgusted by the way he treated her, the way he broke faith and his promise, that they escorted her back to Abyssinia and they took the Ark of the Covenant with them. It sits where they left it, on the beach in the Ethiopian province of Eritrea. Which remains an Ethiopian province today, whatever those benighted savages may say. Our province, our beach, our coastline. My province, my beach, my coastline. On that day, the people of Abyssinia— my people— became the People of God. If anyone is to say what God wants, it is me.’
There is something ridiculous about this short man, midget would be only slightly too unkind a word, puffed up like this and Barabbas looks as though he will strike him, too. But Haile Selassie, physically unimpressive though he may be, has more presence than any man I have ever seen and his cold eyes face the old terrorist down. Barabbas turns and stalks from the room, shoving me and Alex out of his way.
Dolan stands. ‘We will take a short intermission while the floor is cleaned of this disgusting mess. Someone get these two out of here.’ And off he goes, no doubt for another cigarette. Hotel employees rush forward to help Betjeman to his feet. As they pass us, slowly because Betjeman is white, shocked and hobbling, I put out an arm to hold him.
‘What a dreadful man,’ he says. ‘Quite without breeding of any kind. And as for Haile Selassie…I wonder what all those Jamaicans with their knitted hats and their strange hair would say if they knew what their beloved Ras Tafar really thinks of them. You know he refused to think of himself as African? He thought he shared a continent with a bunch of monkeys.’
Yes, yes, I think, never mind all that. I say, ‘You talk about church buildings as the embodiment of God. Do you actually believe in Him?’
‘Oh, look,’ he says. ‘Man is a spiritual being. For all the crackpot lunacy of believers in intelligent design and those criminal madmen who think war between Islam and Judaism will lead to the Rapture and their ascent into Heaven, our need to believe in Him goes to the very heart of our human make-up. And as for Dawkins… If he had the brain he’d like us to think he has, he’d have taken a proper degree. The man’s a biologist, for God’s sake. That’s one step up from an astrologer. Does needing to believe in Him mean He exists? How should I know? It doesn’t mean He does not, you may be sure of that. Please excuse me. I need to find somewhere to lie down.’

It wasn’t until I was writing the book for the fourth time that God took that prominent place in it. And that was when I realised what the story of the book actually is. The tagline is:

Bore God at your peril

and the story – the theme – isn’t about murder and prostitution and rape and drug running. What unfolds (and it’s St Peter who explains it to us, so we can take it that it’s correct) is this: You can live a righteous, saintly and unblemished life for seventy years, but if you bore God you won’t get into Heaven. One more quote, and then I’ll leave the subject, at least for now:

God has favourites. Some people get away with murder, and I do mean that literally, and some people live like angels for seventy years and end up discarded. It isn’t just. It isn’t fair. So what? The atheists, which I used to be, are right when they say that Man has created a model of God that suits them. They abandon logic when they go on from there to say that there is therefore no God.  One does not follow from the other. There is a God. He just isn’t the God people think he is.

And there we are. That’s the story of When the Darkness Comes. And I’m going to tell it. I’m going to ignore the idea that you can’t have an unlikable protagonist. It will be out in February, and I’ll find out then whether anyone agrees with me.

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