but these guys weren’t to know that. And nobody was taking any chances.
That was the opening line from the first draft of The Shock of the Fall. It wasn’t called The Shock of the Fall back then. It wasn’t called anything. It was just that line; those two short sentences repeating in my head, and an immediate sense of the character who had said them.
I then wrote, re-wrote and tweaked a scene depicting a group of nurses restraining and medicating Matthew on a psychiatric unit. I drew upon my own experiences as a nurse to get the setting right, the terminology, the surprising methodical calmness. Then I deleted the lot.
Nothing from the first draft of my novel made it into the finished book. Nothing except Matthew. I think this isn’t so unusual. I’ve done most of my learning about How To Write A Novel since finishing mine. It’s only now that I own books on the subject, and speak to other authors. Characters make the story, I’m told. If the people come alive, whatever they do is worth reading about. And we are drawn to eccentricity. Iain Banks’ Frank Cauldhame; Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone; DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little; and Salinger’s Holden Caulfield were among the characters who I met, whilst still grappling with the irksome little detail of what my plot should be.
I resolved to let Matthew lead the way. That isn’t to say I was a spectator, watching the action unfold. I’ve heard writers use that line and it’s a nice notion, contributing to a mystique, but it wasn’t my experience. Mine was an extended role-play, a kind of acting exercise. We’d pace the paving slabs in my back garden, with a mug of cold tea and a roll-up, muttering a few dozen versions of the same paragraph; stripping back anything too sentimental, too indulgent or too me. I got to know Matthew Homes by spending eight hours a day in his company, and for a person who doesn’t exist, I’ve grown absurdly fond of him. He is funny and humble and perceptive and stoic and brave. He is also conflicted, damaged and angry. A pernicious disease shapes every decision he makes, yet it fails to define him. That won’t surprise people who have known mental illness, but it might surprise those who have known it only through fiction. It’s strange now letting him go. I feel protective, somehow. Or else I’d just like a bit longer tweaking and deleting.
But I’m also very proud to be able to share his story. So to paraphrase something that never made it in: I’ve no intention of putting up a fight.
(This article is published in the April 2013 edition of Gardner’s Select + Magazine)