Today we’re pleased to welcome Matthew De Abaitua. His upcoming novel, The Destructives will be released March 1st and he stopped by to answer the question What Was Your Perspiration For Writing This Novel? Yep, you read that right. Perspiration! Curious? He explains it all below with a great look into what it really takes to write a novel.
What Was Your Perspiration For Writing This Novel?
Authors are often asked about the inspiration behind their novels. But, as the saying goes, writing is only ten per cent inspiration. The other ninety per cent is perspiration. So let’s talk about that.
To write The Destructives, I needed a laptop running Scrivener, headphones playing ambient electronic music, a tea pot serving proper tea, and a cat offering distraction. The novel was written in the hallway of my home and the headphones were necessary to screen out the sound of my children. Cyril Connolly wrote that an enemy of a writer’s promise is the pram in the hall. What would Cyril have made of the author in the hall? Working – perspiring – in such a position, I had two choices: either I wrote a fast-paced, angry science fiction adventure, or an experimental literary novel called A Portrait of the Artist as a Fire Hazard.
In the hallway, there was no time for messing about. I needed the muse on demand. I devised playlists for the novel and played the music repeatedly until I was conditioned to produce The Destructives on cue, hopped up on strong tea. The cat appeared now and again to offer a sceptical glance or slow blink of approval. Sometimes, he would sit on my keyboard and – tail in the air – demand that I follow him on patrol down the hall, over the bed, back up the hall, around the kitchen, stopping at the food bowl: these excursions constituted – during the writing of The Destructives – my social life.
I worked on The Destructives all day and night, waking long before dawn to dream my way through forthcoming scenes. In the time lapse photography of parenthood, I was a still point in the hallway while family life wove its traces around me, and when I look at the finished novel I see – either side of the lines of black text – the white lines, the strips of life sacrificed in the writing of the book.
We shouldn’t conceptualise inspiration and perspiration as discrete stages. Such a divide presupposes that once an artist has an idea, all that remains is the rendering of that idea it in their chosen medium. Inspiration arises out of perspiration which inspires more work that produces further inspiration, and so on: I rode this Möbius strip for months, trusting to Picasso’s dictum that the muse exists but she has to find you working.
In addition to not-quite making a living out of writing, I also fail to make a living out of lecturing in creative writing. I spend a lot of time talking to students as they work (or not) at their creative process. Here again we are concerned with perspiration. Students are expected to write a story every week and circulate it to me and their peers. This is how you establish regular habits of composition and forge the circuitous pathways through the white matter of the brain, neurological roads less travelled, that meet at the crossroads and form a new idea. Preaching this discipline day in day out, I could hardly go home and lounge. As Flaubert advised, “be regularly and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
To teach Creative Writing, I draw on the wisdom of other writers talking about their working practice. The creative writing teacher is looking for ways to externalise the quiet, private, internal process of writing. There aren’t that many rules to pass on. As writers and lecturers, we have prejudices – the kinds of writing we like or don’t like. Our main role is to run the workshops and administrate the perspiration. Authors worry that, by presiding over these autopsies of the muse, they will inadvertently destroy their own inspiration. (But it’s not the student fiction that interferes with writing. It’s the punitive admin.) The more I work with the students on their stories and novels, the greater my understanding of the whole malarkey. When I was planning The Destructives, I was also helping postgraduates plan their novels. Planning a novel requires writing it – you can’t draw a map without exploring the territory. Going through this process with the students, at the same time as writing and planning a novel myself, was vital. The questions I asked of them about plot, narrative choices, the insubmergible moments in the story, were pertinent to me too.
The Destructives was not composed at the leisurely pace of a lotus-eating artist. The novel has attack and is infused with anger: as the tagline says, “Be the anger you want to see in the world.” I hit that sweet spot between penury and subsistence – not so broke that I was riddled with anxiety but not comfortable either – and cracked on. Great science fiction has been written by authors who are howlingly broke. Ray Bradbury fed dimes into a rented typewriter in the basement of a library to write Fahrenheit 451. Philip K Dick claimed to have subsisted on dog food. My writing hero Alan Moore was working as a toilet cleaner when he first started selling stories. It can be necessary to work in this way, neither rushed nor careless but relentlessly, like a writer steadily outpacing their creditors but never breaking a sweat.
Matthew De Abaitua’s The Destructives is published by Angry Robot in the UK and the US. His novel IF THEN (2015) was described by Nina Allan as “everything science fiction should be aiming for” and his debut novel The Red Men was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award. He can be found at harrybravado.com and is @MDeAbaitua on Twitter.
Theodore Drown is a destructive. A recovering addict to weirdcore, he's keeping his head down lecturing at the university of the moon. Twenty years after the appearance of the first artificial intelligence, and humanity is stuck. The AIs or, as they preferred to be called, emergences have left Earth and reside beyond the orbit of Mercury in a Stapledon Sphere known as the university of the sun. The emergences were our future but they chose exile. All except one.
Dr Easy remains, researching a single human life from beginning to end. Theodore's life. One day, Theodore is approached by freelance executive Patricia to investigate an archive of data retrieved from just before the appearance of the first emergence. The secret living in that archive will take him on an adventure through a stunted future of asylum malls, corporate bloodrooms and a secret off-world colony where Theodore must choose between creating a new future for humanity or staying true to his nature, and destroying it.