I recently interviewed Deborah Levy, author of Swimming Home, for BookBrowse. The book was rejected by mainstream publishers as “too literary” but was picked up by a small, iconoclastic UK house called And Other Stories. Since then, it has taken off. Levy was shortlisted for the National Book Awards Author of the Year, and the novel was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize (pending), and has been translated into multiple languages. On a personal level, Swimming Home affected me in a way few novels do. It is always a joy to find such a book, a work that takes your breath and whose characters wander about in the heart long after the last word is inhaled.
I asked her how, after her successes, she saw her role in terms of influencing the direction of writing and publishing. In her answer, I was particularly struck by the following: “…the act of writing [the novel] had shaken me to the core. By the time I had finished Swimming Home I had become a different sort of writer than the one I was when I started it.”
Reading this was for me a kind of satori, one of those singular moments when a visceral and fundamental truth reveals itself. What I realized was that as both a reader and a writer, this is the fundamental test of successful writing. We must be shaken to the core; we must emerge from the experience changed. Whether reading or writing a book, we want to be transported, and if we are, by definition, we emerge in a different place than when we started the journey.
I want to concentrate on the writing part of it, firstly because this was really the revelation for me, and secondly, because I have been struggling for some time with the pages of a new novel and that struggle, I am discovering, has much to do with this idea of being shaken to the core. Did writing my first novel, Running the Rift, change me in some fundamental sense? Absolutely. I can say with certainty that because of writing this novel, I am different both as a person and as a writer. The process shaped my sense of “being” in the world, and it shaped the way I approach every aspect of the written word: plot, character development, story arc, and, perhaps most importantly, the delicate balance between what is said and what remains hidden between the lines.
Did it shake me to the core? Emotionally, in a most profound sense. This is a more difficult question to quantify, because I was writing about the Rwandan genocide, and so from the point of view of subject matter, I was shaken to the core every day. Sometimes, it was all I could do to approach the page, to believe that in some way I could take the shock and grief and fundamental failure of human understanding in the face of such apocalypse and find words that would do justice to the event and in some sense shape the unspeakable into the written word.
But what about the craft aspect of being “shaken to the core?” Existentially, every work of fiction should be an experiment on some level. If not, there will be no growth, no change. When I began Running the Rift, I had great ambitions for redefining language, structure, and the sense of time, but as I wrote, the story overwhelmed all else. In retrospect, I believe that was enough. The event took over; the inevitable and unstoppable march toward genocide was what defined language and
structure and the weave of time with its relative expansion and contraction. As a consequence, the experiments became smaller in scale. My ambitions changed in scope.
Now that I am working on my second novel, I am once more ambitious on a grand scale. I suppose it’s human nature to want to explore, to blow apart expectation and go beyond what has been done before. To want to be shaken to the core and shake others to the core. After many false starts and much writing in circles, I have finally realized that the pressure of ambition can also shake you to the core but in a very different and self-destructive way. Consequently, I have come to realize that I have to let ambition go, and, as I did with Running the Rift, let the shape of the work dictate the shape of the craft, at least in these early drafts.
I know that in the end, this work will push the boundaries of my writing in ways that my first novel did not. As an example, thematically, the work deals with the warp and weft of memory and how, in the face of passing years, the resultant fabric, particularly of traumatic memory, is distorted. I want my writing to reflect this distortion and to produce in the reader a sense of unease and disorientation similar to what my characters experience as repressed memory overtakes them.
In order to accomplish this, I know I will have to change the way I structure time, the traditional approach to story and back story, and from a craft perspective, I will have to reinvent and rediscover my relationship to time. But I am learning that I can’t force the process; this is where ambition goes awry. I have to have patience, to allow reinvention to emerge organically from story over the course of many drafts. I have to trust that story will lead me where I need to go.
Being shaken to the core will involve a great deal of stumbling, falling, and picking myself up again, but in the end, isn’t that what the path of the writer requires? Doesn’t true learning always involve not only making mistakes but giving ourselves permission to make them? At the risk of sounding trite, it is, as Nietzsche said, the stuff that doesn’t kill us that makes us stronger. Being shaken to the core is not a process that can be spoon fed or taken from a can at the grocery or hardware store.
I wish I could sit down and ask Deborah Levy what the process of writing Swimming Home involved for her. How many drafts? How many false starts? How much agony and how many times the writing nearly killed her? I want my work to impact others as deeply as her work impacted me. As a fairly new writer, I still suffer from the illusion that I will sit down at my keyboard and pop out a brilliant finished product that accomplishes that end, one that will shake readers to the core. Cerebrally, of course I know this is nonsense, but the idea has enough visceral tenure that my daily failures sometimes bring me to my knees. This brings me to my last question. Can a reader be truly shaken to the core if the writer has not been? I think this is impossible. And so, I will tell myself that all these daily failures are necessary. I will give myself permission to write it wrong until the “rightness” emerges from the wreckage of my mistakes. Until I have been shaken to the core, and in that process discovered the meaning of that core.