John Harvey on starting a new novel with Frank Elder
“Now it is necessary to get to the grindstone again.”
Ernest Hemingway, 1938
“So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time.”
Renata Adler: Pitch Dark
Two quotations which were very much in mind at the end a week in which I began writing a new book for the first time since I set out on the road to Darkness, Darkness back in 2013. Not another Charlie Resnick, of course, but what, if things go as planned, will be the fourth of the Frank Elder series, tentatively titled Body & Soul. Where Frank is concerned, it’s been a while. The third, and last up until now, Darkness & Light, was written in 2005, published in 2006; Ash & Bone was published in 2005 and Flesh & Blood, which I began writing in London and finished in New Zealand, was published in 2004.
Up until recently, my standard answer to the question, would there be another Frank Elder book, has always been no, no way: the central element in the books, for me, had been the changing relationship between Elder and his daughter, Katherine, and by the end of Darkness & Light that seemed to have settled to some kind of conclusion, a compromise, at least. A trilogy, over and done. But nothing comes from nothing and, a little over a year ago, the germ of an idea struck me. Not exactly an idea, an image: one which suggested a retread of the scene at the beginning of chapter two of Flesh & Blood, in which Elder meets Katherine after she has travelled down to Cornwall to visit.
As I say, nothing comes from nothing. That image wouldn’t let me go. What was she doing there? How long has it been since, father and daughter, they have seen one another? Why has she come?
I have a notebook in front of me now [Yes, all right, I’ve fallen for all the hype and it’s a Moleskin] which has Body & Soul in ink on the wrap-around cover and on the first page, the title again, with, underneath it, towards the bottom of the page, Dec. 2015. On succeeding pages are the notes and ideas that occurred to me in the ensuing months, some just a few words long, some longer and numbered into what could be a sequence; others, more elaborate and connected by arrows, the beginnings of a structure; then there are lists of the possible names of characters; things I need to find out, people it would be useful to talk to, what I need to talk to them about. I had briskly re-read the other novels in the series a couple of weeks before starting, making brief notes and marking passages I thought I might need to refer to. The next step was to process all of this into a different form. Armed with a white board and coloured markers I made as close as I ever get to an outline, not linear, but circular, beginning by placing the central event around which the action will be focussed at the centre and arranging the principal characters and actions around it.
My other preparation has been to go through my usual palate cleansing exercise of reading Hemingway – the first section of A Farewell to Arms and a selection of the short stories – the Nick Adams stories and some of those set in Europe, “A Simple Enquiry” for instance, and “Che Ti Duce La Patria”. Why? See the Adler quote above.
At some point, the reading has to stop …
Monday, January 30th, 2017. Somewhere around 9.00/9.30am, having been at my desk since 8.00, hovering uncertainly over the crucial first sentence, the first line, I settled on this …
The house was at the edge of the village, the last in a row of stubby stone-built cottages backing onto fields leading down to the sea.
Not much, perhaps, but it felt right, it was a start …
After that, things moved along with, for me near the beginning of a book, almost worrying speed. Just short of 700 words on the first day, close to 1,000 on the second and third, and then 1, 300 or so on the fourth. I don’t know how that compares to other people, but for me, these days especially, it’s pretty good going. But now it’s another Monday, and the beginning of chapter 4.
She had first seen him …
Die Frank Elder-Reihe:
Flesh and Blood. Heinemann, London 2004 ( Schrei nicht so laut, dtv, München 2007)
Ash and Bone. Heinemann, London 2005 (Schau nicht zurück, dtv, München 2007)
Darkness and Light. Heinemann, London 2006 (Schlaf nicht zu lage, dtv, München 2008).