How does a book get written?
The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. The End.
Only kidding, but I believe there is no one way to write a novel. Everyone does it differently, everyone has different working practices and habits and little routines and fetishes and superstitions. For a very long time, for example, I thought it was ‘unlucky’ to put the title of a story on a manuscript until it was finished. Which is obviously absurd when you think about it, but there you go.
Anyway. I can’t tell you how to write a novel. But I will tell you how Europe In Autumn came about.
It starts with a name. Les Coureurs de Bois.
I first came across the name many, many years ago, in James Michener’s Centennial. For those of you who’ve never read it – and you ought to because it’s very good – Centennial follows the development of a small Colorado town, basically from the formation of the Earth to the mid-1970s, and the people who live there. It was turned into quite a good television series. I liked it a lot.
Anyway, les Coureurs were French trappers who carried messages from place to place through the deep woodlands of early Colonial America. Literally, Runners in the Woods. I liked the phrase, and it stuck with me. I filed it away, in the dusty place at the back of my head where stuff gets filed.
Fast-forward numerous decades. I’d just published my first novel, The Villages, and was trying to come up with a follow-up, and I had an idea involving a near-future Europe where the EU had fragmented into hundreds of new nations of varying sizes.
The first question you ask yourself when you have an idea like that is, ‘Okay, so how did this come about?’ I kind of shelved this one for a while, apart from scribbling a note about a devastating flu pandemic.
The second question you ask yourself is, ‘Okay, that seems to be a nice playground. What shall we do there?’
This was an easier question to answer. The very nature of this future Europe, it seemed to me, demanded a group of people who could cross all these new borders and have exciting adventures.
I called them ‘Postmen’.
The first thing I actually sat down and wrote, about thirteen years ago, was ‘It was the sort of night Postmen prayed for. Fifteen centimetres of snow and seven degrees of frost on the ground and a wind-chill, unhindered all the way across North-Central Europe, driving the air temperature down to somewhere in the minus thirties, a howling gale carrying snow like airgun pellets. On nights like this, people made mistakes, got sloppy, paid more attention to their own comfort than to their job.’ And I went on to describe, more or less as it appears in the book, Rudi’s disastrous Situation in Potsdam.
And there it stalled.
After a year or so, I took out my old notes, found those opening lines, and thought up another Situation for Rudi. At the time, Rudi’s story – and he was always ‘Rudi,’ although he didn’t become Estonian until much later – didn’t seem to me to be able to carry a book all by itself, so I came up with two other narratives, one of a journalist in London investigating a disastrous police raid and the other about a worker building the Warsaw Metro. The idea was that these narratives would alternate in the book, gradually growing closer and closer until they became one story. I called it Roads In The Earth, and I wrote quite a lot of it.
And there it stalled.
Another couple of years passed. I would take Roads In The Earth out periodically and look at it and shake my head, and put it away again. It wasn’t working.
And one day I realised it wasn’t working because I was more interested in Rudi’s part of the narrative than I was in the other two strands. I was starting to get ideas about what kind of person he was, how he became involved with the Postmen, and so on. I put the rest of the book away and started to concentrate on him.
I have no idea why I made him Estonian, apart from having read something about Tallinn. But having done that, I had to come up with some kind of background for him. A bit of research turned up the national park at Lahemaa and the old manor at Palmse. I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential at the time, and I think that more than anything made me make him a chef by training.
So he’s a chef from Estonia. That raises more questions. Why isn’t he still in Estonia? How did he get involved with the Postmen? All questions I, if I was reading the book, would be asking of the writer. And coming up with the answers brought Restauracja Max and Rudi’s father and brother into the story. There would be a Great Secret for him to uncover, and I knew what it was going to be because I had already written that story.
Somewhere along the way, that rather clunky ‘Postmen’ name was replaced by Les Coureurs des Bois.
After that, it was just a question of answering questions. Why does this happen? Why does this not happen? And the story grew from the answers. You tune in, start to think about the story without consciously thinking about it. You get ideas and write them down, bits of dialogue or description. The New Year’s Eve party in The Zone is a lightly-fictionalised version of a New Year I spent in the Slovakian mountains. It got filed away. It all goes into the pot, gets stirred about, and out comes a story.
It was a lot of fun to play in Rudi’s world, although the physical act of writing it was hard and a lot of the time what I wrote didn’t quite match what I had imagined. Quite a lot of stuff got junked and rejigged. After I’d finished the book and it had been edited and was on the way to the printers, I was tidying up the mass of folders I’d dumped my notes into and discovered a chapter which I’d forgotten to put in – notes for a Situation in a heavily-fortified Dresden – which was embarassing, but not a disaster. Europe In Autumn is fine without it, because it would have raised more questions and the book would have wound up half as long again and the rhythm would have been all wrong. But still, you do wonder if this kind of thing happens to Dan Brown.
For me, there’s no great mystery about writing. You have an idea, you imagine it, you describe it, and the story grows in all directions out of that. You write and you write and you write until the story feels finished, and then you stop and go back and rewrite. You constantly ask yourself, ‘Would I like to read this?’ Europe In Autumn was written in bits, mostly out of sequence, over a period of about thirteen years. Part of the fourth chapter was the first to be written, and the eighth chapter was the last to be written. The tough bit was filling in the spaces.
It’s surprisingly hard to let go of something that has been part of your life for so long. It’s a strange feeling to know that other people are reading it now and seeing it as a complete Thing. But the process of letting go has begun. I was rereading it again recently, and I started to notice little bits and pieces that I’d forgotten writing. A distance is forming between us. It’s a good distance; it allows me to see the book as a whole rather than as a bag of bolted-together bits, and I think it’s the best stuff I’ve ever written. The rhythm works, and I like the way it puts its head down towards the end and accelerates. It’s quiet and calm and a little wistful in places and I’m very, very proud of it.