It is, of course, an entirely unreasonable and facetious question. The pact that exists between author and reader says nothing about acceptable levels of trauma and nor should it. There is no limit. There is nowhere I wouldnât go with you, Author, so long as you promise to speak the truth of your made up world.
Which is precisely how I found myself gripping Yanagiharaâs vast novel with white-knuckled digits, pausing only to howl like a wounded beast â loud, messy intermissions that halted my ability to read on more times than I care to recall. I have never cried so often while reading a single novel. I cried reading Cormac McCarthyâs The Road (which gave me diabolical nightmares to boot), and Iâve choked up countless times while deep in a characterâs fictional universe, but I have never, ever sobbed like this, nor so frequently. Tiny little wounds â a mild chest pain here, a small sting there â mingled with larger blows, some of them landing like a king hit to the skull. Sometimes I felt a brief pang; at other moments, I gasped aloud, tears springing to my eyes, and had no choice but to put the book down. It was painful to read â excruciating â but I kept taking it up again (much to my husbandâs disbelief and dismay) because Yanagihara upheld her end of the bargain. And because she did, I was helpless to stop. I cared about her characters too much to turn away.
It was the promise of precisely such intensity of feeling that persuaded me to read the novel in the first place. At Varuna alumna Suzanne Lealâs book launch for her excellent second novel The Teacherâs Secret, I was chatting to Allen & Unwin Publicity Director Andy Palmer, whoâd just finished reading A Little Life.
âOh,â I said, wrinkling my nose, âI honestly donât think I can face it. Everything Iâve read or been told makes me think itâs going to be too much abuse and sadness for me to bear. And itâs such a big book. Thatâs a lot of misery.â
But â unexpectedly â Andy lit up talking about it.
He gave a little shrug, looked off into the distance with a dreamy look on his face and said, âYes, sure, the abuse is there, but I donât know...I really miss them. I miss those characters. I miss being in their world and sharing their conversations. I really miss their company. That stuff is all there, but itâs not about that at all. Itâs so much more about love and adult friendship. Itâs unbelievably moving. Itâs an incredible accomplishment and I feel kind of bereft now Iâve finished it.â
âHuh,â I said. âYouâre the first person whoâs described it like that to me. Now youâve got me intrigued.â
So Andy, if you ever stumble across this: damn it, man, you were right. I miss them too. Iâm pleased as fuck to be out of there, but wow, what a novel. I will never forget it or them.
I will go anywhere with you: itâs a beautiful pledge, fundamental as well as radical, and I can think of no greater compliment to pay a writer of fiction. But having made the bargain, having committed to reading on, stories like A Little Life â stories that have me thinking, Oh no, please, please, noâŚfor the love of God, where are you taking me... â occasionally make me question what motivates their telling, so of my three equally strong impulses, the third won out, and I went to the computer to find out something of the woman who wrote it.
Anyone who writes knows thereâs a powerful catharsis in the act. Yes, itâs hard and ugly, but itâs undoubtedly soothing and therapeutic too. Patrick White says it best in his Letters (p.291; letters, by the way, he explicitly wanted destroyed, but thank goodness his literary executor just glossed over that bit of his will):
âProbably every book is hell to write. (Yet I am constantly meeting ladies who say âhow lovely it must be to writeâ â as though one sat down at the escritoire after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread-and-butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.)â
Novelist Kathryn Heyman â currently my mentor and formerly my Faber Academy teacher â and generations of internationally renowned authors including Jeanette Winterson have all taken up the rallying cry of the late writer and critic John Gardner: âArt begins in a wound, an imperfection â a wound inherent in the nature of life itself â and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.âThe phrase âwriting from the woundâ came back to me as I read a couple of Yanagihara interviews published in the wake of her novelâs release and subsequent success. Intuitively it makes sense, doesnât it, that something more than a fertile imagination drives her need to delve so deeply into the nature and effect of abuse? The idea that thereâs a wound, something that wonât close over, something that no amount of treatment will ever truly heal, seems powerfully persuasive when I think about that novel. Iâm not saying that the author herself must have suffered abuse as a child in order to write what she has, but I am suggesting that authors â the good ones, anyway â probably do harness their deepest pain point and excavate that site continually throughout their fiction writing lives.
Do you have a wound? Iâd love to know what you all think about Gardnerâs contention, and whether or not you have identified a set of themes or a particular scab you keep scratching in your own writing. Iâd also love to hear about any authors you love whose work seems to speak to this idea across their oeuvre. In an interview published in The Guardian, Yanagihara, for instance, acknowledges her interest in the long-terms effects of abuse, particularly in men. Itâs territory she traverses in her debut novel too, though The People in the Trees is unreliably narrated by an eminent anthropologist accused of abusing a research subject. Yanagihara alludes in interviews to her peripatetic childhood, but offers no other explanation for or connection to her fascination other than a series of photographs sheâs collected over many years, some of which feature American motel room interiors. Not only is the classic, featureless motel room one of the great uncanny sites, soaked in possibility across all artistic forms, itâs a place Yanagihara knew often as a child and which becomes a space of unspeakable, nauseating trauma for the central character Jude in A Little Life.
The unhomelike home: hmm, I donât know, but that sure sounds like wound material to me.
As mentioned, I first heard the phrase from my writing instructor and mentor, so naturally I have wondered what her own wound might be. Kathrynâs new novel Storm and Grace ostensibly has little to do with her last, Floodline â though water is clearly elemental, elevated in both novels to the status of a central character â but the figure of the father plays a crucial role in both, especially since that importance is derived by absence. Sometimes in our conversations about my own work and personal history, I feel little shooting sparks of things left unsaid, like Kathryn and I recognise something very basic in each other. Maybe Iâm imagining it â not to mention flattering myself â but I wonder if itâs a strange, primal thing, related to the wound, in which my own tunnel-building inadvertently stumbles into the burrows of others, and all the dark, clammy things in my own history occasionally tip into a bucket being lowered down someone elseâs well.
Intuitively I believe in this notion of writing from the wound. I think I actively denied such a thing for many years and I am certain it did nothing but coat a thick layer of artifice around all my writing, like a suffocating paintjob in which all the windows are painted over in black. Working against my own wound didnât protect me from my past or anything else; it only made my writing inauthentic. Better to write from the wound freely and candidly than to be the author of dishonesty. There is nothing fiction readers deplore more than a writer wasting their time with lies. Lies of the soul, I mean, not whether the novel is based on Z and whether X really happened between A and B at precisely Y in Real Life, because, come on, who honestly gives a shit about that?
Readers natively know where the line is â I donât know how we know, but we know, and writers of the best fiction, historical and otherwise, know where it is too, because they dance nimbly along it without skipping a beat. And the same way we know which facts matter and which ones really donât, we readers know when an author is withholding the only thing theyâve got to give that truly matters: their bloodied heart, ripped from their chest, slopped onto the desk instead of the butcherâs block during the writing of their book. Thatâs what we want. Itâs what weâve always wanted, from every artist whoâs ever lived: that wet, vital, still pulsing organ. And nothing else will do.
For a long time I thought that a stilted, carefully managed process of omission in my own work, through which I cosmetically concealed aspects of myself from my writing, was an insurance policy that would stop certain people from ever finding me. But thatâs simply not true, and those people arenât worth the sacrifice. Creatively, it would cost me everything. The loss of artistic honesty is too high a price to pay for an illusion of safety. Itâs far better, Iâve discovered, to eagerly run toward the danger and blow raspberries in its face.
Itâs taken a very long time to understand and properly embrace the archaeology of my own wound, but now I donât doubt itâs there, and more than that: I believe it will be the engine of the best writing I can or will ever do. The writing itself may not be good enough even so, because thatâs down to ability, not the size of my wound, and certainly not its unfortunate tendency to weep through gauze in public. Iâll probably never be successful in a conventional, commercial sense â in fact, I may never publish a single work of fiction, despite my best efforts â but one thing I donât worry about any longer is the integrity of my attempts. Iâm gouging at my innards even now, writing this. You can take me â Iâm yours.
Ultimate vulnerability. Itâs a breathtaking leap of faith the very best practitioners of The Spooky Art take each time they head into the uncharted waters of a new project. Itâs why readers make that pledge and gladly go anywhere with these authors, because we know how they have sacrificed themselves for us. They have gone in alone, scouted ahead, mapped out foreign territory and returned, half broken but alive, to invite us into a secret and sacred space they have fashioned from thin air. Taking their hand and stepping inside, hushed and awed by what they have created for us, seems like the very least we can do.
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