The Life of Country Life 14th October 2017 – Posted in: Fiction
Ken Edwards talks about his novel, Country Life, published by Unthank in November 2015
I started writing the novel that became Country Life nearly 20 years ago. I’d just completed my first successful (in my eyes) novel, Futures, which had suffered a series of publishing setbacks before I brought it out under the Reality Street imprint in 1998. Country Life was to have been the next one.
Instead, I got side-tracked – once again.
I started off as a fiction writer in the late 1970s, having a few short stories published here and there, inspired by Kafka, Beckett, Pynchon and others. But poetry kept sidetracking me and I also got disillusioned with the whole idea of fiction, characterisation, plot. And whereas I had few available peers or mentors in the world of contemporary fiction, there were a lot of people I knew doing new things with poetry that totally fascinated me, as did the world of small press publishing, where you could be your own master.
But my natural unit of composition was always the sentence, even when I was fragmenting those sentences beyond recognition. And I never let go of narrative –even when the narratives I was handling were similarly fragmented. Blowing patterns apart, then putting them together again.
Futures (still available) was the first extended, novel-length narrative I was totally happy with. And Country Life was to take it further. Except it didn’t. It wasn’t working, and I abandoned it.
About two or three years ago, I had another look. The thing was in pieces, but there was some twitching life in it. Music, my other passion, was there in theme and spirit. There was a musical structure underlying it, like Bartok’s arches: five sections, the central one being the pivot, and within each section, fractally, a similar structure – the hope was that this would challenge the classical “golden section” form (i.e. with the climax coming two-thirds through, followed by a resolution).
In a period when, having been made redundant in my day job, I was forcing myself to write every morning (the self-instruction was “write something – even just a sentence”) I set to rebuilding this abandoned entity. I rewrote or substantially revised those parts I’d already written, and little by little filled in the immense gaps. The arc of the plot had never been totally clear, but it began to reveal itself. And the characters.
Clearly, Dennis, the hapless young would-be composer, is a version of the younger me. He is basically an idiot, but he means no harm. Tarquin, his Marxist poet friend/nemesis, represents everyone who has been my nemesis, but also has components of myself in him. The enigmatic Alison, a.k.a. Wanda, while superficially playing the part of the unattainable woman (or the woman who offers attainability and then withdraws it), is actually someone trying to be something she doesn’t quite understand the implications of. Her rock musician husband, Severin, frightened me more and more as I wrote him. I think the frightening part is how familiar he became and how much I identified with him.
I think the main character, though, is the nuclear power station that looms in the background of this anonymous land-and-sea-scape. When I started writing the book, I was spending a lot of time in rural Suffolk, so the description owes much to Sizewell, though some is taken from Dungeness, about an hour’s drive from where I now live in Hastings.
There is non-verbal commentary throughout from denizens of the natural world, indifferent to the plight of the human characters.
Also, in a tribute to one of the worlds I inhabit, the fictional avatar of a literary hero of mine, the poet Tom Raworth, makes a cameo appearance in the final section. Tom is currently very unwell, but he’s a magnificent fighter. The book is also dedicated to him.
I was pretty satisfied when I finished it. Unlike many of my literary compositions, it is recognisably a standard-length novel, with characters that develop, and a plot. (I am so tired of being told my books are “unmarketable” because they don’t fit established niches.) Actually, the characters are all thwarted in various ways. What they do with this thwarting is up to them (except in the case of poor Severin). I tend to like the Seinfeld makers’ maxim: no hugging, no learning.
Despite one or two rejections, it wasn’t long before I got the thumbs up from Unthank Books, for which I’m very grateful. Soon Country Life will be out in the world and it won’t belong to me any more, which is always a relief. Books have to grow up and become independent, after all.