Monday, 17 January 2011

Not in front of the family

This week I have an article published in The New Writer magazine. It's about the awkwardness I felt after writing my novel 11:59 when I showed it to the family for the first time. It has sexy passages, you see. For those of you who do not subscribe to the magazine I have reproduced the article below, but I would urge you to subscribe to the magazine anyway - my article aside, it's always an excellent read and often provides good opportunities for writers.

Not in front of the family

Exactly fifty years ago barrister Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked, ‘Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ The book, of course, was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on trial for obscenity along with its brave publisher Penguin.
Much has changed since 1960. For one thing, not many of us (not even top lawyers) have servants. Most of us deplore sexism, and we are much more relaxed about sex; aren’t we? That was my bland assumption while I chiselled away at the hundred-and-odd-thousand words that became my novel 11:59 published this summer.
So why my sudden anxiety when I handed the finished draft over to my wife Paula? Why the weird vision of my three children, two grandchildren, my six siblings and my eighty-five-year-old mother-in-law all lining up in an imagined future, open-faced and eager to receive their copy of David’s/Dad’s/Granddad’s new book? Why did my palms feel clammy?
As many writers do, I subject my wife to the first reading of any manuscript that I persuade myelf I have completed. My son Joe is another useful proof-reader and critic. No problem in the past with exposing my loved ones to the outpourings from my brain. The difference with 11:59 is its generous use of explicit language and a couple of frank sexual scenes. Prior to this, my strongest published cuss word was shit and my only sex scene a ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ exchange between two curious nine-year-olds. Quite a leap from there to 11:59. The novel is written in the first person and my central character twice visits a brothel as well as having vigorous casual sex in a van with a schoolgirl. It never occurred to me, in the heat of writing, that ‘How did you do your research?’ might be a valid question.
Until that hand-over moment. For the first time embarrassment kicked in. Why? It’s not autobiographical, for goodness sake. I can justify content and diction on the basis of both theme and character. A major sub-plot in the novel is human trafficking; the story delves into the dark and secret places of the city where criminals and low-lifes lurk. How else are these characters supposed to talk and act? There is nothing gratuitous, nothing sexed up purely for the purpose of titillation... and yet, as I emerged from my writing room having briefly and solitarily enjoyed the afterglow of completion, I suddenly felt as shifty as Marc in my novel when he returns to his partner Sam, his senses overwhelmed by the stink of his still-warm adultery.
We are a liberal-minded family. We have laughed together at uninhibited post-watershed comedians on TV, enjoyed the full-frontal frankness of many modern movies. Paula and I did not blanch when each of our children at a certain age decided the time was right for current partner to stay the night, eventually move in; but my anxiety about her reaction to the manuscript crystallized when she passed it back to me a couple of days later with a brief but telling, ‘Very good. Really moves along. I hate to think what Mam will make of it.’
Could I have written the story without the expletives? Could I have resorted to euphemism, replaced letters with asterisks or dashes? During the redrafting process for 11:59, and even while the book was being prepared for printing, I had plenty of opportunity to tone down the descriptions of sex, which were brief but graphic, but I didn’t. Certainly my editor seemed comfortable with everything, and there was no adverse reaction on publication. Why would I expect otherwise? This is 2010, not 1960. Anything goes, doesn’t it?
What will not go from me is a foolish, lingering sense of shame about those dirty words, those few blue pages. Not before the world at large, but in the face of friends and family. I continually find myself making excuses for the book, preparing the ground for anyone of my acquaintance about to read it, in some cases warning them against... you know it might not be your sort of thing... and even being grotesquely thankful for my mother-in-law’s near-blindness. When people I know are reading my novel, I worry that their perception of me will change for the worse, that they will begin to suspect me of harbouring gross desires, of clamping my mouth with difficulty against a torrent of filth ready to spring from my mouth like a man in the grip of Tourette’s. The veneer of respectability stripped away, I feel as if I am watching my relatives from the dock. I have not only put myself on trial, but pronounced myself guilty. Caught in the act.
When I was ten, the year of the Lady Chatterley case, my junior school teacher snatched up my hinge-top desk to catch me flicking through a slim paperback called The Strip-tease Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee. He gave me a lecture and  a hearty strapping in front of the class, then spent the rest of the day reading the book under cover of his big desk while we sweated over long division. I had found this pearl of pulp fiction, complete with lurid front cover, abandoned on my big brother’s bed. Until I sat down to write this, I had forgotten all about the incident. Now I’ve finished, I’m going to gather up all my personal copies of 11:59 and stow them away. After all, this is not the kind of book I want lying around the house for the kids to read.

11:59 by David Williams is published by Wild Wolf Publishing. ISBN 9780956373359  

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