Truman Capote, author of one of the finest books I have ever read (‘In Cold Blood’), was a showman, a performer, an entertainer. That he was an extraordinary writer goes without saying, at least in my humble opinion, and I – for one – will forever and unreservedly forgive him his moments of drunkenness and melodrama. Capote, in one such characteristically melodramatic moment, uttered the following statement: “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Now, despite the outrageousness of such a statement, I believe that I understand something of the sentiment.
I just completed a novel. The day before yesterday, in fact. I started it back in the middle of September 2012, and over the last five months I managed to find seventy-seven clear days to work on it. That’s eleven weeks, an average of five or six hours a day, and I ended up with over two hundred and ten thousand words. The book deals with a vast range of subjects, many of which took a considerable amount of research. The cast of characters was substantial, to say the least, and as I wrote the last few words of the last page I was struck by that same conflicting dichotomy of emotions with which I am always struck when bringing such a project to a close.
There were people in that book that I grew to love, frankly. Even the idiots and the assholes gained a place in my affections. Writing a book, at least for me, is like moving in with a crowd of people, uncertain as to whether or not you will get along. In time, you learn of their idiosyncrasies and oddities, and while such traits and affectations might at first irritate you, they are the very things that make those people unique, engaging, and – ultimately – likeable. Some of the girls you fall in love with, even if just a little, and some of them men possess qualities that you forever aspire to, but never quite attain.
Having said that, emotional involvement with the characters aside, there is the matter of attention. I don’t know about other writers, but for the duration of the novel-writing process, I am in the novel. I live with the novel. I carry that novel around in my head twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I have private and silent conversations with the characters, I work out plot-points while I am driving, cooking, ironing, hanging out laundry. I carry a notebook and jot down fragments of dialogue that come to mind, and – considering the fact that I do not write a synopsis or outline for the book – I am constantly working on what will happen next, what will transpire, how everything will ultimately conclude. It really does feel like a full-time job. Who was it who said that writing was the one profession where you appeared to be gazing absent-mindedly through the window, but in fact you were working very hard indeed? Those are not the exact words, but you get the idea.
And then it comes to an end.
The game is over.
The players pack up their gear and leave the field.
The floodlights are switched off, the stands are emptied of spectators, and you take a moment to look back from the exit.
Perhaps you can still hear the odd voice, the odd phrase, as if fragments of your people will forever stay with you, but – in truth – they are gone.
Now it is time to do something else for a little while – to read, perhaps to catch up on films that you set aside, too preoccupied to watch them while you were working.
The real world beckons – the MOT, the leak in the garage roof, the spring cleaning and clear-out that you promised yourself you would undertake once the book was done.
But, I have to say, crazy though it might sound, that the world you wrote and left behind was every bit as real as the one you returned to once the last page was typed.
Okay, so the characters were fictional, their names and characteristics and personal histories all invented, but how they made you feel was every bit as real as anything else.
As I have endlessly said, and will always say, the true power of fiction is not solely to entertain, but to evoke an emotion.
If someone reads one of my books, I could not care whether they remember my name (after all I have been called ‘Ellroy’ for a decade now!), nor if they remember the title of the book, the names of the characters, the intricacies of the plot. Those are all very much secondary. All I would hope for is that three months or six months or a year down the line a reader might inadvertently be reminded of my book, perhaps seeing someone else reading it on a train or a plane, and they would remember how my book made them feel. That’s all I ever wanted.
And so, the book done, I have some free attention. I shall get an overdue repair job finished on a guitar amplifier, I shall read a half dozen books that I have postponed reading. I shall watch a few films that I really wanted to see when they were on the cinema circuit, but never got to. Other things.
However, more than anything else, and perhaps sooner than I would care for (testament to this is that it’s starting already!), I will begin the process of looking for that next novel, the new story to tell, the new characters that will populate a world I have yet to create.
So, the book has gone to my editor. I shall await his verdict. I can only hope that he will enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed writing it, and that he might feel – at least to some degree – the same sense of loss that I did upon turning the last page and leaving that world behind.