I need to be emotionally engaged before I can begin writing a novel. And that emotional engagement has nearly always involved an injustice done to me or someone close to me or someone I can identify with. It can be as seemingly trivial as a personal slight or as major as desperate refugees being sent back to face the certain death that they were escaping. Usually it’s somewhere on the spectrum between, like for example the appalling treatment that women are still subjected to even in so-called civilized countries.
Whatever the injustice is, the thought of it kick-starts the novel. Once I know it’s going to figure somewhere, my writing tends to come fairly easily and go off in directions I hadn’t expected. And the strange thing is that by the time I get to writing about what started me off I’ve usually settled down and become fairly detached in an authorly way. There’s no self-therapy involved and never closure. I’ve just put the thing out there and always end up wondering what the reader will make of it.
On the matter of me and the reader and the feedback I get: I discovered from the time I wrote my first novel – For I Have Sinned – that the more I was able to control my outrage when writing about certain injustices the better I was able to make the reader feel the very outrage that had got me started.
And as for the complications of writing about real people in real situations, I think you can safely ignore the disclaimer at the beginning of most novels. You know, the bit that says All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Not so much a disclaimer as a misleader.
Which reminds me of an incident related by Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer whom James Joyce once described as a comic genius. O’Brien was at a wine and cheese party sometime during the 1920s and found himself talking to a man called Hugh Toner.
“Do you know,” said O’Brien, “that you are a character in James Joyce’s latest novel?”
“What are you talking about?” said Toner.
“Ulysses,” said O’Brien. “You’re a character in Ulysses.”
To which Toner replied, “How in under God could I be a character in Ulysses? Amn’t I standing right here talking to you right now?”
Colm Herron is the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland. His newest novel The Wake was released November of 2015.