Kevin Power: My first novel was a hit. I could write full-time. And that made me … angry
I was foolish, young and inexperienced, and completely unprepared for any kind of success
I published my first novel in October 2008. At the time I was on the dole, trying and failing to get various jobs. I had spent three years studying for a PhD in American literature that was nowhere near being finished. I owed money to my parents and to my landlord. My book had earned me precisely €4,000 – this was the advance paid by my Irish publisher.
A month after the book was published in Ireland, my agent sold the reprint rights in a two-book deal to a UK publisher for more money than I had ever made in my life. (Given that I had never earned more that €16,000 a year, this should not be taken for a particularly startling metric.) Then she sold the film rights. Then she sold foreign rights, to Spain, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Brazil.
The success of Bad Day in Blackrock allowed me to become that superficially glamorous thing, a full-time professional writer. I moved into an apartment in the centre of Dublin with bookshelves lining the hallway. The apartment overlooked the courtyard of a busy hotel, which meant that every morning at 6am, I was awoken by the sound of glass bottles crashing into the recycling bin directly below my window.
On any given day, I did not have to write, if I didn’t want to. And, more often than not, I found that I didn’t. Instead I engaged in what I thought of as writing-adjacent (and therefore justifiable) activities: reading, writing book reviews, rewatching all seven seasons of The Sopranos on DVD, keeping a journal, rearranging my books, watching the 24-hour news channels (since a writer needed to keep up with the news), scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, smoking, entering into various ill-advised romantic relationships whose ups and downs could plausibly be rationalised as the sort of “experiences” a novelist might draw on when he did, at last, sit down to write, drinking in immodest quantities, taking drugs in modest quantities, and so on.
What I found, when I did at last sit back down to write, was that I was not a professional writer at all. I was still an apprentice, despite the fact that I had published a first novel; despite the fact that I was contributing regularly to various newspapers; despite the fact that people occasionally called me up and asked me to read at literary festivals or to travel on promotional junkets to Italy, Serbia, Paris (where I smoked too much and drank too much and viewed other writers with a mixture of curiosity and scorn: who were these frauds, anyway?).
It dawned on me only belatedly, but it was a devastating realisation when it finally struck. My apprenticeship had not ended with the publication of Bad Day in Blackrock. It had barely begun. This was my peculiar fate: to find myself “a writer” while I was still unformed, unknown to myself, and lacking utterly in the kind of discipline that a sustained career in writing requires.
Perhaps a version of the crisis that followed happens to every writer who publishes a first novel in their 20s, and years later I was to come across Virginia Woolf’s epistolary advice to a young poet, and nod savagely in assent: “For heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.”
Or perhaps it was mine uniquely. Dazzled by the sheer unlikelihood of what I had accomplished, by the fact that, as Nathan Zuckerman puts it in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979), “I had miraculously made it from my unliterary origins to here”, to being a writer, I had blithely assumed my apprentice years were over, that I would now simply write more books in a kind of foreordained pattern of achievement that would lead me inevitably to the sense of repose that accompanies, or so I imagined, a serene and established literary middle age.
In fact, I was condemned to serve out those arduous years with a published novel already behind me.
It is an open question whether those years were made easier by the fact of Bad Day’s existence – no, scratch that: they certainly were made easier, in some respects. I was freer than I might otherwise have been. I could get jobs teaching creative writing, an activity about which I quickly became passionate. I was invited to write short stories for anthologies, articles for newspapers. Not every apprentice enjoys such advantages, and I was very lucky to have them. Even so, those were the years I spent failing where, I imagined, it counted most: at the desk, on the page.
For years I had shaped my inner world around a single project (learn to be a writer), and I regarded anything that was not directly related to, or could not be rhetorically aligned with, this project as an imposition, a burden, an error. As defence mechanisms go, this is a luxury model. It keeps you safe from a thousand natural shocks, at least for a while.
I’ve never really suffered from writer’s block, as that predicament is generally conceived. I have never opened up a Word document and found that I had no words to type. The problem, during my years of crisis, was that the words I did type, whenever I tried to write fiction, were worthless – what an avalanche of dismal prose I produced, during those years – and, more to the point, that I couldn’t finish anything.
If my problem had been as simple as writer’s block, I might, after a while, have abandoned my desk altogether. I might have gone off and done something else. And as it happened, I did, for a year, go off and do something else: in 2012, operating under stern instructions from various mentors, I finished my PhD thesis, working in terror right up to the deadline, working all night, drinking cup after cup of coffee and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, producing 20 or 30 pages a day in a state of reckless agitation indistinguishable from despair.
I was able to write my thesis, I see now, because it wasn’t fiction, and therefore I did not expect it to redeem my sufferings. I had not, after all, staked my entire sense of self-worth on writing academic literary criticism. And no publisher was waiting (that accursed two-book deal!) for my in-depth analysis of politics in the fiction and nonfiction of Norman Mailer. There was no pressure from the world: merely from myself. Why had I not finished my thesis in the first place? Because I didn’t think I needed to bother. I was in the process of becoming a writer. We make the same mistakes over and over, until we see them for what they are.
2010: I wrote most of a play about the Irish financial crisis. (It ended, or was supposed to end, with Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny dancing a waltz across the stage to the tune of The Offaly Rover. Oh, dear.) 2011: I tried to write a novel about the family of a disgraced banker. 2012: I cranked out 200 crazed pages about a south Dublin rugby schoolboy on a business junket to Serbia (where I had spent a weird week promoting my book a few years previously). 2013: I wrote most of a novel loosely based on the murder of Meredith Kercher (an attempt, hideously misguided, to recapture whatever magic had animated Bad Day). All of these projects consumed endless hours of my time and remained unfinished, unreadable, hopeless, dead.
Now, of course, I can see what all of these unfinished projects had in common, which is that they were impersonal, written not out of an honest attempt to understand my own experiences and to communicate that understanding to others, but out of ambition, undiluted: the ambition to be a writer. I was unable to write about the things that had happened to me (growing up; falling in love; flailing around in college and after: all the stuff usually taken by young novelists as their material) because I never thought about the things that had happened to me. I was too busy trying to be a writer.
Late in 2013, my confidence collapsed. There was no single cause. Rather, there were many causes. My agent had politely returned 50 pages of my Meredith Kercher manuscript along with a note, the unmistakable implication of which was that my novel was not good and that I should write something else. But I had no further ideas for novels. My contractual deadline was three years past. Examining my progress, I could no longer sustain the illusion that “a writer” was what I was. Writers wrote books. I did not know how to write books. Ergo, I was not a writer. Worse, I was a fraud. A loser. A fool.
I was also broke. I had been watching the not-that-large-in-the-first-place amount of money that Bad Day had produced dwindle steadily for four years, consumed by rent, food, booze, books – and I had done nothing to arrest its outward flow, nor to procure another source of income. I had been operating on the assumption that I would somehow get my second novel written just in time to shore up the looming hole in my finances. Now this assumption stood revealed as the delusion it had always been. I had no second novel and no money.
I was prescribed Xanax for anxiety. I was prescribed Lexapro for depression. I took jobs in call centres, staffing the phones. My chief memory of this period – late 2013 – involves cycling along the Dodder (I was then living with my future wife in Ringsend), pushing the pedals as if against lead weights, and feeling as if my whole life was an overcast day: low grey cloud, empty streets, a dull, even pressure flattening everything, and no particular joy or hope to be found anywhere.
It took me a long time to climb out of my despair. Astonishingly (at least, it astonishes me now), I did not stop writing, even when things were at their bleakest – even during those long periods when I would feel the twist of rancour in my heart whenever I heard about another writer’s success, or on those afternoons when my sense of despair and hopelessness was such that I could not bestir myself to get up from the couch. Failure forces you to see clearly – this is the one thing that can be said in its favour. Slowly, I came to see that, in trying to “be a writer”, I had been trying not to be a human being, that bleeding, undefended thing. I had been trying to avoid making what I saw, in my stupidity, as the various boring or distressing compromises that, properly understood, make up the substance of an actual life.
Stripped of its function as the thing that held my personality upright, writing gradually became a way of making objects to put in the world – a process that required the acquisition of certain skills, and therefore (what a thought!) a certain humility. The first step was to admit that I knew nothing – that I was still an apprentice, and that I should therefore act like one.
I started small. Doggedly, I completed the exercises prescribed in John Gardner’s instructional handbook, The Art of Fiction (1983). Then I tried a short story, salvaged from the ruins of my banker novel. I took my time. I wrote each paragraph carefully, walking a high-wire of tension until the thing was, after two weeks, finished. It seemed good. It had its own integrity, I thought. I had made it, but that fact said nothing particular about me, beyond the fact that I was a man who had written a story.
I tried another story. It gave out. I tried another. I joined a writers’ group, and submitted work. I began to write literary essays; long book reviews, really, but satisfying to do, and people seemed to like them. I came off Xanax, I came off Lexapro. (I didn’t miss the trembling legs, the nightmares, the overcast interior weather). I had no hopes of writing a novel. I began to think about my past, and about the ways in which I had used the idea of being a writer to cushion myself against uncertainty, and doubt, and fear. I began to admit to myself that I was angry, and that the source of my anger was, in large part, the success of Bad Day in Blackrock and its bewildering aftermath.
Publishing that book, I had been foolish, and young, and inexperienced. I had been completely unprepared for any kind of success; for the collision with a world that I did not understand and couldn’t control. I was angry at myself for my failure to cope. And I was angry at the world for not being softer, kinder, less mercenary. (Naivety dies hard.)
One day – this was in late 2015 – my wife and I went Christmas shopping in Blackrock. I was thinking about my anger. Half-quoting Notes from Underground [by Dostoevsky], I thought to myself: I am a sick man, I am an angry man. I wondered if this might become the opening sentence of something: a short story, or a novel. A novel, perhaps, that might serve as an analogue for some of the things that had happened to me. And just a novel. Not a means of redeeming my life. More like: something to work on, while I lived.
An analogue for some of the things that had happened to me. A gallingly simple insight. But there it is.
Two years later, I finished the first full draft of White City. It was 2017. Things had changed. When I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop, I no longer imagined that the meaning of life was at stake. In fact, I began to feel that when I sat down at my desk, nothing much was really at stake at all. Just this sentence. And the next one. And the next one after that.
In my late 30s, I had started to grow up a bit, at last.
Kevin Power teaches in the school of English, Trinity College Dublin. His new novel, White City, is out now from Scribner UK.