What happens when you get to . . .
What do authors feel when they finish a book? Relief? Panic? Satisfaction? In advance of the Dublin Writers Festival, ALAN O'RIORDANasked some of our leading authors
“I have evolved a ritual for finishing a book. Before it goes out, I spend a complete night going through it, from dusk until dawn. I might just cut a sentence or two, or add a last-minute paragraph, but it’s a lovely thing to spend all the dark hours with your manuscript: it’s a way of saying goodbye to it.
“Rituals like this are important because writing is a very spooky art, and you must make offerings to its mysterious gods. When the light comes up, I press ‘send’ and I drink a bottle of stout. Then I go to bed and I can’t sleep and I get up to start a new thing.”
“In his 1992 collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, one of Denis Johnston’s characters talks about why he drinks, why he’s out hunting down the buzz, the hit, the single zen moment when everything is in equilibrium, the seedy bar you find yourself in, the faithless companions you’ve made for yourself, the drink in front of you, the blue thread of cigarette smoke rising from the ashtray, the past, the future stilled and held in a perfect moment.
“Finishing a book? That’s what it's like.”
“I always feel like I’ve really finished a book. If I felt that I’d abandoned it, I wouldn’t publish it. I write draft after draft until the novel feels as truthful and relevant as I can possibly make it and when I feel there’s nothing more that I can do, I hand it over.
“Having lived with the characters of a novel for so long – with The Absolutistthe characters were with me for two years – one cannot help but feel their loss when a book is completed. A writer feels a certain debt to the characters he or she has created; we want their journeys to be extraordinary ones and there’s always a sense that we could have done more. But you must leave them aside eventually and move on; create new ones.
“The morning the new novel arrives in the post is always a very satisfying moment. To see the story bound between hardcovers, ready to make the journey from the writer’s mind to the readers’ hands, one can’t help but feel proud. And nervous. And hopeful.
“It’s an instinctive feeling, the moment when you read a draft – in the case of The Absolutistthe 11th draft – and you know that to change another word might damage the book. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it just means that it’s as perfect as you, at this moment in your life, can make it.
“My early novels are all being republished and rejacketed by Transworld this year and it did occur to me to go back and ‘fix’ some things but in the end I decided to let well alone. Each novel represents who I was when I wrote it. It’s all part of a life’s work.”
“When a book is finished it’s finished, complete – reared. There’s an exhilarating couple of seconds, followed by the terror: other people – professionals – are now going to read it. They’re going to laugh where they shouldn’t, and yawn where they should laugh. They’re going to sigh, and ask me if I’ve ever thought about writing a sequel to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
“The terror only lasts a year or so, and hits hardest in the months when there’s no football on the telly. The best way to cope with it is to start another book.
“The idea of rewriting a book for a new edition is just silly. Would Emily Brontë have done it? ‘OMG! Here comes Heathcliff!’”
“You have to write through a great sense of loss, or impending loss, towards the end of a book, but there is also a gathering inevitability that makes ending it inescapable.
“I am never happy with a finished book, but I know that it is finished more or less. Even after this emotional point, I will rewrite several times, but the changes get smaller and smaller. When you have changed all the semi-colons to dashes and back again, the thing is done. But it is never right.”
“The poet Paul Valéry observed that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned, and he was right.
“At the end of a novel I stand up from my desk with the sensation, queasy, fearful, giddy, that I have just leapt from a high place. The knowledge that one has failed, yet again, is inescapable, and all I can think of are the weak spots, the soggy bits, where invention ran out or my nerve failed or I just got fed up and said, ‘Oh, hell, leave it’.
“And what shall I do tomorrow? Start again, of course.”
Dublin Writers Festival runs from May 23rd to 29th. For full details of events and ticket information, go to dublinwritersfestival.com