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Hindsight: James Smythe

Hindsight is one of our favourite blog features: we ask our favourite authors to confess what they'd change about their first book. James Smythe goes under the gun for this instalment. Although you might know him from The Explorer or The Testimony, before those books, there was Hereditation...

------ Hereditation

I had a conversation with a bookseller recently about debut novels. We were surrounded by piles of Nick Harkaway’s second (amazing) novel, Angelmaker, and talking about how different it is to The Gone-Away World, his (amazing) debut. The bookseller likened TGAW to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: a sense that the book was all-encompassing, wide-reaching, so full of things, of knowledge, of stuff that the authors were desperate to say. He asked about my first novel, Hereditation: whether it shared similar ideas. I hung my head in shame. It tried to, but nobody should read it, I said. It’s just not very good.

Hereditation (and really, what a godawful title) was born out of my doing a PhD. In a story far too long (and potentially litigious) for here and now, I had to come up with a new creative component for my Critical & Creative Writing doctorate when my first supervisor left the university. I had been working on a post-apocalyptic novel about religion (two things I’d revisit when I wrote The Testimony), and when she went, I needed something different. My new supervisor asked if I had anything else, anything fresh that would work. I was going to, essentially, start the PhD again.

I’d been toying with something that was, then, called The Sloane Brothers. It was initially inspired by Frasier – as all good art should be – specifically, an episode where Niles compares his relationship with Frasier to being like the Collyer Brothers.

If you don’t know them, they were famous hoarders, living in New York in the mid-20th century. When they died, it was discovered that their brownstone was full of every bit of junk (140 tons worth) that they hadn’t thrown away over the past god-knows how many years. They had carved tunnels through the rubbish to help them navigate; one of them had gone mad and blind, and the other devised a diet of nothing but oranges to help cure him. (I’d argue, therefore, that they were both probably quite mad.) I loved reading about them, and loved reading about their history: their father a gynecologist, and they were able to trace their history back to the Mayflower, the first Americans to land and found their new country.

I thought that this could make a good idea for a novel. Not the main story, necessarily, but more how they got there. How this family with history and a Name, such as it was, could end with these two brothers, alone and going insane in a house that needed gutting. Whether I was wrong or right, I had a few chapters, fragments rather than anything more. Two were written as period pieces: set way back in history, casually researched, but meant to be vague and loose, hazy in the way that passed-down histories can be. They were the stories, not the facts. My new supervisor liked it, and it was decided, almost as quickly as that. I was going to write this book.

Over the next year, the thing took shape. It was going to be huge, sprawling. A central-spine narrative that featured a fictional version of these brothers going through their lives. One would fake his death, become homeless, addicted to drugs, start to unravel. The other would begin his own decline, alone and entrenched in their home, unlucky in love, caught up in riots. They would meet up again, later in life, and one would care for the other as they slowly died. Throughout the spine, though, they would uncover their own family history, through stories and found artifacts. They would piece together who they were and where they came from. What made their ancestors the men that they were; and what was passed down to them. There was a section set in 1560, concerning their ancestor Juan Miguel, farming beetles for coloured dye in the Americas with the (real life) conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa; there was one in and around 1914, where another ancestor, Quaid, helped start production on The Wizard of Oz; and one set in 1865, aboard the USS Shenandoah, the ship that fired the final shot in the American Civil War. These sections were heaving, attempting to tell entire lives in single chapters, all the while tying the narrative into the main story thread and American history both. But they were the bits that I loved: these weird, surreal, picaresque short stories that I hoped were funny and dark in equal measure. They were fantasy versions of real histories, as the whole book was: an alternate version of a family’s life, a life that in reality didn’t do these things, but could have. I wanted to include everything I could, write in every style that I wanted. I told myself, somebody’s sure to want to publish this. How could they not? (Quick note: this was 2006. I was still young, and slightly more stupid than I am now.)

And that was just the narrative. The structure of the thing was equally push-the-boat-out: because my thesis was grandly-titled Taking The Index Back: What Print Fiction Can Learn From The Internet (again, this was 2006), I was looking at ways to roll hypertext back into a print medium, presenting the novel as both a fully online version, and a traditionally bound text. So it had, at one stage or another, multiple indices, footnotes (both fictional and not), embedded images, family trees, references. It was amazing.

Only of course, it actually wasn’t. It was a complete and utter mess once you removed the academia and literary theory from it. What I thought was equal parts Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, Cloud Atlas, House Of Leaves and Infinite Jest was, in fact, a shambles. Of course, there was no way I could see that, so I sent it off to agents. I had somewhere in the region of fifty rejections. I was, it’s safe to say, dejected. There was stuff I loved in there, that I had researched, poured my heart and soul and time into. It was my version of the Great American Novel, damn it! I shelved it. I decided to write something commercial, about a writer who might or might not have been a serial killer. (Cue the psychologists.)

A year later, I wrote a terrible short story that was accepted into a compilation of far better short stories, and the publisher, Parthian, asked if I had anything else, a novel or whatever. I did, I said: I’ve got the newly-retitled Hereditation. (If ever something should set off a warning sign, it’s that title.) They read it, and they liked it. Or, rather, they liked parts of it. ‘Would you be open to doing some work on it?’ they asked, and I said that I would. Of course I would! Somebody wanted to publish it. I was going to be a published writer.

So, over the next few months, I worked with my editor there, Lucy, to turn the book into something publishable. I did a pass on it, and they fed back. But after a few back and forths, I still hadn’t grasped one of their main editorial requests. Lucy had to break it down for me. They felt that the strength of the novel lay within the story of the brothers, not the historical sections; so would I mind cutting those back? Or, you know, removing them entirely?

I was gutted. These were the heart of the novel: the thing that I was actually proud of. They were the suit: the story of the brothers was just the mannequin wearing it. I fought, but not much. Parthian wanted to publish the book. It was, I quickly became aware, a choice: make these edits, or don’t see the book come out. I went through the text and I gutted it. I tore out the footnotes and the indices and the titles and the everything, and then I set about cutting back the ancestral stories. What had been one hundred and twenty thousand words became eighty. I rewrote. I rewrote. I tried to make this work, and still keep the spirit, leaving parts of the historical story embedded as minor slips in the narrative. When it was done, it was a halfway-house. It wasn’t what I wanted; and, I suspect, it wasn’t what the publisher wanted. But it was what we had.

It was published in 2010, four years after I wrote the first draft. It had three reviews: a lovely one in New Welsh Review, that seemed to enjoy the parts that I did; a middling one in Buzz magazine, which didn’t like the parts that I did; and a terrible one in The Spectator, which stated that I was ripping off Faulkner (an author I had failed to get around to reading). We did a launch event or two, and I smiled, but I didn’t love the book. It hurt a bit, actually. While it was going through the protracted process of publication, I wrote The Testimony. I wasn’t sure it was better, but I was sure it was closer to something that I actually wanted to write.

This is all a protracted way of getting to the things that I would change about Hereditation. While it’s tempting to say Everything, the real answer is pretty simple: I’d change what I thought the novel was. I’d drop my preconceptions about knowing better, about thinking that I was the one at whom the buck stopped. I’d basically rewrite the little shit, listening to the advice of my editor and the publisher. For better or worse, they thought that it could be an interesting quasi-alternate-history fantasy-tinged thing of weirdness about these brothers in New York, and that maybe that story would be interesting enough. Write it well, make it focused, keep it tight, and the characters will come through. I didn’t see that. I saw what I had once imagined the novel could be, and it was a novel that couldn’t ever have worked. I was naïve, and a worse writer than I thought I was, and I didn’t see that others wanted what was best for the book as much as I did. More, even: this was their money on the line. At the launches I read from it, and I wanted to read the historical bits, but Lucy had to nudge me to not. She knew what I didn’t: that those were fun bits of short story that didn’t really belong in the book. Didn’t matter whether I loved them, they should have been cut.

I was in Waterstones about a month after the novel came out when I realized that. I had been keeping track of how many copies they had on their shelves (the number never moved from four, in the Local Interest section), and a book in the New Releases section caught my eye: Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow. It was the story of the Sloane Brothers, of New York, and their lives. They hoarded stuff in their brownstone. They lived there together, until the end. It was, the quote on the back by a broadsheet informed me, “an extraordinary story and a charmingly wry take on life.” I stood there and gawped, because this was what Hereditation might have once been. (It couldn’t have been, of course, because I am no E.L. Doctorow, but you know what I mean.)

I had fucked it up. I could have listened to the editor, to people who knew better than I, but I didn’t.

I bought Homer & Langley and I read it that afternoon. I loved it. How could I not? It was brilliant, better than I could ever dream of writing, and it was the story that I already knew almost off by heart. It added stuff as well – side-tales, details, things that made the characters feel so utterly real. I haven’t looked at Hereditation since.

Maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is. Some people like it, which is nice. They can see something in it, through the flaws. I suspect that what they see is the nugget of truth that first attracted me, the thing that’s indelible: the true story behind it. If I had my time again, I’d write it to stay closer to that story, rather than the bastardised, tweaked alternate history grab-bag that it became. I’d listen to my editor (a lesson I’ve tried, desperately, to learn from); I’d kill my babies, as they say. I’d change who I was when I wrote it, what I was trying to say.

I wouldn’t have it be published, if I could help it. It would be a trunk novel, waiting there until I looked fondly back on it and wondered if I could ever do anything with it, before throwing it back into the folder and forgetting about it all over again.

Oh, and I’d change that bloody title. Because, really, what was I thinking?