The Claim received its official launch at Page and Blackmore bookshop in Nelson in November, this year. Below, is a summary of my talk.
Greetings – and thank you all for coming.
In many ways, I feel that I’ve done my stuff already, so it’s the book that now needs to speak. And Ann’s going to make that happen once I shut up. So I won’t say too much.
But making a book – completing its whole journey from first flickering ideas to something you can actually hold in your hand, and pay good money for – is a long process, and depends on lots of people offering lots of help on the way. So I want to thank some of them while I have the chance. And in doing so, I’ll say a few words about how the whole process started – where the book came from, and how the story evolved – and try and make a point or two about the process of writing.
Thanks will come in reverse order: from the end product back to the beginnings. So I start with the last step – and as in any endeavour, the most important one, because if that doesn’t happen none of what went before amounts to anything. And with a book, the last step is getting it out to the world – and for that we need not just Amazon and social media (neither of which I’m a great fan) but bookshops. And here in Nelson we’re very lucky to have Page & Blackmore, and Jo Dippie and her team, who do so much to support local writers. By sponsoring events, by hosting events, by stocking and promoting and selling our books. To them, especially a great thanks. Long may they flourish.
Before they can do that, of course, the book has to get published. Finding a publisher, I have to say, is one of the most soul-destroying parts of writing, made worse by the fact that most publishers don’t even acknowledge, let alone respond to, book submissions. And if you believe the statistics, fewer than 1 in 200 submissions ever get published. So I’ve been lucky in finding a small, independent, and very supportive publishers in RedDoor Press in the UK. Though I’ve yet to meet Clare Christian and her team in person, their support has been bountiful, and they’ve made a wonderful product of the book. Absolutely everyone congratulates me on the cover – the one bit of the book, note, that I can’t really claim credit for. But again, I owe them my thanks.
Before that, of course, was the writing – which somehow always seems to be the easy part. Most of the time, you just have to sit in front of the computer and let the words come out. But I admit that there are days when the words get stuck, or the ideas just become a jumble, and then I need something to break the impasse. And the best thing for that, I’ve found, is a walk with my dogs. So to Merlin – my springer spaniel – and Bracken – Ann’s loyal Airedale terrier – my thanks.
And of course, the words don’t always come out right, and many words, and many ideas come unpredictably, and at inconvenient times. So, I owe huge thanks to Ann, too: for all the times she’s read the manuscript and helped me edit it and corrected my punctuation and redirected my errant literary allusions; all the hours she’s spent talking through the plot and the characters; the endless (at least I hope it’s endless) tolerance of my absence as I hide away in my study or when I leap up just as we’re falling asleep to scribble down some piece of inspiration I’ve had; or disappear into a silent and thoughtful trance, with a virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging above me in the air. And for all the encouragement she’s given me.
Encouragement, any author will admit, is a precious thing. Writing’s not exactly lonely, because you have your characters to keep you company – but it’s self-indulgent and feels purposeless at times. So you need assurance from outside. Over the years, various friends, and sometimes unknown readers, have given me that with their honest feedback on my writing. And there’s someone here I want to pick out for thanks. Because some years ago, Carol Ercolano read some of my poetry and offered me come critical comment and did the most important thing of all: she took my writing seriously. And that’s a small, solid foundation stone that everything else gets built on. So thank you Carol.
Which gets me back to the start of it all. The origins of the story; the idea. Where did the story come from? That’s a question that I think every writer gets asked. For myself, I have to say, the answer varies. Some stories come almost spontaneously. Some emerge as I write. One came to me, almost fully fledged, in a waking dream. Most, though, emerge start with a framework, a metaphor, that can give the story shape. For every novel has to have that. After which I try and work out how to translate it into a story.
This one was no exception. I started with the idea of digging. The act of excavation is a process of discovery, uncovering – a journey to some hidden truth – and that surely provides a rich metaphor for a story that might contain a bit of drama, a bit of philosophy, some love. But what form of excavation could I use. Not just digging the garden, obviously.
Archaeology perhaps? But some 20 years ago I read a novel called The Dig, which was about the excavations at the famous burial site of Sutton Hoo, and the memory of it was still too strong, and I felt that it might be difficult to break free from it.
What about fossil hunting? But if so, it would have had to have been dinosaurs, because that’s the only sort of fossils that most people relate to – and again there are some good (and some pretty awful) novels that have already done that.
So what about gold? Well, there are two reasons not to. One is that the story of the girl and the gold must have been written 100 times before – though the saving grace is that I’ve not knowingly read any of them. But that’s because, in a way, I find gold dreadfully boring. And that, of course, is the second reason why I couldn’t use gold. You can’t write a book about something that doesn’t interest you.
But then I remembered a different book: Silas Marner, written in the late 19thcentury by Mary Ann Evans – aka George Eliot. That’s about a girl and gold, but it takes a very different slant on the topic. It’s about how a lonely man discovers a horde of gold, only to have it stolen from him – but then he finds an abandoned baby girl, whom he adopts. And as such, the story is actually about loneliness and exclusion, and the nature of human relationships and the things that we value in life. And those are things I like to write about, too.
So from there, the story of The Claimstarted to emerge. It’s a story, as the name implies, about a man who works on his claim, looking for gold – hoping to find happiness in it. But it’s a story, more deeply, about human relationships – about love and truth and trust (which is what I mainly write about). And it’s about the claims we make – about ourselves, and on others – and the fictions that we allow ourselves to believe, in order to give ourselves hope.
But a story also, I believe, needs a strong context, a sense of place. And this one is set it in the ranges somewhere west of here, where you might still find gold. And in the book I wax lyrical, occasionally, about the landscape and try to give an impression of what it’s like to stand up to your waist in a stream in the bush as you look for gold (something, I’m pleased to say, the reviewers have applauded). And in doing so, it draws not just on my years studying and teaching geography but on the times I’ve spent more recently out in the field with a bunch of friends from the Nelson Rock and Mineral Club – some of whom are here. And though I’m sure they won’t have realised it, and they can rest assured that they won’t find themselves anywhere in the book, they’ve also contributed by helping keep that passion for geology and the hills alive. And for that, I thank you, guys.