The White Whale, or How to Write a Novel
We asked Cambridge author Christopher Pressler for his guide to writing a novel. This is his response.
E M Forster’s rooms held dust in the sunlight as a shaken snowglobe holds its flakes. I sat on an armchair that had been with its eminent owner since before he wrote A Room With A View or Howard’s End.
Forster was nearing the end of his life and had asked King’s students to read to him occasionally. I read to him during the day, when he was alert and brilliant, but also in the late darkness or the ‘time of the white whale’ as he called it.
In the space I had with him I asked him how to become a novelist. He did not think everyone had a novel within them but accepted my question. He said there were seven aspects of the novel and over the course of our readings he gave them to me. It was the gift of genius. His gift. This is how to write a novel and also perhaps why:
Picnic in Ruins
‘What does a novel do?’ I asked.
Forster rarely looked at me when I read, or even when I asked him questions. His answer was to dig into his own lucidity, his calm sense of the world, but also his dramatic sense and belief in human connections. A novel is no different from ancient stories. A novel draws on prehistoric curiosity and is perhaps most powerful when it is about daily life.
We are all caught by the tyranny of time but a novelist embalms unresolved moments: a violent treasure hunt, youth perished, a picnic in ruins. I wondered about the death of families and how to manage loss and love; the memory of a childhood picnic doomed by a father’s mood. Inside every recollection is the initiation of a book.
The novel, Forster told me, is the repository of a voice, the library of a personality, a picnic in ruins. To be a novelist is to transform a reader into a listener. I listened as he interrupted my readings. I heard him in the yellow dust of his rooms.
The Game of Writing
‘You are also human,’ he told me.
Inside a story are its actors and a novel is merely a play in bound prose. If you are to write a novel, do not write yourself out of it, as your own temperament is unpredictable. You reveal the hidden life of your characters by exposing yourself.
Everyone is history and fiction, but stories are not records as history is recorded.
Romance is action and action is romance. We live between two darknesses, those of death and birth. Between those covers is our novel, our ecstasy, dreams, destructions and prayers. Action. Look in a mirror. Do you see a clean, clear person? If not, then begin to write. A group of characters will emerge, as none of us is purely one person. Or pure. ‘This is the game of writing,’ he told me.
‘What is the secret life?’ I asked next.
‘You must be convincing,’ he said, ‘your reader must believe the secret life of those they are reading about. Stand above your book.’
I thought that it must be possible, as it is even in these words, for someone to be placed inside a book but also for a person to leap from it. Forster said that he populated his novels with people – Maurice and Scudder safe at last in the boathouse – but that he had also met them. To be real is to be deluded, flawed, mistaken and ridiculous. Aching in contradictions.
Fragments are what lives are led by. Novels too. ‘Failure,’ he said to me as I placed the book on his bedside table, ‘is what forces us to rise up.’
‘Do you believe in angels?’ he asked.
I have always thought that fantasy is more essential to life than fate. Books are where the kingdoms of magic and common sense collide. They bring rain to hard ground.
If you are to write a novel, you will know that the story you hold isn’t real, but the angels inside it must be seen to be animate. All of us are ordinary beings with simple sequences between the darknesses. All of us though can write ourselves into the past, the future or a fourth dimension.
Forster believed that James Joyce threw out his mythology of Dublin in a rage. Ulysses is a fury against the ordinary. His buildings, the Liffey, the thoughts of Leopold Bloom are beautiful and driven by wrath.
Novels are where angels do not fear to tread.*
‘And what of the white whale?’ I asked. I knew he admired Moby Dick.
Forster told me that the white whale is a prophecy within a story: an adventure around a terror. The white whale is the most evil creation in literature but it is also his own determination of darkness. All novels must brave the time of the white whale, as must all novelists. If you intend to write a novel you cannot be afraid of the dark.
Real evil is so black and so sad it cannot be distinguished from glory. To use the blackness is to understand that to prophesy or to pronounce the future is actually the tone of a writer’s voice. It requires humility.
All novels contain the mundane – tables and chairs for instance – but within and around them are people and their haunting faiths. As the sea is within fish, so the fish are within the sea.
To be a writer is to be either a preacher or a prophet. Words must describe the darkness but are also the means to overcome it.
‘Do you understand pleasure?’ Forster asked.
I replied that I did and he elaborated that he believed the novel should contain patterns, borrowed or perhaps stolen from painting. In paintings we gain pleasure without knowing why. Beauty can sometimes be seen in the shape of the book, an enduring symmetry or, as here, a retelling.
In the Paris of The Ambassadors, Henry James shows himself to be the most exquisite writer. Paris is a pattern. A unity.
Human beings have their greatest opportunity in the novel.
I sat and watched Forster as he gazed out of his window, across the court towards the great chapel of King’s College and beyond that across Cambridge. I could see symmetry in grass-lines, windows stained with Christ and his Apostles, stone mammals on rooftops, cobbles, bicycle spokes. Cambridge is a city of order but with chaos allowed.
I saw Forster and his advice on writing for the first time as cast in this city. He was aware that all before him would continue after him. All our voices echo here. To write is to raise your voice. Do not hesitate.
And what else is stolen? I asked him, finally.
Forster, cross-legged in a chair, replied that books can be chaotic like a city, but, like a great city, can expand if stitched internally with rhythm. This is the theft from music as pattern is from painting. And as with music, what is not said is as important as what is heard. This is the case in Wuthering Heights, so much left unuttered, so many storms and screams.
If you are writing a novel, remember to drive out the words that say nothing.
Forster’s last words to me have allowed entrance to my own books and also to pull people out of them. To sit on imagined chairs with great novelists watching dust.
My only way to guide you into your own paper worlds is to construct a brief wished-for conversation. Cambridge dwells in the lives of its dead.
Forster told me that the novel is not concerned with completion. Do not struggle to find an ending. Novels are a passage to expansion. Our own existence becomes larger after reading, or listening, or writing.
*With grateful acknowledgement to The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge and The Society of Authors as the literary representative of the estate of King’s College, Cambridge.
About Christopher Pressler
Christopher Pressler is a Cambridge and Dublin-based author. His first novel, Canning Circus is set in Nottingham and explores that city’s multi-layered history, mixing magical realism with autobiography. 94 Degrees in the Shade, his second novel, is the fictional memoir by a student contemporary of the Cambridge spies, and uses fabrication to search for truth in a world of lies. He is currently working on two further novels, The Liberties, the story of Ireland on the world stage and What We Are, We Remain, a portrayal of Benjamin Britten. Visit christopherpressler.com.