I was delighted to hear, on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, that the British Library is to make available online its archive of contemporary writers. It means any one of us, regardless of geography, has the privilege of peering into the workings of a writer’s mind.
As someone who has worked with authors’ archives before, I want to urge you to take advantage of this. Perhaps, though, you may be wondering what those letters and jottings can tell us?
A few years ago, I ran a Writing for Children course for Masters level students at Newcastle University, which made specific use of the archives at Seven Stories, the centre for children’s books on the banks of the river at Ouseburn. Housed in its galleries and archives is a national collection of artwork and manuscripts by children’s writers, from Enid Blyton to David Almond.
As a children’s writer, I found it both fascinating and intimidating. All that genius is enough to make you shrug your shoulders, get your coat and admit you could never really do any better. But after spending a quiet couple of hours leafing through some early typed and handwritten notes and manuscripts by the wonderful Philip Pullman, I also felt pleasantly reassured. Because even the best writers sometimes struggle with plot. And they also find themselves forced to make changes at the bidding of editors who definitely do not always know what is best.
For example, Pullman’s 1988 novel The Shadow in the North was originally published two years earlier as The Shadow on the Plate. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know one of its central characters is a Victorian photographer, and so the plate in question is a photographic one. But Pullman’s US publishers didn’t get this at all. “We first think ‘dinner plate’, and know that couldn’t be right, but there seems to be little else to hook into to intrigue us, so we could easily by pass this title,” says the American editor in a letter, who then goes on to mention other “troubles” with the novel.
In the original version of the book, the central character of Fred does not die. This only happens in the later versions, perhaps when Pullman realised the strong potential for a further work featuring the intelligent character of Sally Lockhart. And pages of Pullman’s notes show that the plot did not come as easily as it may appear in the final version. One page – covered in the author’s hand-drawn doodles – shows that some events in the narrative are causing him some problems and Pullman outlines his suggested solutions. “Still uneasy,” he notes to himself.
And the scribbles also reveal the author truly wrestled with the problem of when a key incident should take place. The word ‘Timing’ is highlighted by a hand-drawn box around it. Later, Pullman writes in capitals: “TIMING. TIMING.” There are some notes about why it needs to take place in order to let other events occur and later: “But the timing – still not sure.” And eventually, to my joy, the phrase: “But what about the f***ing timing?” Isn’t it nice to know that even the most esteemed and erudite writers have occasional moments of sheer frustration – and wasn’t it brilliant of Pullman to write his thought processes down?
These archives are full of fascinating little jewels like this, often hand-written, with crossings-out which show all the author’s original wording and ideas, and in some cases the early twentieth century version of ‘cut and paste’ – in other words, passages that have been literally cut out and sticky-taped to another part of the story. It’ll be interesting to know what form such archives will take for more modern works, composed entirely on a computer screen. In the meantime, though, it’s a comforting realisation that the process of writing a novel is as messy for the exemplars like Philip Pullman as it is for the rest of us – even if his finished products are infinitely better than most of us can claim.
If you would like to hear the Today Programme interview and can access the BBC online, then go here to the programme broadcast on 25th May 2016. The relevant piece is at 8.55am. Or access the British Library archive here.