The first novel I ever wrote was called SubZero. The capital Z in the middle of the title is, I’m afraid, sic. It was a thriller about a man who stole an experimental submarine—the SubZero, of course—from the U.S. government and went to hide out in the Arctic Circle. I was thirteen. I wrote it on lined refill pad paper—the sort I used in school. I plotted the whole thing out very carefully: each chapter was summarised on a blue index card (“BATTLE WITH AIRCRAFT CARRIER,” and so on). I stuck these cards—there were nine or ten of them—up over my desk and got to work. I wrote the most exciting chapters first. Then I went back and filled in the gaps. The finished manuscript was seventy pages long. It still exists, somewhere—buried, mercifully, in the middens of paper that fill my office. I must remember to burn it before I die. Probably the best thing about it is that I named a fictional American submarine the U.S.S. Eamon DeValera. Oh, and I thought that high-ranking naval officials were correctly addressed as “General.”
My second attempt at a novel was called Lake of Fire. (I named it after the Meat Puppets song that Nirvana covered on their MTV Unplugged album.) It was partly inspired by the shooting at Columbine High School in Denver (which happened during my final months in secondary school: April, 1999), and partly by the movie Natural Born Killers (1994). The setting was an imaginary fast-food restaurant in an imaginary American suburb. Here, two men—one black and one white—enter with assault rifles, and start firing. Unable to commit suicide, they barricade themselves inside the restaurant. Police and media arrive. A siege develops. The gunmen, preaching their anti-establishment cause, become culture-heroes. Obviously, my writing had grown slightly more sophisticated, in the years since SubZero. But this is not to say that Lake of Fire is a good book. For one thing, I ran out of energy. After 50,000 words, the story petered out. For another, I lacked experience, both technical and actual—I had never visited the United States, and I modelled my highly adverbial prose style on that of the crime and science fiction novels that I then mostly read.
But the quality, or otherwise, of these “novels” is not the point. When I think about them now, what I remember is how enormously, luminously happy I was, writing them. I was particularly happy during the writing of Lake of Fire. I wrote it over the course of my summer break from college. I worked every night from midnight to 2AM, writing on thin, smooth, unlined paper using a Parker fountain pen. In eight weeks I filled two hundred pages. I scarcely remember what else I did that summer. I absconded from the real, empirical world. For those eight weeks, the fictional reality of Lake of Fire was incomparably more vivid and compelling than the base materials of the undreamt world could ever be—my room, my family, my house, my street, my village. The same was true of the writing of SubZero. What I was writing was, in the strictest sense, rubbish. But to me it seemed supercharged with meaning. I had found the thing that I most wanted to do. Writing was joy.
I dislike being asked Why do you write?, because it seems to me that there are too many possible answers to this question, none of them entirely satisfactory. Why do I write? Vanity. Neurosis. A love of language. A love of storytelling. A habit of daydreaming. My usual answer has to do with the inner life. A writer is someone whose inner life exerts a mysterious and irresistible pressure. It must be decanted, this inner life—into sentences, paragraphs, pieces, chapters, books. Certainly I feel this pressure. The world inside my head is highly importunate. It won’t leave me alone. It must be uttered. In this sense, everything I write is an utterance. A book is the most satisfying kind of utterance; an 800-word book review, the least satisfying. But any utterance will do. The joy is in the uttering. This is what I discovered, writing my first, awful novels. The more you learn about writing, of course, the more difficult it gets. Acquired skill impedes the flow of utterance—the more you know about writing, the less happy you are with what you write, even as you write it. It becomes harder and harder, in the doing, to discern that original glimmer of joy. But it is the memory of that glimmer of joy that lures you back to the desk—to the refill pad, the fountain pen, the laptop.
To become a professional writer is, in this sense, to enact a Fall. Your juvenilia are composed in a state of innocence. In that prelapsarian time you can write seventy pages about a stolen submarine and consider it a triumph. Publication (which means, in practical terms, taking money for what you write—introducing the economic aspect) means expulsion from paradise. When I write nowadays—sure as I am that what I write will be full of faults and errors—I sometimes catch myself pining for the simple pleasures of my very earliest stints at the desk, when the dreamed world poured unhindered onto the page, or seemed to. In those days, of course, my inner life was a relatively simple thing. Now it is tangled—it is an adult’s inner life, having passed through various straits of experience: love, work, sex, money, grief, depression, anxiety. Decanting it onto the page is a correspondingly tangled process. Nowadays, too, I must write in order to live: my mortgage, and my soon-to-be-born daughter, depend on me continuing to produce publishable work. I have turned a childhood pleasure, undertaken in innocence, into a career. This is a blessing, but a mixed one. To write purely for the joy of it is the prerogative of the amateur. In other words, it is a luxury. And no grown-up can afford a luxury like that.
Nevertheless. When I sit down to write, as I do every day at a desk in my office at home, there are really two of me. There is the professional writer, who has developed in himself certain habits and skills—knowing, for instance, when an unfinished piece must be left alone for a few hours or days; sensing when the time has come to bring a paragraph to an end—and who works in full consciousness of his obligations (to his craft, to his readers, to his bank account). And there is the innocent amateur, in search of joy—the joy that reorders the world, as he transcribes the fictional dream. He sits with me, or beside me, or inside me, urging me on. He is me, and I am him—we make up one writer, the two of us, or perhaps we make up a writer and his own mysteriously inspired and story-besotted ghost. We write our sentences together, and always, between us, there is the unspoken hope that as we write the next word, as we try to give form to the dream, we will be—as we were before, back there in Eden—surprised by joy.