The British novelist Barry Hines told a story of sitting in a staff room after giving a reading at a school in Lincolnshire when a member of staff asked him the weirdest question he had ever been asked about his writing.
“You know that novel you wrote, A Kestrel for a Knave” asked the teacher sitting next to him. “Did you write it on purpose or by accident?”
Hines was momentarily at a loss. He could just about grasp the idea of someone writing a few lines of verse by accident, but a whole novel? Thousands of words, years of work? That would be some accident.
But before he could reply an excitable member of staff appeared in the doorway and announced “The Gay Gordons record has been stolen from the music room.” And everybody rushed out to find it and apprehend the perpetrator, presumably on a charge of poor musical taste.
So Hines never got to answer the question, though we can be fairly sure what his answer would have been.
I’m glad it wasn’t me who was asked, as I might have found it harder to answer. In some ways I think I write all my books by accident. Of course I set out to write a book, you don’t do all that work without a clear intention and planning and forethought. But, what I am left with at the end of the process is not necessarily the book I intended to write.
I wonder if this is what the nameless teacher in Barry Hines’s anecdote had in mind when he asked the question? That the book you end up with might not be the one you thought you would get.
Sometimes you can even feel the tone of the thing shifting as you write it, perhaps what you intended as a jolly romp is turning darker, or maybe there are themes cropping up which you didn’t realise would be so important.
Martin Amis said writing a novel is writing about things you didn’t know were on your mind.
Plus, in some ways it is not you, the author, who decides what your book is about at all, it is the reader. You can have a good go at steering them in a certain direction of course, but you can never know what they will make of what you write. Milton didn’t intend the devil to be the most relatable character in Paradise Lost for example.
As a writer you encourage that process, by leaving things unsaid, allowing the reader to find meaning for themselves, encouraging ambiguity and interpretation. Is it any wonder we sometimes find that what we have produced is not what we set out to create?
Can you write a novel by accident? Not a chance. But can that novel say things, mean things, which you did not consciously intend. Yes, I would say it could.
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