Rory Dunlop studied Classics at Oxford and worked as a teacher and journalist before being called to the Bar. He spent a year in Strasbourg, writing judgments for the European Court of Human Rights, failing to learn French and falling in love with his wife Lika. They now have two daughters and live in London. Rory tells us about the inspiration for What We Didn’t Say and how he fits writing in…
I’ve always loved unreliable narrator novels – Lolita; The Sea, The Black Prince etc. It can be funny and satisfying, as a reader, to see things that the narrator can’t. The first germ of an idea for my novel was to have a therapist as the narrator, writing unreliably about the unreliable things he was told by his patients. In my first draft Jack was a lot less sympathetic and more Nabokovian. I then realised (with a little help from those who read my first draft) that I couldn’t write like Nabokov. Without his incredible linguistic skill and wit, Humbert Humbert would be a monster no one would want to read about. Also, I realised I wouldn’t want to write another Lolita, even if I could. I love fiction, like Anna Karenina or The Wire, where the characters are likeable in spite of their flaws and where you can sympathise with each of them, even if they’re in conflict with one another. I couldn’t finish Mme Bovary, even though the prose was beautiful, because there was no one I was rooting for.
So when I came to write a second draft, I tried to make Jack more sympathetic and to focus less on Jack’s relationship with his patient and more on his relationship with Laura. This change of tack allowed me to develop Laura’s character and I had the idea of having two unreliable narrators telling the same story. I’ve often thought that most communication is miscommunication – that we seldom say what we mean or understand what the other person said. I’m a barrister and so my day job is all about communication. Lawyers are more precise with their words than most and yet it’s very common for judges to misunderstand what barristers are saying and vice versa.
A story about a couple that love each other but break apart through miscommunication was the perfect way of exploring that idea.
Another theme that’s always intrigued me is jealousy. It’s an irrational and primitive emotion but all the more fascinating for it. If we think rationally, we shouldn’t be surprised if the person we love is attracted to other people. Human nature being what it is, those attractions will sometimes be acted upon. And yet, for many men, it’s unbearable to think that our wives or girlfriends might even want to sleep with someone else, let alone that they might actually do it. It makes sense on an evolutionary level but it’s interesting how that primitive instinct plays out in the modern world. It’s no coincidence, I think, that many of my favourite novels feature jealous men – Gatsby, who can’t accept that Daisy might have loved Tom when he was away; Swann, who falls in love with a courtesan precisely because she is sleeping with others and he can’t bear it; Charles Arrowby, who finds himself in his retirement (adorably if absurdly) skulking below the window of a married old woman he loved when they were both teenagers.
Finding time to write
I’ve written in my holidays for the last 8 years. If you’re going to write literary fiction, you’re probably going to need a day job. I’m not one of those people who can write in the mornings or evenings, before or after work. The cases I’m involved in tend to absorb all my thoughts and what little time I have to spare I want to spend with my family. So the only way to do it was to take a lot of holidays and write then. I’m very lucky because, as a barrister, I’m self-employed. That means, with a certain amount of indulgence from my clerks, I can take off as much holiday as I want. Of course, the more time I take off the less I earn but I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was a child so it was worth it. It helps that my wife has been so supportive. I think she’d rather tell her friends she’s married to a novelist than a lawyer!
For me, I’ve found the best way of making myself write is to type whatever comes into my head without stopping to wonder whether it’s any good. If I were to critique each sentence or paragraph, just after it was written, I’d delete almost everything and never get anywhere. Often I found that after I’d written pages and pages of stuff I knew wasn’t very good, I’d have some ideas I did like. It was only after I’d written ten thousand words or more that I’d go back and review what I’d written. I could then cut the parts I didn’t like and still be left with something and a feeling I was getting somewhere.
I’m also not one to plan everything in advance. I tried writing chapter synopses in advance but it felt cold and mechanical. The downside of not planning everything is that you have to do a lot of drafts. I wrote around four formal drafts but even in writing those four, I was constantly redrafting parts. I found, as I reviewed it, that some of the early chapters didn’t fit with the later ones and I needed to change them. It became harder and harder to spot these inconsistencies because, the more times I read a draft, the more difficult it was to see it as an outsider would. It’s painful to accept that a chapter you worked hard on and felt proud of has to go because it doesn’t fit with the overall structure of the novel.
I prefer not to know what’s coming myself. It makes it more fun and more natural. At the end of each chapter you have a problem for yourself, to which you need to work out a solution – what would the characters do now, and where can I take it next that will surprise the reader but also be believable?
(c) Rory Dunlop
About What We Didn’t Say
A darkly funny story of a marriage in crisis, perfect for readers who loved Us by David Nicholls and The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
‘A touching, even-handed and thoroughly engaging tale of love, jealousy and fatherhood’ Jim Crace, multi-award-winning author of Harvest
Jack and Laura have separated. Jack thinks it’s all Laura’s fault.
Jack writes to Laura, desperate to put across his side of the story.
Wryly sarcastic and intensely well-observed, What We Didn’t Say is about that gap between words and feelings where relationships live – and die.
What We Didn’t Say is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!