Each time I turn on my laptop, the actress Isabelle Huppert looks out at me with admonishment.
A young Isabelle Huppert: similar to the Isabelle Huppert who looked out from the screen at the end of the movie The Lacemaker. Nothing makes me feel quite so useless as when Isabelle gives me that look. You’ve let me down again, she says without muttering a word. You’ve let yourself down. Why would you do that to yourself? How could you do that to me? Look at me: am I not everything you ever wanted and yet you can’t do this one simple thing I ask of you?
The admonishment is to do with the fact that yet another year has gone by without my finishing a novel I’ve been writing now for years. Writing on and off but mostly, if I’m honest, just off. And I am honest because Isabelle’s admonishment keeps me that way. There’s no way I could ever consider deleting her picture because my story is about a woman who looks out at the world as Isabelle looks out at me.
I believe in this book; I believe in this story; and I believe I will write it. 2022 will be the year, for sure!
For a long time, I didn’t even have a story; all I had was the look. Even now, I’m not sure the story matches up to Isabelle’s look. And yet, each time I return to my work, I’m reassured my instincts are correct: this woman’s story must be told. It’s not only her disappointment with the world: it’s her determination to make somebody pay for so badly letting her down.
I’ve been here before. My first novel, An Accident Waiting to Happen, is about a young woman, Caitlin, who disappears, leaving her son in the care of the man suspected of doing her harm. My editor at Penguin Books helped me see that this wasn’t necessarily Caitlin’s story but that of Gregory, her partner – the chief police suspect. My second novel, Where the Rain Gets In, had its origins in Paul McCartney’s song, Just Another Day: ‘every day she takes a morning bath to wash her hair . . .’ Or, as Madonna once sang, what it feels like a for a girl. My third novel, Dancing to the End of Love, was back to what it feels like for a boy.
I recognized her as soon as I saw the photograph – both the actress and the woman in my head. This image of Isabelle Huppert was the manifestation of the character sketch from the early pages of my novel; I already had her written down on the page. An island of loneliness and resolute self-sufficiency, throwing down her provocative challenge to the world.
She helps me keep the faith and stay true to the book I want to write. She tells me that the time will come, that one day it will feel right, that this will all come together. She reminds me An Accident Waiting to Happen was not really my first novel; it just happened to be the first novel I ever had published. I couldn’t have written it without my obsessive scribblings as a teenager – what today would probably be called ‘journaling’. I couldn’t have written it without learning to take those scribblings and turn them into a story somebody might like to read. Without making just about every possible mistake when first submitting my work to publishers. Without finally putting my first book – my actual first novel – into the bin. Without accepting that, while my second novel was much better, it was still nowhere near good enough. Without becoming more of a reader than a writer, more of a painter than a writer, even – as though this was to be the medium through which I was finally able to express myself. Without, one day, sitting down at a laptop much older than this one, and it all finally making sense – quickly, seemingly easily, and in a way that made me forget the many, many years of doubt.
So, how to keep the faith? How can I still call myself a writer when I don’t write? Easier for me now, you might say, having had my work published, than for the dreaming teenager I once was. Easier for me than an aspiring writer with a drawer full of rejection letters. Only, I too possess that collection of disheartening letters, telling me how much publishers and agents liked my work, but it just wasn’t quite what they were looking for. Self-doubt is a terrible thing and, as a writer, it is almost impossible to avoid. But when you sit down to do the work – even sporadically – when you read over what you have written, when an idea won’t let you rest until you try and try again, self-doubt can soon be replaced with self-belief.
And really, in the end, you have no choice. I have no choice. I know for a fact that, even if I had never been published, I would still be obsessing over this photograph of Isabelle Huppert. Beyond the 30,000 words I have written, the character she embodies may still only be a notion in my head but one day she will be made real and complete in the fictional pages of a novel. I know this because I’m a writer; it’s what I do.
Keep the faith! Do the work! Isabelle demands it of you!
(c) Adrian White
Photograph of Isabelle Huppert © 1988 Festival international du film Entrevues Belfort
Adrian is the editor of Writing.ie and works as a consultant to writers through The Inkwell Group.
Adrian on Twitter
About An Accident Waiting to Happen:
A young woman disappears. Her partner Gregory, under suspicion of having done her harm, is left to care for her son Tomas from a previous relationship. The race is on for Gregory to find the woman he loves before the police take Tomas away. How far would you go to protect the ones you love?
A tough subject, desertion, handled with compelling simplicity as a father and son cope alone in a rough world. Extraordinarily engaging and sensitive, wringing one’s emotions. Sarah Broadhurst, The Bookseller
Adrian White’s debut is irresistible . . . it’s like life. Afric Hamilton, Irish Examiner
Dark, unsettling – and definitely not touchy-feely. Anna Carey, Image Magazine
Disturbing and sometimes irresistible, this is a story that will find a responsive audience in the growing ranks of dispossessed fathers. Lucille Redmond, Irish Independent
White offers a porthole on the male dilemma – the pressure to plumb his emotions and articulate them, the quandary of a sense of alienation from his environment. His unflinching honesty, coupled with an accessible writing style, produce an assured debut. Martina Devlin, Dublin Evening Herald
Order your copy online here.