The great Russian-American author Isaac Asimov once remarked that if he were given only six months to live, his response would be to type faster. Famously, he published hundreds of books in his lifetime, so such a prognosis could have yielded him about twenty novels, an opera, five collections of stories, and a shopping list. Not everything he wrote was rendered in glistening prose, but he was a genius whose ideas helped shape the world we live in. It is not just any writer who can say that, or be so prolific. For most of us it takes a bit longer to write a book.
My new novel, So Long, Napoleon Solo, took fifteen years, on and off. That was not intentional. I started work on it in 2001 in response to the self-deliverance of a childhood friend, who was and is utterly unlike the fictional Tom, whose suicide sets the story of the novel in motion. My first draft was laughter in the dark, written blindly in marathon sessions made possible by solitude; I needed to get everything down as fast as I could, in a fugue of energy and work, banging it out until I’d got an ending. The result looked like a novel and read like a novel but what it wasn’t quite, not yet, was a novel.
Being a poet, I came to the task of writing a long prose piece as one who didn’t realise what he didn’t know. I learned that there’s a different art to it. An agent, when I showed an early draft too soon, said that the writing was good and the dialogue amusing, but the characters and story needed work. His advice made the book better. As the process went on, I found myself detaching creatively from the cathartic origin of the book. It assumed its own surprising course. What a trip it was to hold an entire world in my head, as the characters become semi-autonomous and their journey took on a life of its own.
Words are a time machine. I’d put the text aside for long periods then take it out and the characters would still be there, as they were, waiting to tell me what they needed. In between, I wrote other things. Poetry and stories, scripts for film, and plays for Doctor Who and Dan Dare. I also worked in advertising, the profession of my protagonist Jerome, and felt his nostalgia for a world long departed. Revisiting the book, I’d make changes and polish the prose until it gleamed and I was done. Then, every time, the flaws would appear, and I’d realise it needed more work after all.
A book is done when it’s done. In 2008 a publishing company accepted So Long, Napoleon Solo, then folded when the publisher himself disappeared. That mystery remains unsolved and I often wonder what happened to him. In the grand scheme, the fact that my novel no longer had a home, was a very minor consequence of a possibly tragic story. In the years since, the book matured while I wasn’t looking, like a literary sourdough starter kept in the hot press of my mind, as I put it away again and wrote more poems.
Then it came to me that something was not missing. Something in the story was too much, was breaking the flow, tripping the narrative up. It was a backstory that belonged to another character. So I removed this subplot surgically, sewed it up, and cauterised the resulting wound in the body of the novel. The newly liberated twin became an entity unto itself, a novella called Anhedonia. This was published a few years ago by Arlen House, with another novella in one volume. I’m very happy with Anhedonia as a piece of work but it needed to be free. When it was, I discovered the true course of So Long, Napoleon Solo.
This idea of the ‘sourdough principle’, which others have had before, is a curiously useful one. Writing So Long, Napoleon Solo, in the end, yielded this: one novel, one novella, two short stories and acid reflux problems. You never know what’s going to come out in the mix. The idea is to keep going, to not give up. Rejection is your friend, and the work always benefits. Should you find yourself with nothing to work on, a good trick could be to cannibalise your own unpublished pieces. Treat them as starter material. After years of inattention they might have found a new shape or a way forward. They might not, but that’s all right. Doing this is no more heinous or unoriginal than going to the sourdough mix and seeing if you can get a loaf out of it. Keep a bit of prose in the drawer and if it never turns into the work you intended, it might become the catalyst for something unexpected.
So Long, Napoleon Solo began as a contemporary satire and ended up as a sort of historical romance, after the fashion of Richard Brautigan. I could have updated the setting to make it contemporary again, but I decided against it. The flavour of the book requires the characters to live when they do. They needed to be able to smoke in public, and not have to tweet or be consumed by their screens. Their cultural references would have had to be revised, and their immense capacity for alcohol would be frowned on today. Jerome, Clea, Ro and Harry don’t seem to need to be outraged at trivia at all, although Jerome does tend to think badly of others’ apparent ease with society. It was more interesting to nurture them as they are, than to force them to live in our world.
This novel is a comedy about suicide, but more than that, it’s a twisted romance. It’s a literary thriller that doesn’t believe in the conventions of the thriller. It’s a satire, still, with characters cracking wise, because laughter is how we deal with pain. At the end, even though it’s not exactly the book I set out to write, it turned out as the novel it needed to be. When Geoffrey Gatza at BlazeVOX Books said yes, the final stage of the work began – intense and pleasurable editing of the manuscript over many months. It felt like putting a film together from the rushes.
As for the sourdough? There’s nothing left. No words in a drawer. Following this novel, I’ll be leaving the field fallow for a while. I could write anything or nothing, and either would be fine. One day, maybe soon, I’ll start again from zero, as some freshly wounded character turns up, demanding to be followed somewhere I don’t know. Maybe next time, like Mr Asimov, I’ll type faster.
(c) Patrick Chapman
About So Long, Napoleon Solo:
Dublin, 1999. Jerome Williams is a man in denial. When his childhood friend Tom shoots himself dead, Jerome enters a world shaped by the spy games of their youth, as their secret identities re-emerge in unexpected ways. He encounters Tom’s pregnant girlfriend Ro, who might just carry out the death pact she had with her lover—but should Jerome even try to save her? And can he convince Clea, his new oldest friend, to leave her potentially dangerous partner? As he navigates a city where violence and betrayal are personal, he learns that the real damage from suicide is collateral. Jerome begins to see his life and his past with a new clarity, as he faces a future he never imagined.
So Long, Napoleon Solo is a sophisticated comedy about suicide, relationships, and Irish society at the turn of the century. It’s not a Man from U.N.C.L.E. story, it’s the legend of two boys the show inspired, in all sorts of twisted ways.
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