Some Company For Our Shame: On collaborative writing
When my good friend Luke Williams said he would be dedicating his first novel, The Echo Chamber, to me, I helpfully suggested this wording: ‘For, and in many ways, by, Natasha Soobramanien.’ The joke being that my pitifully hubristic claim had a tiny basis in truth: I had actually written a bit of Luke’s book. Two chapters, to be precise. Collaboration in the field of literary fiction is rare, though common enough in genre writing (leaving aside for the moment the argument that literary fiction is itself a genre). But collaboration is, of course, standard practice in many other art forms. An assessment of why this should be the case and what this might reveal about the state of contemporary literary fiction is not my intention here. Rather, this is an account of how I came to write those chapters for Luke’s book, how our experiment has led us to embark on a fully collaborative novel, and lastly, why we feel it is important that this particular novel should be a collaborative project.
I would have made the same joke about The Echo Chamber’s dedication had I not written those chapters. I’m Luke’s first reader and he is mine; to be given this position by a writer is to be allowed some input into, as well as access to, their creative process. It goes like this: once a writer is able to formulate her initial idea in writing, it may be grasped by a consciousness other than her own. At this point, she shares it with her first reader. The first reader has a consciousness of her own, but has become sensitised, through friendship, to the writer’s. She helps the writer formulate her ideas more precisely, so that it might be grasped by others. And this was the role I occupied on Luke’s project from its inception, Luke having begun it on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA where we met. Luke’s suggestion that I contribute a section to The Echo Chamber came after seven years of my having been its first reader. The shift from first reader to second writer was not so great, my contribution to Luke’s book being a kind of engaged reading of it, a reading of what had been written up to the point I temporarily assumed authorship, and a projected reading of what I knew to be Luke’s plans for the remainder. But what led Luke to make the unusual move of inviting me to contribute in this way? To answer this, I’ll give a brief precis of The Echo Chamber, and the story of how it came to be published.
The novel is set in present day Edinburgh. Its narrator, Evie Steppman, is a woman ‘no longer young’ who is compelled to tell her life story. She’s going deaf. Evie has always believed herself to be possessed of preternatural powers of hearing (or ‘listening’), so that her memories are primarily aural in nature, her memory an archive of sounds, the most precious of which were formed during a magical, turbulent childhood in Lagos with her colonial officer father. The deterioration in Evie’s hearing therefore signals a concomitant deterioration in memory: Evie must get her past down on paper before it disintegrates into white noise. But she encounters a fundamental problem in the form of language, and by extension, narrative: language for Evie is a second language, sound being her first. This process of putting sound into words and the inevitable loss in translation – a loss only the self-translator can ever fully know —is, for Evie, a painful one. Her solution? Transcription: she completes her story by constructing it from other people’s words—by transcribing from the personal papers of those she has known. And so, when Evie comes to relate details of her one love affair, she does so via the entries from a diary now in her possession, kept by her former lover, Damaris. It is these diary entries that Luke asked me to write.
Luke enacted Evie’s own process of transcription by transcribing from another’s words himself. Similarly, Evie’s narrative fatigue reflected Luke’s own disillusionment with the novel form, and his failed attempts to remake it.
The Echo Chamber was an ambitious project for a debut novelist in his mid-twenties, a fact that Luke could not escape since he was working on the novel pretty much full-time. Luke’s sale of the novel’s publishing rights on a partial manuscript obviated, for a time, the need for him to work to support his writing; the impending deadline meant he had no choice but to write full-time with a few periods of working odd jobs to supplement his advance. So after seven years it was no wonder that he and Evie experienced a species of fictive ennui. The specifics of Luke’s situation and how this led to our collaboration are important to mention, I think: it should be acknowledged that books are of the world, and that this impacts on the making of them. And if you write with the aim of getting published, you cannot be innocent of market forces—even if you choose to turn your back on these. It is also important to acknowledge that if this is your vocation, the act of writing is labour, and creative decisions may often be informed by this unglamorous fact. I mention the contractual obligation also because it impacted on my response to Luke’s challenge: I accepted on the understanding that I would be free to write without direction, though I was obliged to observe the constraints of plot already established in the synopsis submitted to the publishers. These were as follows:
Evie’s lover Damaris is a woman. She’s a mime artist and the two are in their early twenties when they meet at The Edinburgh Festival, where Damaris is performing. It’s the early Seventies. Soon after meeting the two travel around America together, while Evie undertakes a project to record what she perceives to be ‘soon-to-be-extinct sounds’. Their relationship ends shortly after their travels.
I have set these out in order to illustrate my writing of these chapters as an ‘engaged reading’. My writing around these facts was informed by what I had read of Luke’s book up to that point: his approach to the foundational theme of silence and its inverse, sound, for example. Luke had aligned these with Evie’s isolation: her encounters with sound and silence are mostly solitary, and these experiences reveal just how unsuited she is to life in the wider world. I chose to develop this notion of her isolation by contrasting directly the silence of Damaris’ art with the sonic nature of Evie’s, using this dichotomy to foreshadow the end of their brief, but intense relationship.
Creating a character in Luke’s novel gave me the opportunity to play with representations of the character he had created. I was able to show Evie through another’s eyes, and in doing so, play with the image Evie had constructed of herself in the preceding chapters— even, crucially, undermining this. It also allowed me a part in realising Luke’s project to destabilise the notion of authorial authority, and certainly to undermine Evie’s own authority. All of this allowing, of course, for the possibility in the reader’s mind that Evie is nothing but a lonely fantasist and has written Damaris’ diaries herself; that Damaris never really existed. An unexpected and interesting consequence of this ambiguity was one reviewer’s suggestion—prompted by his perception of the novel as ‘tricksy’—that the acknowledgement which appears at the end of the book crediting me with writing the Damaris chapters might itself be a red herring, and that Natasha Soobramanien, supposed creator of Damaris, was in fact herself a character created by Luke.
Our collaboration wouldn’t have been possible if we had we not shared a similar aesthetic sensibility, the core of which were certain political concerns. A foundational theme of The Echo Chamber is colonialism and, more broadly, the exercise—and negotiation—of power in various forms. In this context, Luke’s urge to destabilise authorial authority, and his use of transcription—that is, Evie’s refusal to speak—assume political resonance. My engagement with Luke’s book and our discussions around our respective practices informed my approach to similar themes, and the idea of narrative absolutism, in my own first novel, Genie and Paul. This is a contemporary rewriting of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s 18th century romance, Paul et Virginie, written when Mauritius (where both books are set) was still a French colony. While Genie and Paul begins by assuming the authorative voice of the nineteenth century storyteller, my aim was to undermine this anachronistic omniscience by a series of standalone monologues, in which characters who are otherwise marginalised or oppressed take control of their own stories. Towards the end of my work on this, Luke and I discussed the possibility of full collaboration on a second book-length project. These discussions inspired one of the final monologues in Genie and Paul. It is the story of a Chagossian man whose family were forced by the British Government into exile – along with all other inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago – to expedite the leasing of the largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US Government as a military base in 1968. On reflection, I see Genie and Paul as a kind of proto-collaboration with Luke – he was my first reader throughout, and so had some creative input into the book. Our current collaboration is a development of these foundational conversations.
This project is a hybrid novel or prose work (to use W.G. Sebald’s term) called Diego Garcia. It’s a history of the island, from its origin in myth to its present status as British colony, US military base and appropriated homeland of the Chagossian Islanders. The book continues the interrogations of power begun (to varying degrees) in our respective first novels; in Diego Garcia we are examining how power uses narrative to enforce and extend its position, such narratives usually presenting themselves as the only story. One example of this is the 1965 government memo pertaining to the proposed expulsion of the islanders. This document, headed ‘Maintaining the Fiction’, emphasised the necessity of presenting the Chagossian Islanders as an itinerant population, rather than the settled inhabitants that most of them were. Under international law it is illegal to send into exile your own citizens but as an ‘itinerant population’ Chagossians would be ineligible for citizenship, and the government within its rights to evict them in line with plans to militarise the zone and clear it of non-authorised personnel.
Collaboration, then, seems a more appropriate strategy for this book than that of sole authorship, with its implication of a unique vision. Similarly, adopting Evie’s practice of transcription here—in this case, the transcription of extant documents relating to the island, such as ‘Maintaining the Fiction’—also has its place in our project to displace the author.
Collaboration is challenging. It is a risk. But it is necessary to take risks to allow for the possibility of interesting writing. And perhaps my opening comments were disingenuous, and my discussion here is actually, in part, an indirect comment on contemporary literary fiction — on its apparent reluctance (in its British form at least) to take risks. Of course, to take risks is to risk failure: no one wants to spend years working on a book that may, in blueprint, appear difficult to realise. At this point we might also consider the artworld term ‘art writing’, gaining traction on the more experimental fringes of the literary world. ‘Art writing’ covers many forms of art-related writing—including writing as art, that is, writing that seeks to engage with language and avant-garde literary practices in a way that what we consider to be literature aspires to do, and what we might term literary fiction often fails to do. But this is not the discussion I set out to introduce here. Instead I’ll conclude by returning to the topic in hand.
Artistic collaboration requires from those involved productive difference as much as it does correspondence on certain non-negotiable points. One example of such difference in our case is Luke’s long-term ambition to produce a book that contains no words of his own. As that suggested dedication for The Echo Chamber would indicate, my artistic ego is less evolved. Issues of gender and conflicted cultural identity no doubt play a part in my reluctance to relinquish a voice I am just beginning to test, though as a result of my conversations with Luke — and as I have suggested earlier, conversation is the essence and joy of collaboration — I would gladly join my voice with others’. And in relation to this I will offer one indisputable benefit of collaborative writing: if it does all go wrong, I will have, at least—to paraphrase one of my former students—‘some company for my shame.’*
*I gave a new class of creative writing students a questionnaire to find out more about them. In answer to the question, ‘Why do you write?’ one student gave this unforgettable reply: ‘To give other people some company for their shame’.