A novel is a collection of anxieties held together, more or less well, more or less interestingly, by the chicken wire of plot. In writing my last novel, Oxygen, I had a radiant collection of new and long-term worries to choose among.
In the year I began the book, I was living in Dublin and suffering from breathing difficulties – a sense that I could not take a deep breath, could not fully open my lungs. I was sent to the hospital for tests. I blew into tubes. They X-rayed me. They put me in a capsule like an old-fashioned bubble car and tested me for allergies. I didn’t react. I was well.
Go home, they said, and try to relax. Had I been overdoing it recently?
I said I was trying to start a novel.
That’ll be it, they said. Half the city was trying to start a novel – a novel or a collection of poetry. In Dublin hospitals, breathing difficulty brought on by the birth pangs of creative enterprise is an acceptable and probably common diagnosis. But I’d started novels before (and finished them) and had felt fine. I wanted a second opinion and found a Chinese clinic where a professor from Beijing, a chain-smoker without the least command of English, drilled me with little pins – including one between my eyes – leaving me recumbent on the couch while he went into the corridor to top up his nicotine levels.
The clinic was makeshift: three cubicles with thin board walls that stopped a foot below the ceiling. Whether I liked it or not – and I liked it – I was privy to the confessions of my fellow patients, who, through the interpreter, told the professor the story of their bodies, their quest for wellness, their dark misgivings. It was an ideal situation for a novelist: pinned to a couch, listening to the secrets of strangers. It became half the reason for going there and reminded me of something I already knew, but often forget. That everywhere there are possibilities.
The pins seemed to help, the pins and the tea I had to brew twice a day, a bog-brown infusion of such astonishing bitterness I could only swallow it by lining my mouth with honey.
It wasn’t just me, though. There seemed to be an epidemic of breathlessness. Half my friends – not writers at all, but regular people, social workers, computer programmers, doctors for Christ’s sake – carried little inhalers in their pockets. Oxygen levels in the cities are slipping. Oxygen bars are opening in fashionable malls in America. And lack of oxygen (ischemia) is what kills us all.
I kept drinking the tea. I wrote about people who struggled for breath. I think I sometimes wrote whole paragraphs without breathing, as though swimming the length of a pool underwater.
Then I left Dublin, that rainy, melancholy city, and moved for a time to Paris, because if writing is about anxiety it is also about promises you make to yourself at the beginning of it all. To be a writer in Paris! There – the city of light – the book was lost and found again (every book has a point of crisis it must survive, a moment when it appears impossible).
The last quarter of Oxygen was written in England. I was temporarily homeless. I stayed with my parents in Bath and set up a little writing space, like a priest’s hole, at the end of the garage. I wrote among bunches of dried flowers, bags of golf clubs, boxes of wine. I was already overdue on the delivery. It was winter. There were patterns of frost on the window. One by one my characters arrived at their appointed places. On the last day I wrote for nine hours, pressed save, sat back and breathed in from my teeth to my toes.
Two and a half years sweating over a book! Elaborate cure.
Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).