Written just before the publication of Stay, the second Aud Torvingen novel, this essay was first published in BoldType in March 2002.
Even though I can list in my sleep the questions I’ll get when Stay comes out, I’ll still be struck dumb when they’re asked because the answers are all connected and about as easy to explain as why being alive is a good thing. People will ask, Where do your ideas come from? Why do you write what you write? Why do you write about the kind of people you write about? Why did you choose to work in the noir genre? Why make your main character a woman? but what they’ll really want to know—and will be too polite to ask—is, Don’t you think Aud, her personality and attitude to violence, is a bit, you know, unrealistic and over the top? As far as I’m concerned, life’s too short to sidestep around anything so I’ll just cut to the chase, and begin with this matter of Aud.
Aud is my commitment to excellence made flesh/word and walking around; she uses whatever it takes to get the job done. She is the tension between the joy and discipline that is my art (or craft or life or bane, depending) filed to a point and stabbed into the tabletop. She is a public challenge—to me and from me—because there’s no way to disguise the meaning of a naked blade quivering in the wood: the game is serious, the personal stakes high.
Before I wrote, I sang, and before that I played various sports, studied martial arts and other things, but no one ever asked me why I sang (or loved using my body) because the answer is self-evident: it feels good. Singing is a visceral act: vocal cords thrum in the throat and set up a resonating hum in the diaphragm, muscles squeeze and air flows from lungs to throat to mouth to atmosphere. Get it right and you can feel the vibration in your bones—a sort of internal massage. Lovely. When I studied martial arts it was the sheer physical thrill—adrenalin, sweat, speed, balance—that made me want to throw back my head and laugh. Writing is no different. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I fizz and itch with my eagerness to write. I get to that keyboard and zzzsst, it’s like sliding down a greased ramp into white water. There’s nothing but light and liquid and weightlessness. If something hurts I no longer feel it; my music playlist ends but I don’t notice. I’m riding the turbulence, bringing to bear every mind muscle I possess, flexing, leaping, diving, cleaving the water like an Olympic swimmer. It’s a rush, an absolute joy.
Joy can take a swimmer, or singer or writer or karateka, a long way but at some point, if you’re serious, you have to accept the discipline of work—which is of a different order than mere effort. An Olympic swimmer doesn’t win gold by just swimming a long way every morning. She spends a mind-numbing number of hours setting her toes just-so on the starting block, bending, diving, taking two strokes, pulling herself out of the pool and back onto the block, bending at a very slightly different angle, and diving again. And again. Over and over. And if the angle thing doesn’t work, she’ll swear, and shrug, and start messing with the toe placement, then the arm angle, and the hand shape, all in the quest to shave another two hundredths of a second from her time. This kind of work is unglamourous, frustrating, repetitive and occasionally heartbreaking. It requires a discipline and commitment that, until I accepted that I’m a novelist, I’d never needed.
My first novel was published in 1993 but I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a writer until the summer of 1998. My third novel, The Blue Place, was a couple of months from publication and I had no idea what I wanted to write next. Or should I say I had many ideas but I couldn’t settle to anything. I’d prepared a collection of short stories and essays, started research for a historical novel, started editing an original anthology series. I bought a couple of books about screenwriting. I began to study aikido. I considered learning to draw or to speak Spanish. And every now and again I’d think about Aud. There was a great deal still to write about her, if I chose, but the idea sent me into a kind of panic. One summer evening I was sitting on the porch in the sun, drinking beer, nodding at passersby in the neighbourhood, mind on nothing in particular, when I found myself imagining not writing anymore. I was picturing going back to school to study ancient history, or going back to teaching self defense, even going back to England. I remember one minute wondering idly how much we could put the house on the market for, and the next blinking at my beer, thinking: Put the house on the market? Move? Why? Well, because we’d bought it three years ago and I’d never lived anywhere longer than three years, so it was time to move. QED. After all, if I stayed, I’d have to make some choices like…like, oh, what color to paint the walls, and what sort of furniture to put in my office, and what to plant in the garden. I’d have to stop living in the house we’d bought and start living in the home we’d made. That would mean making some choices. The house would lose the potential to be perfect because I would have to start dealing with specific, real, practical limitations. I realised that what I was contemplating was running away: from writing, from doing the work.
I don’t like work. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding it, picking up singing or karate or a course of academic study, finding it easy, and then walking away the minute friends or teachers or fellow students began expecting things and dropping unsubtle hints about practice schedules and rehearsal times and future intentions. Now, staring at my empty beer bottle on the porch, I began to understand. It wasn’t the effort I was afraid of but what making that effort meant. I always walked away when I reached the stage where I would graduate from being a beginner to a serious student. This is the point where the speed with which I learned something would mean less than how deeply I learned it, and what I might do with it, where I might take it on my own. To progress meant having to do the work. It meant that if I failed it wouldn’t be because I hadn’t bothered to try but because I had limitations. I can’t tell you how much I hated that realisation.
I got another beer and thought about Aud. There was a lot more to discover about her, and I was afraid I wasn’t good enough to get it right. I’m still afraid.
I don’t like the idea of failure, of discovering limitations, or of work, but when I write I face all three every day. I keep doing it because it feels good and because, for the first time, the work—product and process—is worth it.
One of the things I wanted to write about in Stay is grief. My little sister, Helena, died in 1988. When I began the novel in 1998 I intended to use Aud and her grief to talk about me and mine. I wanted to write out, finally, all the things I’d learned in ten years of mourning. I finished the first draft at the end of 1999. It was not good. My grief—for a sister to whom I’d been a surrogate mother, whom I’d known every single day of my conscious life and lived with for a great proportion of it—was not and could not be remotely like that of a Norwegian woman of twisted emotional development who had lost a lover she’d known only six weeks. Except that I knew deep down that grief is one of those universal human emotions, like fear or love or anger, whose essence is the same no matter what the individual circumstances. So what I had to try figure out is what about my grief was particular to me, and what was universal. To do that I had to revisit my sister’s death in detail. Then I had to take what I understood of that essence and shine it through Aud to see how the lens of her particularity would diffract its colour and shape. I began the first rewrite. A year later, as I began my seventh rewrite, I discovered that another sister, Carolyn, had only six months to live. I was on my tenth rewrite when she died. I was on my twelfth when the Twin Towers collapsed.
I rewrote Stay thirteen times. It got harder each time. I was tempted on two separate occasions to stick the manuscript in a drawer and forget Aud, go back to that historical novel I’d been toying with. It felt awful, working on that book, as though I was tearing open a wound over and over, as though I was damaging myself. It’s possible that I was, of course, but it’s just as likely that the pain was simply the equivalent of stretching a tendon shortened by disuse. It hurts, but it’s not harmful; it’s just work. Work, frankly, sucks. Like failure it’s no fun. Unlike failure, though, it feels good afterwards.
The annoying part of all this is that one of the ways I know I’ve done a good job is that no one sees how hard I’ve worked. When a television audience is watching that Olympic swimmer, they don’t want to know about the tens of thousands of hours he spent perfecting his start or the physical therapy he’s had to have on his shoulder or the deprivations of diet and social life. When those viewers turn off their televisions and go to the theatre to watch Hamlet they don’t want to see Laertes screwing up his face in an effort to get the meter right; they don’t want to know how difficult it is to make that iambic pentameter sound like natural speech, or the fact that Ophelia has a sprained ankle from throwing herself too enthusiastically at Hamlet’s feet during dress rehearsal. The theatergoer or reader might not object to doing a little work, in fact most of the time I think they like it, but they don’t want to have to watch it. What the reader wants—what I want as a reader, anyway—is a seamless experience. I don’t mind admiring the work afterwards but when I’m in the middle of a novel I don’t want to be thinking, Wow, you can really see how much effort she’s put into this research, or He must have spent a days figuring out that tricky time-shift sequence. When I’m in the middle of reading I want to be thinking (and feeling) Oh, god, I wonder what I’d do if it were my child dying, or Huh, I never thought of responsibility in quite that light before, what an interesting way to look at it. The first time I read a novel I want the author’s technique to move like a vast iceberg beneath my consciousness: unseen, felt only in passing.
Nine times out of ten, if you see how hard the writer is working it means he hasn’t worked hard enough. I believe that if technical mastery is a feather then it should be on the writer’s arrow, not in her cap. Admiration for flashy and obvious writerly technique on the part of critics who should know better is one of my (many) pet peeves. Having said that, I admit that as a reader I love to catch just one fleeting glimpse of exuberance from the author, a just-for-the-hell-of-it paradiddle because I believe feeling good is integral to art, both to the creator and consumer. It’s important for me to be able to sense on some level that the writer had a great time doing her job, that it mattered: she burned to describe this interface between the character’s interior and exterior worlds and how each impacts the other, or he was just so enthusiastic about plainchant that he couldn’t wait to impart his love and knowledge of the subject to his reader, or whatever. Whether the book ends happily is immaterial, but somewhere, even in the grimmest novel, there must be a gleam of rough joy. A whole novel without it is unbearable (and pointless).
Joy is one of the reasons I don’t see Stay as a noir novel. Noir, the way I understand it, is all about being trapped by circumstance. It is about ordinary people leading small lives who make one mistake and, phht, that’s it, it’s all over, because when they try to correct their mistake they just end up digging themselves a deeper hole. At every moment of the novel they and the reader know that their eventual downfall is inevitable. They struggle against this inevitable end not out of a need to hold onto something good in their lives, but because they are so mired in their own circumstance they don’t know what else to do. On those occasions where they appear to avoid punishment for their deeds (Highsmith’s Ripley, Hammett’s Spade), they and we know that it doesn’t matter: their own essential nature dooms them to repeat their mistakes. Noir is the horror fiction of the crime genre.
The joy of a good novel can be as varied as the joy of dance: the stately precision of a pavane, the raw vitality of flamenco, the familiar pleasure of an old married couple fox-trotting on their anniversary. When we dance, what we feel is not ordinary and everyday; we feel bigger, brighter, more vital. In much the same way, a fictional character does not have to be ordinary to be psychologically real. Sappho and Stalin, Janis Joplin and Jesse Owens, the Marquis de Sade and Mother Teresa all lived extraordinary lives; all were real. Aud is not ordinary, either—Aud and ordinary don’t even live on the same planet—but she’s as real, as true emotionally and psychologically as I can make her. She is herself.
Aud is not my puppet but she is my living message, my envoy (it’s just a shame she’s not much of a diplomat). She embodies the long journey towards reconciliation of all those parts of our culture that have been artificially levered apart: mind and body, nature and civilization, art and science, man and woman, tenderness and brutality. She reflects the endless building and dismantling of human understanding: learning, and unlearning, then relearning differently. She is the work. Like art, she is a contradiction and a bridge: between me and you, past and present, moral and amoral, change and stability. She’s a tender, violent woman who has never been a victim; she understands but remains unmarked by cruelty or gender. She can both do and be, viscerally and intellectually. She is mercurial and implacable; she deceives herself then sees clearly. Like life, she is fragile and impossibly resilient. She is willfully individual and in so being becomes my knife in the table, my reminder that the public challenge has been made and there’s no way to back down and walk away. I’ve committed us both. She and I will make mistakes and get knocked down, and when that happens we’ll get up, give the world a bloody, half-crazed grin and set to work again with an even tighter focus. We’ll do the work because it’s worth it. It will even feel good.
6 thoughts on “Doing the Work”
The three books about Aud are among my favorite re-reads. You got the stories Right! Actually like them best of all the books you have written so far (not finished reading Hild yet).
Hild and Aud are pretty different. When you finish Hild I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Having met Aud in Stay, and then for whatever peculiar reason not having another Nicola book in my hands until Hild, I can say I admire and enjoy both characters. I love the implacability of them: they are like juggernauts of personality. Which is good, though it sounds a little death-starry.
Oh, I think Aud would be happy with being ‘death-starry’ :)
The paragraph that begins with, “I don’t like work” describes me so perfectly and articulates the ways that I have approached learning new things. I pick up guitar, chip carving, whittling, calligraphy, and as soon as I am competent in the basics I lose interest. My brain drags me on to the next puzzling but fascinating skill and the cycle repeats. The portion that resonated with me the most is this: “[…] if I failed it wouldn’t be because I hadn’t bothered to try but because I had limitations.” I am working on being more gentle with myself and accepting that “failure” is just part of the entire process of learning and doing everything. I’ve read all the Aud novels, Slow River, With Her Body, and am currently making my way through Ammonite (so amazing). Reading books about queer women that aren’t *about* their queerness was revelatory to young queer me and I thank you deeply. I picked up The Blue Place at a library sale and I swear, I felt drawn to it on the shelf, like I somehow knew it contained wondrous women.
I certainly did not intend to write so much, but I seriously appreciate you and your amazing work. There aren’t enough words to properly describe my love of your works and their impact on me. Thank you!
I’ve been thinking of ways to describe what I do in novels, that exclusion of trauma and so making making them not about the queerness etc. I think I’m figuring it out. Expect another looong essay sometime next year :) Meanwhile, I’m delighted my books work for you. Responses like this are one of the reasons I write.
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