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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Too Dirty for Fingerprints

When things are going badly, I try to forget the whole canvas, just work on this one tiny section that is the problem. Sometimes even 40 or 60 words is enough to move things on, like guiding a sewing machine over a thick seam – you have to go very slowly or you’ll break the needle. Then I draw back and see how it fits into the whole.

That’s the last thing I wrote about my novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart (to be published by Kwela in May) before 2009 drew to a close. A mixed metaphor, I see now: sewing thrown in with an artist’s canvas. Yet both metaphors are about being willing to stare at a dense thicket of trees without worrying about a landscape view of the wood. (To introduce a third metaphor.)

It’s interesting, in this fourth month of the novel’s composition, to see the daily word count climbing from pathetic (200 words a day) to impressive (1 500 words). But then someone steals my number plates. There’s evidence of clairvoyance, and also a Garbo-esque longing to be alone, a wish happily granted by the arrival of a relative who rents a mansion in Cape Town for the festive period.

7 December 2009
I only managed about 200 or 250 words today – pathetic. And it’s been that way for a long time.

I told Ma she should eat her soup and fish first, but when my attention was distracted saying goodbye to a nurse, she got stuck into the chocolate mousse with her soupy spoon.

8 December 2009
I had a much better writing day. I woke in the middle of the night to receive notes from my novel. Simple things about what should happen next.

14 December 2009
I’ve written a few hundred words and been for a swim and put the laundry in and changed B’s sheets, inter alia.

BW’s hired mansion is a vast and tastelessly decorated white elephant. Everything is wrong, even though money has been thrown around. No working outside lights (no bulbs in) to light the huge garden and no light over the braai for poor M with his mussel potjie and tuna steaks. No artwork other than a repulsive and badly executed oil of the owner’s wife. A “library” consisting of Bryce Courtney and piles of women’s magazines. An unhappy pot-bellied pig locked in a dirty cage outside.

It was Ma’s birthday yesterday – 88 years old. I popped in during T’s shift and Ma was very animated by our conversation about the family and its woes. She added little sounds and sentence-like observations from the bed.

B has been with BW since Saturday morning, so I got in 1000 words yesterday. Now people are clamouring to see me – lunches etc – and I want to say NO. Last night I was planning a bowl of pasta and veg and another hour’s writing before bed. But [-] phoned from London for a loooong chat. The pasta was soggy, and I couldn’t get my mind to think straight afterwards. I dreamt of G again. I was being incompetent in the dream, but he was kind to me. Even so, it felt wrong. I wanted him gone.

15 December 2009
How happy I feel to be alone here this evening, after a day in which I was mostly left alone, and have managed nearly 1500 words, and don’t have to cook supper.

Thinking of P’s story about the dog chasing a rabbit. I identify with the hare – its terror in fleeing the dog, the way it doesn’t know how fast it is, can’t trust its own speed.

Though I am slow. Even now that I am managing 1000 words a day, I feel pursued by the forces that would stop me. B returned yesterday afternoon, feeling homesick and missing me. I hope she recovers her spirits today so that I don’t need to cook supper or stop off at all. I think she will. I also told [-] I could not see him. I don’t miss company at all and the thought of anyone touching me or taking up my time with chitchat makes me want to scream. I feel blanked off to anything but my characters and the delicate modeling I have to do.

Ma was very talkative and astonishingly mobile yesterday. She set off several times to walk, dragging her bad, inturned leg with her, and aiming recklessly at the door.

17 December 2009
All Tuesday’s joy evaporated when R told me early yesterday that my number plates had been stolen. There was a message under my windscreen from Mountain Men Security to say that at 03.45 two “Africans” were seen transferring the plates to their own Corolla. So that meant a trip to the Police station during my prime writing time.

At first, although I was the only person at the counter, no one helped me. An overweight officer was on his cell phone. Slowly he made his way to the counter, but sat down dejectedly and did not meet my eyes. Then he said in agony that his dog was sick. His daughter had just phoned to say that his dog was vomiting. That dog means more to me than life itself, he said. And now I am expected to work. He didn’t want to cry in front of me, so he walked outside. Then he came back and wiped his face and read my statement. You know what these guys are gonna do now? They gonna commit a lot of crimes with your number plates. All over the place. We have to fill in a docket. We have to open a case. He went out to the yard and found an illiterate constable who painstakingly transcribed all my neatly typed details onto an illegible form, complete with wrong phone number. Where I wrote “theft off motor vehicle” (a phrase I’d heard a policeman use before) he shook his head at my idiocy. Had I written this? Didn’t I know that it was not theft of a motor vehicle but theft FROM a motor vehicle? Tsk, tsk. Can’t even get my prepositions right.

The day wanted to defeat me. P gatecrashed my morning swim.

I forced myself to find my rhythm once more. I sat here till I squeezed out 1000 words, by 7.30 yesterday evening. I’d been invited to an open house party at PN’s house, contemplated attending, but chose writing instead.

18 December 2009
The detective who came yesterday said my car was too dirty to reveal any fingerprints.

I did manage a thousand words. I could have done more since J was having a hectic day and our lunch turned out to be a one hour sandwich break, but B returned and I spent the rest of the afternoon with her. Today I have another rehearsal with L. I’ve also been battling with a sore neck and a headache lodged behind one eye. Those are my excuses. 0 words so far today. I hope to catch up on Saturday and Sunday.

20 December 2009
My headache and neck ache have cleared. I am sleeping well, swimming, taking an afternoon nap with a good book (Matisse sadly finished – a biography of ee cummings now, as well as a wonderful collection of poetry by Jane Kenyon called Otherwise).

In answer to P’s query, I don’t think my own aching body would cause me to be harsh on any of my characters. If anything, I am too gentle. I try to understand everybody. I have another G-character, a somewhat down-and-out stand up comic. I write him as his ex-wife and his daughter see him, then write him from inside himself. Everything drains out of me as I do this, but I’m quite pleased with the effect. Which probably means it’s not very good at all and that nobody will believe it.

I am at 23 000 words and hope to reach my notional halfway point of 30 000 words by the year’s end. I have been doing my usual thing of alternating between despair and euphoria. Despair when I fear that the novel is too slow, too detailed, lacks incident and plot, and that I have set myself an impossible task. Euphoria when the style throws up gems, when the themes effortlessly (ha!) unfold, when my characters help me by providing their own lines and actions. It is certainly easier to write when B stays the night with her cousins and I am alone here with no one to cook for. I had a poached egg on toast at 7pm.

What I am really finding hard is the empathy required to enter all my characters’ consciousnesses. What a word – ridiculous in the plural. Also, apart from the basic division of the novel into (I think) 4 parts, it is all one huge wodge of text. I will leave it that way until a solution occurs to me.

When things are going badly, I try to forget the whole canvas, just work on this one tiny section that is the problem. Sometimes even 40 or 60 words is enough to move things on, like guiding a sewing machine over a thick seam – you have to go very slowly or you’ll break the needle. Then I draw back and see how it fits into the whole.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    February 8th, 2011 @10:19 #

    Thank you. This whole series has been wonderful. I look forward to getting my hands on your new book later this year.


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