I have a Google-resistant scrap of a quotation stuck in my brain like a string of spinach in my teeth, turning bitter and mulched with thought. It was from an interview with some novelist who said that they only read non-fiction while writing, for fear of being influenced. Hmm.
The one thing I do when I write is read, a lot, and all sorts (apparently something I share with Portuguese Nobel prize winner José Saramango, which makes me feel a bit better).
In general, I genuinely don't see why I should confine myself to one section of the shelves. I have an omnivorous desire to produce books of every breed: crime, fantasy, action-heavy page-turners, historical fiction, edgy modernist epics, elegant psychological novellas, totally trashy chick lit. I am aware this is outrageous, hubristic, unrealistic, and simply greedy - but I'm not sure I care. I want to roll in the unique atmospheric flavour and plotting possibilities each one affords. And so I write my scraps of wildly differing stories, and store away initials, alternative spellings and grandparents' maiden names to satisfy publishers' pigeonholes.
The problem is that when I move back to my first real full-length attempt, the scraps won't stay away. My modern day coming-of-age tale might be going quite well - until I read some extravagant fantasy, and my hero encounters a unicorn in King's Cross. Or I happen to be gobbling C.J. Sansom, and syphillitic villains start to pop out from muddy Tudor alleyways. I start a paragraph when revisiting Woolf, and it is bright and brittle and organic; I move onto William Gibson and it carbonises into the hollowness of a video game. And I don't think sticking to non-fiction would help; the portrait of David Bailey in this month's Vogue incongruously catapulted an ageing, dissolute photographer into the plot.
This constant osmotic plagiarim is kind of exhausting. Writer-me needs to exert a little more discipline over reader-me, who just wants to dabble in each new world. It demonstrates my immaturity in remaining a writer but not a storyteller, still drunk on my own wordsmithery rather than the needs of the tale and its eventual audience.
She's still disappearing round the corner, that little girl, running from the complexities of conversation into her own insular, intense little monologue of play.
Shit, this novel stuff is hard. I've never had to make so many decisions in my life, and this is not something that comes easily. If there's one utterly obvious yet emotionally remarkable discovery I've made over the past year, it's that how you write a book is and must be entirely your own invention, an ungainly, splashy and frequently embarrassing doggy-paddle of instinct, bloody-minded effort and slowly puttering in circles, punctuated by a brief spurt towards the far bank.
But I love that the thing I love to do also calls my bluff. It makes me face the things I find hard. It proves itself something that I can live better through, and not just escape by.
Anyway. Back to the modern day coming-of-age tale set in post-apocalyptic Mongolia, with a magical monk wooing a music-obsessed private eye across five centuries with the help of a few unicorns. Actually, that's not a bad...