Fiction as Alchemy: An extract from an interview with Gerald Murnane
This is an extract from an interview that took place on 23 June 2014.
I thought I’d start by asking you about A Million Windows because it is your most recent book, and I feel it was a special book for you in some ways.
Well, taking just bald arithmetical facts, I wrote it faster than I have written any other book – in about six months, seven or eight months at the longest. Only one draft. And there are other books of mine that would have taken three or four years to write, and three or four drafts to write. The other thing is that I sat down in one afternoon and wrote the plan of it: the titles and the rough contents of every section. I did what I often do, I wrote the title of each section on a card and got down on the carpet here on the floor and played around with the order. I get a lot of fun doing that, deciding which piece will be followed by which piece. And once I had done that, I just sat down at my desk and at every available bit of time I could find I just wrote it. That’s it.
Is there some reason for that? The urgency of the subject matter?
No. The completeness. The sheer pleasure I got. I mean, writing is not much fun for me. And there are days, there were weeks and months with other books, that I’ve had to drag myself to the table, the desk and start writing. With this one, I couldn’t get back to it quick enough because, as I said, I seemed to know what I was doing.
When you mentioned the subject matter, even though – I have to correct something slightly – even though I knew from the titles and the brief outline, I knew what was in each section, there are things in the finished book that are there, but I didn’t know they were going to be there when I was halfway through. A little example: when I was writing about the blue, the indigo and silver dressing gown, one of the – we’ll call them chief characters, there’s one narrator but there are a number of chief characters, each is an inhabitant of some or another room in the house of a million windows – when I was reporting the existence of that dark blue and silver dressing gown, I had no notion that I would mention later in the book the dark blue and silver kingfisher bird that flew across the clearing in the forest. That sort of discovery, or the hope of that sort of discovery, is really almost the chief motivation when I am writing something like A Million Windows, and I got an endless number of lifts and boosts during the writing of it.
The kingfisher in the clearing in the forest leads to another element which possibly also wasn’t part of the original plan, and that is the ending of the book about the mother of the chief personage.
Well, that incident was there, but I didn’t see the connection between the forests and the, um … it’s based on a few things that I know about, and I didn’t recall when I first decided to put it into the book that the mother’s rape took place in a forest, in fact the same forest where the bird had flown past many years earlier, a forest which I have also written about in Emerald Blue – the Heytesbury forest.
But I was thinking the other day, I know very little about the visual arts, but I understand that there is a time in the history of the visual arts when what we call scholars or critics wrote much about the composition of a painting. Not just the subject matter alone, but the way that the painting, the details or items in the painting, were arranged or composed. And I’d never thought of it before, but I thought that what I’ve just been talking about in relation to A Million Windows could be called the composition, and I get tremendous satisfaction from discovering what the composition will be, and then satisfaction afterwards in just standing back and admiring the composition.
So the composition is what, the arrangement of images?
How things fit together, and particularly the order in which they come and hopefully, to use a slightly mixed metaphor, the reverberation or echoes. I used to use the word ‘strand’, or sometimes I’ve used the word ‘theme’, but that’s a bit pretentious. My work, my fiction, all of my fiction, each work consists of strands – now I’ve come up with the word ‘composition’. And of course for me, I happen to be a very visual person. Another way to talk about it is just the visual imagery, or simply the imagery. And colour and shape have a lot to do with it. See, I’ve already got fixated on the blue and the silver of the bird and the dressing gown.
But I feel that your way of working with images suggests that there’s always more in the image than you’re aware of. There is a strong sense that the image contains more than you’ve written about, that there is always something more to be said, or to return to. Is that what you are referring to by what I would call ‘resonance’ actually?
Yes, I wouldn’t claim any special prowess or ability in this respect because I’ve often performed a sort of mental exercise and just now as I was about to – I’ve interrupted myself and my thoughts are actually doing what I was about to describe.
In the book Inland, there’s a sentence, a little musical phrase almost, that repeats: one thing is always more than one thing. And one image is always more than one image. Not necessarily images in a book of fiction by Gerald Murnane, but I’ve performed this mental exercise, as I call it, of focusing mentally on some detail or other – let’s call it an image – and it doesn’t stay in view. It relates or links up or it unfolds or it breaks apart and reveals another image. I mean, people probably call that free association, stream of consciousness, many terms have been used. I just simply call it the behaviour of the – it the nature of images to behave in that way. And it seems to me when I write that the subject matter, the potential subject matter of what I am writing about is almost infinite.
And then, of course, selection come into it. I don’t – I would be horrified to think that anybody would suppose I wrote from simply freely associat[ing], or did any such thing. The matter of selection is of tremendous importance and things have to be rejected because, interesting or pretty as they might seem, they don’t really relate to the main strands or the main framework or the main composition.
I think you wrote somewhere, I’m not sure exactly where, that the images for you are like villages on the plain, or towns on the plain, and the roads connecting them are like feelings.
That was in the first piece in Emerald Blue, ‘In Far Fields’. Fictitious. The author, the narrator, is described as being a teacher of writing and using manilla folders and throwing them around, scattering rather, on the floor of his office. I don’t know that I ever did such a thing, but I could readily imagine that I could do such a thing, as a way of explaining how I wrote. There’s another image – yes, the roads. Since I am a great lover of maps and someone who peruses maps far more readily than he travels, the imagery of maps comes readily to mind. The other thing is the little diagram I used to draw on the chalkboard or the whiteboard when I was a teacher of writing. It started with a little polygon in the centre, and it took on a – I think years ago I saw a diagram of a snowflake, or some sort of crystalline substance, and the central polygon is surrounded by eight to ten other polygons, and rays or connecting lines link them up. Not just the central one to the others, to each of the others, but each of the others to each of its fellows. And I like, it encourages me when I am writing, to think of the shape as – certainly not linear, I don’t think. There are passages in my books that follow a sort of linear progression, but most of my books are arranged, composed of small sections, which as I said earlier, could have taken other orders, or could have been arranged in other orders. And time – I don’t see any, I’m not over-ruled or over-concerned with the demands of a temporal progression. I can write something early in the book from the fictional future of the book, and something later in the books from the fictional beginnings or the early time.
Those connections between images or between the same image in different contexts are across works too, not just in the one work of fiction, but there is a high degree of return and repetition with variation across your whole writing, isn’t there?
Critics have said that, and I’ll take it as praise and they meant it as praise, I’ve done an amazing amount with a very small amount. That for someone whose experience is not terribly wide, never having travelled extensively, or not being part of any sort of political activity or having fought in any battles or that sort of thing, led a fairly quiet life, I’ve written upwards of a dozen books using and reusing, and using in different ways, a limited amount of material. They’ve gone on, the same people, sometimes to try and name the items. Start with grassy landscapes and distant views of females and so on, but I’ll leave that to others. Oh, horse racing of course.
That’s why I suggested that in some ways the image for you resonates, and has more than can be got from it at any one go, so that you keep coming back to the same image.
The well is almost bottomless. The thing unfolds and it unfolds like some sort of, like those fast shots people used to take – they were novelty films in the early days when I used to be a kid going to films. The speeded-up views of flowers opening and the buds turning into flowers. There are images – I suppose that the Heytesbury forest – there are images I would venture to say haven’t yielded up yet all the meaning that they potentially contain.
You mentioned the well. That image of the girl who drowns herself in the well, who leaps into the well, the peasant girl, which you take originally from the Birds of the Puszta, which appears in a number of works, most notably I think in Inland, but it’s also in A Million Windows as well. And then when it leads to the clearing in the forest and the rape of the mother, suddenly you feel there’s an aspect to the image which in some ways explains its recurrence. But it hadn’t been there until then.
Well, fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy. I was sitting on a suburban train. I can’t recall – somewhere in those archives over there would be the answer to that, but never mind – it was a date somewhere in the ‘80s, and I was reading an English translation of the Hungarian – it’s not a novel, it’s a book of sociology I suppose – Puszta Népe, which means people of the Puszta. It was written in the 1930s. And I read a section about the oppression, the sexual oppression of the girls on the great estates by the – not by the owners and the aristocrats who owned the estates, but by the lesser officials who were only jumped up peasants anyway: the overseers and the farm supervisors. And then I read the pages – the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn – and I think my life changed at that point. Something, I knew something was afoot. I couldn’t have imagined the way that piece of reading would change my life and my fiction.
Of all the images that I have in mind, that one has probably has yielded the most and has perhaps even still the most to yield. It caused me to learn the Hungarian language, for one thing, and to be able to quote the whole of that passage in Hungarian. [Speaks Hungarian] – that’s the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn section. And I wrote the book Inland and the well just keeps occurring – I don’t go looking for it, it comes looking for me. And it occurs in numerous places, as you’ve said, in other books and things I have written.
So I can’t – you didn’t raise the matter and not many people would have raised the matter. But sometimes I get to know of writers who – I’ll just speculate about the reasons why people have written fiction. I used to have a contemptuous expression I used as a teacher about people who chose their fictional subject matter from yesterday’s headlines. Not for me to condemn anyone in the wide world of fiction, but I could never even contemplate looking out, putting my hand to my forehead and looking out for the subject matter of my next piece or book. I think Isaac Bashevis Singer said: it comes looking for me, I don’t have to look. It’s there already, and it’s just a new development in my own life.
So I can say in all honesty and sincerity that I can’t tell the difference between my fiction, my thinking about my fiction, and my life. It’s as important to me as almost anything else in my life. And as I jokingly said years ago to somebody – it was in connection with literature board grants. Somebody said it must be nice to have a literature board grant – this was back in the 1970s – it must be nice to have a literature board grant now, you’ll able to go on with your writing. I said, I’d go on with my writing if they fined me for writing, instead of giving me seven thousand a year or whatever it was. If they made me pay that amount. So long as I could find the money I would go on writing, that’s how important it was to me. And in the face of a certain amount of unfavourable criticism, which I have had from some quarters. It would have no effect on me whatever because I am just one of those people who just had to write, even if it’s not for publication. The evidence is around us as we sit here.