Why I wrote The Absolute Book


Why I wrote The Absolute Book

The Absolute Book owes its existence to my sense of coming back to life as time and events intervened between me and some bad years. Years during which my mother was dying of Motor Neuron Disease (ALS) and my brother-in-law was killed in much the same way the novel’s protagonist’s sister. That feeling—of sudden freedom from responsibility, but with indelible memories of the strictures of responsibility—seemed to want me to do something with it. The sense of a freedom of movement that comes with being finally able to leave the worst troubles behind. Or the troubles themselves leave. You keep a vigil, then the one you’re watching over is gone and you get to walk away tired rather than run away scared.

Me and my husband Fergus did a lot of traveling in the ‘afterwards’. I wanted to capture something of that; all our walking through the world. And how, the further we walked, the bigger the world became.

The Absolute Book began directly when I started musing on the kinds of stories I love. Particularly those I’d loved for a very long time.

I was sixteen when I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I can still remember my thump of excitement at the movement from chapter one, ‘Never Talk to Strangers’, to chapter two, ‘Pontius Pilate’. In chapter one a couple of members of the Writers Union are having a conversation by the Patriarch Ponds in Moscow on a hot day sometime in the late 1920s. They are interrupted by a foreign gentleman; a professor of some sort. After a time the men’s conversation turns to theological matters, and the foreigner begins to tell a story. The first lines of his story are the final lines of chapter one, and the first of chapter two:

Early in the morning of the spring month of Nisan the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood-red, emerged with his shuffling cavalryman’s walk into the arcade connecting the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great.’

Chapter two almost entirely concerns the examination of a troublesome and deeply touching rebel by the migraine-stricken Procurator. The whole of the novel, with its witches and night flights, its communist officials and badly behaved poets, its venal Muscovites, vexed theater impresarios, depressed novelists and talking cats was enormously influential for me. It isn’t just the quality of The Master and Margarita’s bookishness that I love (there’s a suppressed and very nearly burned novel manuscript at the center of the story), it is also its humor, its seriousness, artistic and intellectual; its and fearlessness about being farcical, or being grand; its sense of wonder and enchantment; its deep and real feelings. All of those things managing to sit singing with one another in a single book gave me a sense of what it was possible to do. I never forgot the way that book first made me feel. So, when I started to think what to do with the great feeling of freedom that came upon me after having being deeply sad and deathly tired, I thought about The Master and Margarita.

My next thought was that if I was going to try to write something tonally varied, it would be a very good idea if it had a number of fantasy tropes that were familiar, and would help shape the story. I liked and had been musing about the sort of book in which a group of people spend the novel looking for something. A thing. An object. Some of those books were what you might call arcane thrillers. Books like The Da Vinci Code or Shadow of the Wind. Books with a scholarly hero, and peopled by groups with competing or collaborative interests related to the thing they’re trying to find. Books full of reasons for strangers to talk to one another. Reasons for strange bedfellows.


Why Libraries?

Since I was writing a book about what to keep, and how sharing is keeping, I thought ‘libraries express that’. I had things I wanted to say about the worth of libraries. Libraries have always been a refuge to me—and a library and librarian pretty much saved my father’s life when he was a 13 year old removed from his home and sent to work on a farm—and sleep in a tin shack with a dirt floor— in the Wairarapa in the early 1940s. I decided my novel must have a protagonist who has written a book about library fires, a book that is doing well and drawn all kinds of attention. (I’ve always loved books where the main characters have work, where work shapes their lives and the story.) I thought about libraries as treasure houses, as refuges, and centers of community. As hubs—places to come in to and go out from. (There’s a lot of coming in and going out in the novel). But The Absolute Book is also a novel where a group of people central to the story—the sidhe—don’t even have libraries. They don’t have books. They themselves are their only memory-keepers.

As soon as I started writing my writer protagonist, Taryn Cornick, what happened was that all the other things that had been sitting around my mind came out again. So I gave Taryn a sister who was deliberately killed by a man with a motor vehicle, like my husband’s brother. Questions of punishment and revenge and forgiveness came into the book with that. Also, it quickly became obvious to me that Taryn hasn’t got over what had happened to her sister – though it is years later. Mostly she hasn’t because she took revenge, and that alienated her from herself. At the start of the novel Taryn exists in a constant state of doubt about the safety and goodness of the world. Her professional life is sorted, but her personal life is a leafless tree.

So, I was writing a book about being haunted and being unable to forget, and being culpable and needing to remember. Also, very much, about visibility and concealment—lost books, and hidden people, and truths too big or strange to see.

The novel opens with a woman with a grief, a revenge, a crime, a book.

Taryn, her grief at her sister’s death, the crime she committed, and her personal association with an object people are looking for—that’s all the centrifugal force in the novel. Taryn pulls everything towards her. Of course, some of the things she pulls towards her have their own gravities, and are whole other worlds, with green roads to walk.

And, as sure as the foreign gentleman in chapter one of The Master and Margarita is the devil, The Absolute Book was always going to be a full-throttle fantasy. The novel’s other principle character, Shift, a person who calls everyone people—everyone from chickens to demons—has, like the book itself, an egalitarian, even-handed approach to the everyday and the mythical. Shift is the friend Taryn makes. He’s something between Dante’s poet guide and the magical animal that accompanies the hero on a quest.

I wanted to write a novel that seemed to be opening out into an epic as we understand fantasy epics but, like a good mystery, would keep doubling back and deepening the discoveries and the experiences of its characters.


The Sidhe

The Absolute Book isn’t a book about books with fairies in it; the utterly unbookish sidhe are equal to the books of the book.  I wanted to write about a beautiful society founded on theft. Not beautiful as in wealth, private property, astonishing tools. The sidhe are nomadic, communal, and live along broad paths of food forests, gardens that run through wildernesses. They pay for what they have in human souls, though they love and nurture the humans concerned for a long time in happiness and plenty. The reader might think about the expedience and cruelty of late stage capitalism, or our relationship with farm and companion animals. But this isn’t an allegory. The sidhe aren’t something in costume, they are people different than all the people we know, who might also be understood as the people we know.

The Absolute Book is an arcane thriller, a fantasy, an adventure story, and a recovery narrative. Because it started with my desire to share the feeling of coming back to life Taryn does come back to life, she figures out how to live, what to do with herself, how to love those she loves.

I wanted the novel to be transporting and moving. For the person in the novel who has made a terrible wrong-headed error to face up to things, make amends, and get better. And for the almost paradisaical society – but one founded on treachery – to change its ways and begin to move in the right direction. For good things to happen because people learn to see that the interests of very different others are equal to their own.


The Ending

The ending is a happy one, though it allows some uneasiness too. It’s wish-fulfillment, aimed to make readers feel the wish because, though there may be no gods, frost-giants and fairies, we do have governments, and governments have it in their power to save the world and look after their citizens during the process of saving.

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