The Bellows #4 – Life, and other Exciting Pursuits

A beard makes everything betterAuthor Simon Kurt Unsworth has had a very difficult few months. How will his change in circumstances affect his writing?

Read Simon’s previous articles here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

This is how it happens.

At the end of November, I finally finished all the amendments to the novel, was really happy with it and sent it off to John Berlyne. ‘Don’t expect anything fast’, he told me, so I didn’t, trying to forget about what might potentially happen next, about whether he’d like it or not, about whether he might be able to sell it to publishers. It’s not easy to clear something like that from your mind, though, and every day I opened my e-mail hoping to see something back from John. In the last month of last year, to be honest, I was making myself more than a little stressed about it, until I managed to find a way of stopping worrying about the novel. So, how did I do that?
Well, the first, lesser thing; I was job-hunting, which took up a lot of time and effort. I didn’t get the job I was hoping to share with Rosie that I mentioned in my previous column, but I eventually managed to get another position with the same organisation, which was a great relief. It’s a good job, one I’m enjoying, and I like the people I work with. The second, and vaster, thing was a situation that had been building for a number of months and years, finally came to a head shortly after Christmas. My wife and I separated.

Set against the enormity of what was happening, of the sadness and the upset, of how much the situation hurt, against the practicalities of moving out of the family home, of the ensuing stresses and tension, of suddenly not seeing my son every day… The Sorrowful suddenly seemed fairly unimportant.

Light at the end of the tunnelIt’s put me in a strange place, this new twist of life, both emotionally and geographically. I’m middle-aged but I find myself living temporarily back at my parents’ house while I try to get organised, in the room I last occupied after finishing university almost 20 years ago. It’s been a weird couple of months, a time of finding new rhythms and of changing environments. I’ve had to find new patterns to fit into, not all of them easy or comfortable, and I’ve had to start considering a future that I’d previously never thought about. I’ve had to learn to manage all sorts of new feelings, from anger and frustration and sadness at the deteriorated relationship with my estranged wife, to trying to maintain some kind of normality and fun during the short visits and daily phone calls with my boy Ben, trying to still be the best dad I can within new, compressed timeframes.

Novel manuscriptI’ve realised that I need to urgently build bridges with people I’ve not seen or spoken to in months or, in some cases, years; I need to try and work out so much, from where I go next, to how I keep supporting my wife and child whilst building a new life (or rather, extending my current life in new directions) and how to obtain and maintain some kind of equilibrium. I need to manage my time, my money, my priorities, according to the dictates of this new existence and it’s a big task, perhaps the biggest I’ve ever faced. First things first, of course; I’ve grown a beard.

It’s not all been bad, I hasten to add, before you think I’m going dreary on you. Somewhere and somewhen in all the chaos, a few nice things happened. I don’t write well when I’m upset or stressed or unstable, but against all my expectations I started a new novel. This one features Richard Nakata, the protagonist from my collection Quiet Houses. I like Nakata, and I think he’s interesting enough to carry a full novel, which I think is going to be both a ghost story and a possession story (or, more exactly, two parallel stories occurring within one larger narrative, that will also feature folk music, a boy band called Flash Company, a children’s home called Grimwood Hall, and several dead children).

'Quiet Houses' Cover

If you haven’t read this yet, you’re missing out

I’m not far into it yet, but I’m far enough in to know I’m enjoying it and it’s feeling good. I’ve written the first creepy scene, got a set of characters that I’m invested in and like, and although my demon has had to change his name (curse you, Neil Gaiman, for beating me to having a character called Mr Wednesday! I wanted that name, for entirely personal reasons!), I already know that he dances well and will hopefully be bloody terrifying when I let him properly loose. As for the ghosts and dead children, my hope is they’ll dance too, and make you cry and maybe scare you just a touch or two…

It’s early days, so I don’t have a lot of the plot sorted yet (I’m not a plotter, not really; I think I may have mentioned this. I’d rather the story opened up as I wrote it, because that way there’s a good chance it’ll unfurl in ways I would never have consciously considered; already, a new scene has appeared that might let me do something I’d not thought of before somewhere down the line), but I have a basic sense of the shape of it and where I want it to go. I think Nakata is in for a very difficult ride, to be honest, and he’s not going to come out the other end (assuming he emerges at all) without a new scar or two…

The other thing, the more important thing, the thing that’s given me some stability and a way of seeing the world through unjaundiced eyes again, is that I fell in love. It wasn’t planned or expected, it wasn’t something I was looking for, but it happened and there you have it; I glanced sideways one day and realised that the person I’d been thinking of as my friend, who had supported me and helped me and encouraged me, meant more to me than I’d understood previously. A lot more, massively more.

So, I have a girlfriend now, and we make each other happy. I’m 41 and in love with a woman called Rosie (yes, oh observant readers, that one, the one I’ve known a while and that I applied for a job with), and she writes magical realist stories that are subtle and delicate and emotionally true and wonderful, and she dresses like every day is a glamour day and her shoes are too numerous to count and too cool to ignore, and she’s quite wonderful and whatever kind of second chance this is I’m, holding on to it for dear life and loving it and making sure I don’t do anything to jeopardise it; oh life, you never fail to surprise me!

This look isn't helping his reputation

A good beard can’t help everyone…

But what of The Sorrowful? I’m not telling you. My sense of jinx is on overdrive at the moment, the sense that my novel is at a delicate place and the slightest breath against its skin will send it spinning away from me, out of control and out of reach. I’m feeling quite protective of it, can you tell? I will tell you that I’ve had another, longer and more in depth, conversation with John Berlyne about it, but honestly that’s about all the news I have for you. When something happens, I’ll let you know, honest. Until then, it’s back to the new novel and to a couple of short stories I feel like doing. There’s something about ceramic garden pigs that I’m toying with, just for fun, and a rather bleak seaside story that I’m doing for an anthology I’ve been invited to contribute to. I’ve pitched another story, but that’s another jinx thing; when it’s confirmed, I’ll tell you about it… but until then, that’s your lot.

I’m typed out. Mind how you go, Lords and Ladies, and remember never to tip your head to the man who drives the hearse.