Go Backwards to go forwards

This novel has taken me years. I promised its delivery in 2009. Back then, I imagined it would be a long short story – about a woman who gives a home to an elephant in the Cotswold countryside. I wanted an elephant. That was the impetus – I was lonely, after my four children grew up and left me. I reasoned that an elephant and the duties toward an animal of that magnitude would be a fair equivalent. What happened to the book was: I wrote it, it was rubbish, I never looked at it again. The next year, I wrote another book – same characters, different sub-plot and it was rubbish again. Then my agent, Euan, said – Roshi, you need to focus. He’s a man of few words, but those words were the ones I needed to hear. I locked myself in a room above the garage, and I read critical theory for three months. Structure became everything.

If you read a good book – commercially successful, beautifully written and satisfyingly concluded – you will not have noticed its structure. You will be in love with the main protagonist or with the geography or the time period portrayed. There will be little about the scaffolding of the book that you will have noticed. And yet…it is EVERYTHING.

Structure played an important part in my first book: HOMESICK was an interlinked collection of short stories: the stories about individuals, linked to each other the way Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka and in the world, link to each other. On any day, on any bus in Sri Lanka, I will be connected by blood or marriage to 10% of the rest of the bus’s population. It’s a small country. This was a way of making a more serious thematic point: we are all connected, I was saying, and our connectedness is universal.

In trying to understand what I’ve ended up with, now I am close to finishing the novel, I realise that my aims for this book have been the same, the very same as for HOMESICK. I wanted to structure the book to show a story that was very specific: the drowning out of voices that tell the truth in a country that has just won a very dirty civil war; to show the universal truths – the situations that every human faces – and how their strength or weakness affects the way they behave. I also wanted to democratize again: the story shows two protagonists on each side of the world.

JJ, is an editor of a newspaper in Sri Lanka. Chitra is his cousin, a former photo journalist and now rich socialite, in England, who gives temporary sanctuary to an elephant in her Cotswolds, Georgian home, in order to find an excuse to get JJ a visa to come to England and escape a sure fire murder at the hands of the government.  Each time one has a scene, the other has a scene – until, at midpoint of the book, JJ arrives in Britain, and they are together. The structure was to be a Mobius Strip – what happens there, on one side of the world, happens here on the other side, until the whole thing is reversed and what happens here in England happens again on the other side of the world. But the structure began to look like an elephant. The story began at the tip of the trunk – streamlined, tight – and worked its way upward into the meat of the face, the head, the neck, the shoulders. And at midpoint: FLAB.

And here is where structure becomes so important. The flab or sag of part 3 can be counteracted a number of ways. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Or push through with your crazy subplot and your – give ‘em what they want: your two busy characters sitting down having a cup of tea, reviewing the situation. Or you could do what I did: refer back to your structural notes. Hold your nerve. Tear up what went before. Walk the mobius strip. Go backwards to go forwards…

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