‘Then make your mind clear. Push everything out of it. Not a single thought left. Your mind is a pool of water, very clear, absolutely still. Now Rachel is going to drop some pebbles in. Concentrate on that with all your mind. And forget me, forget my voice. Rachel, this isn’t hypnotism. I’m not making him deaf, he is making himself. He can’t hear me now. His mind is a pool of water.’
From Chapter Three, Under the Mountain, Maurice Gee – where Mr Jones teaches Rachel and Theo how to ‘speak’ using telepathy.
As an eight-year-old I was absolutely convinced that given enough effort I could learn telepathy. I sat my sister down and got her to follow Mr Jones’s instructions, as copied above. Unlike Rachel and Theo in Under the Mountain my sister and I were not twins and hence not endowed with special twin-powers. But hell, I was so excited by the concept and enlivened by their adventures that anything felt possible. This novel was for me both inspiration and instruction.
Yesterday, I time-travelled back to my eight-year-old self as I started to read Under the Mountain to my son. I remembered the story clearly as I read, my adult and child selves both present as the story unfolded. I was excited to be back there and, as a critical adult reading now, impressed at Gee’s formal construction of story and his respectful treatment of the child reader.
It was timely for me to have this experience. The night before I’d read Canada by Richard Ford (great lineage and the reviews had been excellent) and just before that, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (this year’s Orange prize-winner). Both of these books had left me disappointed. The Ford novel has some brilliant, wise sentences, strong characters and the story itself is a good one, but I felt that the telling of it was drawn-out and at times, repetitive. The Song of Achilles reminded me a little of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in that it is a page-turner, but there seems to be little happening beneath the surface or between the lines. Given that both these books came with sterling critical acclaim – and hey, it’s Richard Ford! – I began to wonder if something was wrong with me. Was I succumbing to some viral attack of apathy and complacency in my reading?
I’d had a similar feeling a week ago when I took delivery of a copy of my first book. This should have been something, and expecting it so I was puzzled that instead of exhilaration I felt mild deflation. I held the thing in my hand, my writing finally made into an object, and all I could think was – Is that it?
The book seemed strange to me. My photo on the back and the name on the spine was mine, but after three or so years of the writing being alive in my head and subject to change, it now felt apart from me, as if it almost had nothing to do with me anymore.
So to come to Under the Mountain again – to remember what it is to be eight and excited by the possibilities of fiction – was something I very much needed as a reader and writer.
I don’t believe that reading as a child is that different from reading as an adult. When I read as a child I wanted adventure, magic, and a happy ending. The happy ending was especially important for me. I don’t think I was a particularly happy child and so books had to be safe, not upset the order of the world too much. As I grew up I looked for other things – new ways to think about life, philosophical investigations such as – if there is no God, then what? Moral dilemmas. And sex. And then it became more about the way a story is told – the voice, the rhythms and sounds of language and people speaking. I don’t care for certainties now nor a happy ending but I still want to be transported as I was when I first read Under the Mountain. I still want to become Rachel Matheson for a few hours, speak telepathically to my sister.
Reading and writing, although associated, are very different activities. For me the motivations for doing both are very similar. I believe that I write because I want to create for myself and eventually for others, the excitement that I have experienced as a reader. I’m not saying I can do that, yet or maybe ever. But I want to try and try and try because it seems to me that to be transported is something we humans all desire on both a physical and spiritual level. It’s why we (well, some of us) take drugs and drink, or run for miles, or dance. We want for a few moments to feel something beyond the concrete weight of reality.
Perhaps it is that I refuse to grow up fully. I make stuff up, because to admit to the world as it is seems a Herculean and ultimately depressing task. And perhaps this goes partly towards explaining my feelings when I first held my book. Writing it was child’s play – truly, the best parts of writing for me are absolutely fun and thrilling. This does not mean that play is easy (watch any child play and you will see the effort made), but that it is satisfying when you finally work out how to make a story whole. I’ve heard it said that writing fiction is problem-solving. Maths for those who never got numbers.
When I held my book I felt like I was finally being pushed into an adult world. I’m hugely grateful for the opportunity to be published and very pleased that my work has been. But where the exhilaration lies for me is in the creating. It’s for someone else to be entertained or not by the final product. Now that it’s in a book it’s not mine anymore. I’ve got new problems to solve.
Kirsten McDougall is the author of The Invisible Rider, which will be launched this weekend, Saturday 4pm at Thistle Hall, 293 Cuba St, Wellington. All welcome.