The decision about what to read next during my month off crime fiction was made for me by the announcement on 20 June that All That I Am by Anna Funder had won the prestigious 2012 Miles Franklin Award. The book had been on my reading pile for months. Time to see what all the fuss was about.
What I discovered was a book to love as both a reader and a writer.
There are so many ideas, beautifully observed, that resonated for me in this book, which can stand alone and lose none of their power. Take this example:
At least half of what we call hope, I believe, is simply the sense that something can be done.
This vast life — the real, interior one in which we remain linked to the dead (because the dream inside us ignores trivialities like breath, or absence) — this vast life is not under our control. Everything we have seen and everyone we have known goes into us and constitutes us, whether we like it or not…
Then there is the innovative structure, two first-person narrators telling the story in different eras: German playwright Ernst Toller, writing his memoirs in 1939 in exile in New York; and ageing German émigré Ruth Becker in present-day Sydney. What Toller and Ruth have in common is activist Dora Fabian. They are ‘the two for whom she was the sun. We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going,’ as Ruth puts it. Their love for Dora both permeates and motivates their memories of her and the stories they tell.
The historical events, the settings, the characters — most based on real people — are written with such intimacy I felt transported by the narrative. I knew little of European history between the wars prior to reading All That I Am. I wasn’t even all that interested in it. I had no appreciation of the struggle of German exiles who tried to warn the world of Hitler’s agenda, nor of the violence and tragedy that befell so many of them.
What shines through in this book for me is the time and care Funder has taken with all aspects of the story. There’s a breathtaking intimacy to the characters and their relationships to one another: these are people with whom the author has lived for a long time.
It comes as no surprise to learn Funder took over five years to write the book — although a mutual friend from university recalls Funder talking about her friend Ruth Blatt, on whom Ruth Becker’s character is based, as far back as the late 1980s. In a recent article Funder described grappling with a single scene in a Berlin nightclub for six weeks.
The pivotal scene in question equates to about 4,000 words for six week’s work — a far cry from the popular wisdom that serious writers should churn out 1,000 words per day.
As someone who writes slowly — I still write first drafts in longhand — and likes to hang out with characters and scenes in my head long before they make it to the page, while I can only aspire to write with Anna Funder’s skill, I am encouraged by what All That I Am demonstrates in terms of the value of the slow burn.
It is a theme writer Tim Kreider touched on in a recent New York Times article The ‘Busy’ Trap:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any [creative] work done.
Reading this I was reminded of how twenty minutes’ thinking time can sometimes be more productive for me than a day in front of the computer and that I should make more time for idle thoughts. Later that very night, I got out of bed to take notes on the ideas that were coming to me in the quiet, alert time that occurs before sleep when one is sober and not completely exhausted.
I panic that I’m not productive enough as a writer, especially when I read in another recent article, also in the NYT (though notably in the business section) that with “the metabolism of book publishing” accelerated by e-books, genre writers are now expected to churn out not one but two books per year.
Two books per year? I’d be rapt if I could write one book in two years.
It doesn’t help that I know writers who do produce two books a year (take a bow “amazingly prolific” Sulari Gentill). Their books are good, too.
I cannot maintain such a pace, not while I’m holding down a job and raising a child — and not when what I crave is more idle time to allow me to develop the kind of intimacy with my characters that Anna Funder has with hers.
Perhaps I have no future as a genre writer in the e-book age. Apparently the “new expectations do not apply to literary novelists… [Successful writers] can publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it.”
A new novel every decade? Maybe it’s time to make a change.
I’ll ruminate on the idea next time I’m idle.
All That I Am is published by Penguin / Hamish Hamilton.