I have a new novel out on March 2nd called Three Gifts. It is about a boy given the opportunity to trade in years from his own – as yet unlived – life, in exchange for his mother being cured of cancer. It is I think, a happy book. I may be wrong, it is hard to tell at this point.
Before I became Subject Lead for Creative Writing at West Dean College, I worked in health care and for a few years ran a group in a local hospice. I met a man there who I will call Alfred. He was having life extending treatment three times a week and it hurt and exhausted him. Sometimes he would ask – very quietly – how does one know when to tell the doctors to stop the treatment, aware that the question was unanswerable.
He struck me as a brave, and if one can use such a word these days, noble man. His national service began a week after the armistice, and he had grown up believing that ‘real’ suffering and ‘real’ loss had happened elsewhere. Next door perhaps, or down the street, or in the families of the young men who were a little bit older than him and who had not come back from the war. He believed himself to be lucky. Not just to have made old age but to have made 25, 30, 50. To raise his children, to meet his grandchildren. To have lived.
His wife had died five years before of cancer and when he talked about her, he always said ‘at least she didn’t suffer as much as some people do’. He told me once that he had prayed that she did not feel too much pain, asking his God that ‘if someone had to hurt, please let it be him.’ And then here he was, hurting.
I wondered if he felt he was performing his duty. That this was what love looked like. If perhaps his suffering was a gift to his wife? More whimsically I wondered if he felt he was giving to his God what he has promised; he was bearing the pain that he believed his wife had been spared. A ridiculous idea; as if the bargains we make with a disinterested universe can ever be real. As someone says in the book, ‘As if God ran a part exchange franchise and even if he did, as if I would be allowed to shop there.’ Except of course it isn’t an idea is it, it is a feeling.
Three Gifts is about the accumulation of those feelings and what happens when an ordinary man is offered extraordinary things. Frankly this is a tiny bit of a surprise because when I started it, I thought I was writing about how poverty shapes people so they bend in a different way to those who have never been really poor. Who knew I wasn’t?
When we talk about our stories – and the ‘we’ here refers to the writing community at West Dean; tutors, students, former students, visiting residents - we talk about several things. We talk about the craft of writing; point of view, story structure, suspense, characterisation, prose, pace, form, dialogue etc but we also talk about the stuff that is going on under the bonnet. The themes and preoccupations of the writer, what they are pointing at or trying to make sense of or are simply exploring. I think that applies to all story making, regardless of genre. I think the emotionality that inhabits the story does so because it is embodied by the writer. I think we are all trying to work things out or point at something, or perhaps write in praise of some element of life, and we do that by making up stories because we are a story making species.
A writer friend of mine who works in a university insists that the writer’s job is to try to reveal some truth. He knows of course that saying that sounds terribly pompous and mostly he does it to annoy the people working in the science faculties but there is something to it. Not necessarily grand truths about the nature of the universe but perhaps small truths about the process of being human among other humans.
Alternatively, of course this is all just silly meandering and I have written a fairy story about a boy who grows up believing that love and sacrifice are inexorably linked. Like I said at the start, it is hard to tell at this point.
Either way it feels very good that it is finished, not least because I can get on with something else I probably don’t fully understand yet and while I am doing that I get to revel in the work of the emerging writers who are honing their craft at West Dean. I like my job. And I liked the one I did before it too.
Join Mark on Wednesday 22 March for an evening talk at West Dean College, as he reads from and discusses his new novel, Three Gifts, as well as a discussion on the life of a writer and the world of publishing post-Covid.