Monday, January 16, 2006

So after two months of painfully hard work

that made me feel like the village idiot of all novel-writers, I have just now sent back to the agent I'm hoping to work with the final revised version of Dynamite No. 1. Here's a few paragraphs of background on the novel, which is meant to be the first of a trilogy:

Sophie Hunter hates being fifteen years old. Your guardian treats you like you're a child, your teachers talk down to you and your school friends drive you crazy. Even in normal times, it's hard to decide what to do when you grow up, and it's about a million times harder when the city you call home is under constant threat of terrorist attack and the country's on the verge of war. Not to mention the fact that you're having a little sleepwalking problem, you've recently gained the ability to see into the future and dead people are sending you messages to say that the fate of the world rests in your hands.

DYNAMITE No. 1 is the first novel of a trilogy set in an alternate-history version of the 1930s, one where the legacy of Napoleon's victory a century earlier at Waterloo is a standoff between a totalitarian Federation of European States (led by France, Germany and England) and a group of independent northern countries (including Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and Estonia) united under the banner of the New Hanseatic League. The trilogy's cultural landscape contains elements of the familiar and the bizarre: its people are preoccupied with technology (everything from electric cookers to high explosives) but also with spiritualism, a movement our world largely abandoned in the early twentieth century but that has here displaced most forms of organized religion. In this world, Sigmund Freud is a radio talk-show crank, cars run on hydrogen and the most prominent scientists experiment with new ways of contacting the dead.

I'm really pleased with how the latest version's come out; in mid-December I was looking at it with despair (there was a sequence of scenes in the middle that I really seemed to have put in almost completely random order, for instance--and I'd already done three grueling rewrites over the past year and a half, plus who-knows-how-many incredibly thorough copy-edits, so who knows how that kind of incoherence survives into such a late draft?!?--and I took it all to pieces and it was as though you took apart your motorcycle and had all the parts sitting in rows on sheets in your living-room, it is not at all a heartening feeling). But somehow it all came out beautifully put back together (or so it seems to me now, I expect some fatal flaw will emerge later on but let's not worry about it) and it is certainly a great relief to have it off my desk now for a little while.

When I started blogging I thought I'd be chronicling the passage of this novel towards publication, but I soon realized that it's all much too delicate and private to put out here--it's not that I'm secretive about where things are, if you e-mail me I will tell you--but I can't be pasting my neurotic musings all over the internet! So I probably won't say more about this here until I have a much clearer idea what's happening with it, i.e. it will be March or April and I'll either be doing another rewrite (oh, I hope not...) or else gloating over a book contract. Or, you know, anxiously pre-gloating as it gets sent out to publishers, in any case.

So wish me luck in the meantime, and as soon as there's good news--but it won't be for a pretty long time, even in a best-case scenario--you will see it here....

Oh, and I do think I'm going to paste in a chapter. A very short chapter that comes near the beginning; it's rather info-dump-y but that also makes it easier to understand. (I've still never worked out how to do the "after the jump" code. This will just be a very scrolling-down kind of a post.) So here's Chapter Six, just for a little teaser. We're in a rather Muriel Spark-like alternate-universe 1938 Edinburgh, in case you can't tell....

That night Sophie had a strange dream. In the dream, she sat bolt upright in bed, swung her legs out onto the floor and felt with her feet for the battered leather slippers that had been her father’s when he was a boy. In her nightgown, she found her way down the stairs by the light of the moon spilling in through the windows on the landings. At the sitting-room door, she reached her hand up to the lintel and felt for the key. She unlocked the door—Great-aunt Tabitha locked all the inside doors herself before going to bed, a precaution against burglars—and closed it softly behind her, clutching the key in her hand.

The sitting-room air moved in visible currents, currents that Sophie in her dream associated with the spirit breeze of the night before. She walked straight through to the sideboard with the Famille Rose bowl, goldfish painted around its inside, into which Sophie as a little girl had sometimes thrown crumbs in hopes of luring the fish to life. She leaned over to look into the bowl and it was full of water, with half a dozen enormous goldfish swimming round in circles.

In the dream she was not at all surprised. She watched the goldfish swim about for ages before she turned away, left the room, locked the door and returned the key to its hiding place before mounting the stairs to bed.

She was woken the next morning by the maid whose job it was to bring up the brass hot-water can for the washstand. The house had no bathrooms, Great-Aunt Tabitha had refused to modernize on the grounds that what was good enough for her father was good enough for her and Sophie (and the maids wore a costume dating back to the late nineteenth century, long aprons over black ankle-length dresses and white caps with streamers that were the very devil to keep clean, according to the Irish washerwoman who came every Monday).

Though the maid chattered away as she shook the warm towel off the top of the can and poured the water into the basin, Sophie couldn’t take anything in. She felt strangely groggy, almost as though she were still dreaming.

“A bomb?” she echoed stupidly, sitting up and trying to collect herself.

“Yes, Miss Sophie, didn’t you hear the telephone first thing this morning?”

Now that Sophie thought about it, her morning dreams (a dark confusing blur of emergencies) had included the buzzing of an egg-timer and the beeping of a radio-wave apparatus for detecting enemy aircraft. It must have been the sound of the telephone ringing in the hall. . . . (It was characteristic of Great-aunt Tabitha that she had entirely rejected hot and cold running water as unnecessary luxury while embracing the new technology for transmitting and receiving the human voice over distance. The brainchild of Aleksandr Tolstoy Bell, son of an eminent Scottish educator of the deaf and his glamorous Russian wife, the telephone had failed to allow the deaf to communicate with each other by converting vibrations to electrical impulses, but it had undoubtedly become an indispensable part of life in the modern world: Sophie felt its presence in Heriot Row every day as a malign and largely successful rival for Great-aunt Tabitha’s attention.)

“It was the Minister of Public Safety,” the maid continued, opening the curtains and picking Sophie’s pink dress up from where it had fallen on the floor. “Calling to tell Miss Hunter that a bomb’d gone off in St. Giles’ Cathedral.”

“But it’s only nine o’clock now,” Sophie said, her brain finally starting to work. “The cathedral must have been quite empty.”

“Aye, that’s right,” said the maid, “it went off too soon and the only one in the building was the night watchman. Hours ago, it was. So nobody was killed, just the man guarding the place knocked out with the blast, but said to be doing well in hospital.”

Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been, the thought of another bomb going off made Sophie’s eyes water. She groaned and slid back down into the bed. The water would get cold, though, if she didn’t get up soon. As she washed and dressed, Sophie tried to pretend she hadn’t heard anything about the latest attack. But rather than calming her down, trying to put it out of mind made her feel jumpy and upset.

Sophie had her breakfast in the kitchen, toast and marmalade and a very sour dish of stewed rhubarb which she dosed with sugar when Peggy wasn’t looking. Afterwards she went into the sitting-room and helped herself to the Sunday papers. Great-aunt Tabitha had gone out already, so Sophie was free to stretch out on her stomach on the hearthrug, the papers strewn all around her.

At school, Miss Henchman clipped out stories to keep the girls informed about current events, consigning to the fire anything that might contaminate the purity of their youthful minds: the testimony delivered at a high-profile divorce trial, an account of the dismembered corpses found in a trunk at the left luggage office at Waverley Station. Great-aunt Tabitha ridiculed this practice and let Sophie read whatever she wanted, so of course the first thing she looked at on the weekend was the scandalous stuff.

That finished, she turned to the main news. The editors of the Scotsman called for the arrest and execution, not just of the Brothers of the Northern Liberties themselves but of anybody who aided and abetted them or failed to turn a suspect in to the police. The International Courier Tribune gave the year’s body count in Edinburgh to date—two hundred and forty-eight.

In America, the Northern Union and the Southern Confederacy had yet again renewed hostilities and a cholera epidemic was decimating refugee camps along the Mason-Dixon line. India (independent since the Sepoy Revolution of 1857, though eighty years of self-governance had yet to solve the problem of religious conflict) was admitting only to border skirmishes between Hindu- and Muslim-dominated provinces, but Red Cross observers had counted more than ten thousand deaths due to sectarian violence in the first half of the year.

Worst of all, the Federation of European States seemed to be gearing up for war. Charismatic leaders in Germany and Italy spoke to huge crowds, working the people up into hysteria about the threat posed by foreigners within their borders and by the neutrality of the Hanseatic states without. The Hanseatic League was always poised in an uneasy truce with the Federation on the one hand and Imperial Russia on the other, a truce maintained with the help of the Nobel cartel, which allowed the Hanseatic states to ration out weapons and explosives to Europe and the other great powers. The value of this contribution to world peace was part of what the Brothers of the Northern Liberties had begun to question.

After a while, Sophie could read no more. It was hard enough deciding what to do when you left school in any case. But how could you work out who you really were and what you wanted to do when the world itself threatened to be a quite different place by the time you grew up?

Sophie rolled onto her back and closed her eyes, pressing her fingers down on them to get rid of the sore-itchy feeling of newsprint.

Rubbing her eyes, she suddenly remembered the dream of the night before. The imaginary goldfish were the only nice thing she’d thought of all weekend. If only there really were goldfish in the rose bowl. . . .

Something drew her up and over to look. She laid her palms on either side of the bowl, then leaned over to peer inside. She was a little disappointed but also greatly relieved to find it quite empty, the smug well-fed goldfish safely two-dimensional beneath the pottery glaze.

Then she sniffed the air. Looking closer, she saw that the sides of the bowl were flaked with the sort of scum you’d expect to find in a fishbowl that hadn’t been properly cleaned.

Had the dream been real?

She must be losing her mind.

In a mad rush, she stacked the newspapers on the table for Great-aunt Tabitha, then made a fast retreat, resisting the urge to lock the door behind her.

Don’t be an idiot, she told herself. Real or imaginary, those goldfish are hardly going to do you any harm.

It was more frightening to think that she might have actually walked in her sleep without even knowing it. In the kitchen, Peggy had to ask Sophie several times what she wanted for her dinner. She spent so much of the afternoon staring at the blank third page of the essay she was meant to be writing that she had to work late after supper to finish the rest of her homework, the only consolation being that her dreams that night were filled, not with explosives, psychic messages or preternatural goldfish, but with differential equations and the rules governing the use of the subjunctive in French.


  1. The premise is intriguing, but what really hooked me was the pretend-feeding the goldfish. Looking forward to reading more... (I've been lurking for a while; it must have been the goldfish brought me out.)

  2. The Roth thing is interesting; I suppose it will sound old-fashioned, but I guess I have to distinguish between the life and the work, and bad behavior in an actual marriage is less problematic than pretty weird treatment of women in the novels, but both perhaps not so important when the books are really amazing.

    I'm soon going to be writing an essay on a bunch of recent JCO books, which I'm really looking forward to; haven't read SEXY, will check it out.

    Kermit: Thank you for un-lurking, I am always interested to learn who's reading & hope you'll come back here often.

  3. I'm looking forward to reading this in its entirety! And I agree that feeding the goldfish is a wonderful touch - exactly the right sense of what a small child might do.