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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

Climate change and language change?

stu angled trim
STUART PONDERING …

Climate change and language change: That’s the issue I’m pondering as I embark on my fourth novel. Having written two books with contemporary settings and one set in 1973, I’m launching myself into the future with a dystopian story.  Without revealing too much, my new book (working title The Twilight Principality) is set in Australia and England, and has a climate change theme.

One of the challenges is dealing with the language spoken in my dystopian world in 2065. Well, it’s only fifty years from now – my grandchildren are more than sixty years younger than me and they understand me perfectly. So why is there a language issue?

The reason is that part of my story is set in an isolated enclave around a town in Australia inhabited by descendants of local townsfolk and climate refugees from Vietnam and the South Pacific. I have engineered this micro-world so that a generation of children have grown up speaking a creole language based on English, Fijian, Fijian Hindi, and Vietnamese.

There is a long tradition of constructed languages in literature and film: The Game of Thrones’ Valyrian and Dothraki are widely known contemporary examples. Tolkien’s Elvish languages were created over a century ago.

I chose to create a creole language to suit the special circumstances of my imagined micro-world. I’ll resist the urge to give a lecture on creoles, other than to say that linguists find them especially fascinating because they seem to develop similar grammar systems even when they develop in different parts of the world. Readers who want to follow this up should have a look at Derek Bickerton’s bioprogram hypothesis.

My micro-world has a growing vocabulary, including zazzy (stomach), doublegranny (two-roomed house), and larka (boy). And I’ve written the basic grammar rules so that I can make sentences in past, present and future time.

But the other challenge is not to bore my readers stiff! You’ll only get glimpses of my creole language in the novel, but you can be assured that like Elvish, Klingon and Valyrian, there’s a linguistics expert toiling in the background to make sure that it is plausible. The real point of the exercise is to add authenticity to an imagined world in which global warming has passed the tipping point.

As I write this, I note that every mention of Australia has been deleted from a recent UNESCO report on climate change: Another reason to write this book.

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Read about Stuart Campbell’s novels here.