Research Notes · 02/16/2013

Clay

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Melissa Harrison writes about her novel Clay (Bloomsbury Books).

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A novel may be meticulously planned and researched, or it may emerge piecemeal from mysterious and invisible depths. There are writers who can talk lucidly about structure and scrapbooks and their method for taking notes, but although I wish I could, I am not one of them.

Even so, I could knit together a narrative of how my novel, Clay, came to be: and it would make sense and it would not even be a lie. But it would be to tell the story backwards: from the finished book — indisputable, published, a fait accompli — back through a series of lessons and wrong turns but always holding onto a thread that may have begun in obscurity but ends, we know, in a novel. I did this, and then I did this, and therefore, inevitably, that.

Except it wasn’t like that at all.

Clay has been called an ‘urban pastoral’, and although that sounds a little pat, it’s not too far off the mark. It’s a novel in large part about nature, set in a city; and it was born out of my own need to find beauty and renewal and a sense of connection in the grimy, urbanised part of London in which I live. In it, five characters, all in different ways lost, are brought together in a little, litter-blown city park near which they all live, and what happens to them over the course of a year is in part informed by the ways in which they connect, or fail to connect, with the natural world around them.

Here in the UK the ‘nature writing’ genre has undergone a resurgence over the last few years, but when I started writing, in 2008, it was still a very niche affair. I can no longer remember whether it was Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind or Roger Deakin’s Waterlog that first drew me in, but one book led to another, and before long I was racing through Richard Mabey, Nan Shepherd, JA Baker and Ronald Blythe, and then tracing their roots back through Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas to Gilbert White’s classic work from 1789, The Natural History of Selborne in which the author, a curate, attempts to know and study all the living things in his beloved home parish.

What all these writers had in common was a deep sense of place, something that at the time I began reading them I was severely lacking. I grew up in a rural part of south-east England during a period (the late 1970s and early 1980s) when children could play outside, unsupervised, without fear of bogeymen. The woods and fields around my house were my territory, somewhere that made me feel rooted and safe. I knew which trees were good to climb; I knew where frogspawn could be found, and when; I knew where nuthatches built their nests. This intimacy was something I took utterly for granted, and because of that I developed very little understanding of how sustaining it was.

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh said,

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields — these are as much as a man can fully experience.

He called it parochialism, and believed that it was nothing less than the cornerstone of all great civilisations. Certainly, it chimes with my childhood experience, and also with my belief that environmentalism must be rooted in the particular: a wish to save that tree, that meadow, that view, rather than the vast, unlocalised guilt about ‘the planet’ which I believe creates at best inertia and at worst a backlash.

In the city I felt rootless and cut off from the sacred territory of my childhood; nature writing, I suppose, addressed that need. But the more I learned about natural history, and the more I thought about landscape and the ways that we shape it and it shapes us, the more I began to believe that these things should apply just as much to cities as to picture-postcard national parks.

Green spaces are even more vital in urban areas, and if they are not valued — not even noticed — they will be lost. For me, the argument stops there; protecting them (and the creatures that depend on them) is an end in itself. But there is an increasing body of research that indicates that even if we don’t think it matters so much, being cut off from nature impacts on our mental and physical health. Learning about this made me worry even more about our dwindling connection, as a society, to the natural world.

So a large part of the ‘research’ involved in writing Clay was developing a real, felt connection with the streets around my city apartment – my ‘parish’ — not because I was trying to write a novel or even formulate an idea, but because I needed to.

I adopted a dog and moved to a new part of South London, scrappy and rough: not a fashionable, or even edgy, district. But walking my dog got me exploring it in a way that I might otherwise not have done: instead of shops and cafes I was looking for urban parks and green spaces, learning which tree-lined streets swarmed with squirrels, discovering where the local foxes kennelled and why some street signs were irresistible to my dog because they were loaded with smells and last night’s news. I was looking at the city in part from an animal’s perspective, I needed healing and connection, I was concerned that people were losing touch with their environment and I was immersed in nature writing and the literature of place. From all this, slowly and haltingly at first, came Clay.

When I began seriously to put pen to paper I found myself drawn to ‘How I Write’ pieces, keen to learn the magic trick that made other, ‘real’ writers able to produce such polished work. But what I came to realise is that other people’s methods are for the most part useless, because the process of writing is the process of learning about yourself, and for that there can be no other guide but you.

I am now deep into my second book, and for me it seems that writing is born from chaos and formlessness, and only shaped by order and control — and as a Type A personality that’s something I still battle with. The Pulitzer prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler talks about the ‘compost heap’ of a writer’s imagination: untidy, non-linear, perhaps wasteful but, at the deep, invisible centre, white-hot with energy and transformation. That’s what I’ve tried to describe here.

Writing Clay was less about planning and research and more about trusting the compost heap, about learning to let go of a little control. And sometimes, both in writing and in life, that’s just as important.

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Melissa Harrison is a magazine sub-editor who lives in Streatham, South London with her husband and rescue dog. Clay (Bloomsbury 2013) is her first novel.