This year has been quite a year for dead writers. Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing, Elmore Leonard, Ian Banks, Chinua Achebe... That's some list. It's also been a year for late-starters and rediscoveries; suddenly, it seems, everyone is reading Speedboat or Stoner, or publishing first novels late in life.
The writer Paul Torday also died earlier in December. Who? Torday was a sort of patron saint of late-starters, having published his first novel at the age of 59 in 2006. That first book was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which has (so far) sold 500,000 copies, won various prizes, been a Richard & Judy Book Club recommendation, and been made into a moderately well-received movie starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. This, after a working life spent as a successful businessman in the engineering industry. It's the sort of real-life fantasy that keeps the much-postponed ambitions of so many of us ageing hopefuls alive.
I have to say I've never read any of his books. There are seven, each in a different genre. Apparently, after Salmon Fishing, he published one a year, having discovered he was in a particularly one-sided and short race with mortality. I was surprised to find the news that a minor writer had died quite arresting (a man whom I never knew, had barely heard of, and whose books I had never read), simply because it dawned on me that this is the best I -- we -- can now hope for. That 20 second slot on the news, those cursory obituaries in the broadsheets might seem an inadequate summation of a decent life's work that ended in a final, splendid, public success, but it's more than most of us will ever get, and it's still something to aim for. The game is not yet over.
So, come on, Grey Team, let's actually DO IT this year! Let's all stop sharpening pencils, stop making notes, stop finding other things to occupy our time. The kids don't need you now, and your partner is already sick of the sight of you hanging around the house. Remember when, about 35 years ago, someone said to you, as they must have, "This is not a dress rehearsal or a drill, man, this is the real thing"? Well, they were right. But you did the right thing, and spent 35 years doing the real thing, rather than conjuring vacuous stuff out of your empty young head.
Of all the great writers who died this year, probably the greatest had this to say about the urge to write:
So many people say, "I'm dying to write". Well, if you're dying to write, why aren't you writing? If you're not writing, you're not dying to do it enough.You don't need me to spell out the connection between "writing" and "dying" here. For Elmore, the game is over. But, stand back, you young pretenders, some of us old 'uns have things to say now, after a lifetime spent pondering the nature of the Real Thing we were busily doing. All we have to do is remember what they are. Where the hell are those notes? And who's got my pencil?
Though I've already got my opening sentence. It goes like this:
"Screw you, Elmore Leonard!" he exclaimed drunkenly but assertively.There, three of Leonard's Rules of Writing broken in one sentence! Things can only get better...
Have a happy and fulfilling New Year!