Ask a writer about his book, and more often than not you’ll find the conversation shut down faster than a library under the Tories, but a couple of people have been asking about it this week and since I’m about a quarter of the way through a first draft, I thought it might be good for me to force myself to justify the story to ‘strangers’.
There will obviously be changes along the way, and I’m still not sure about sharing this, but because I’ve been working on the book in one form or another for a very long time (more on that later), I think it might be a useful and interesting exercise.
The name of the book is The Great Weight of Ordeals and the premise is this:
What is the sum of a man’s life and who can possibly judge its value?
William van Poozrtvleit is a 60-year-old cricket umpire who has dedicated his life to the game. The story is set over five days of a Test match at The Oval in London, in which he is one of the umpires, although we soon learn, along with him, that it is to be his last game. He is being put out to pasture.
After an unseemly and unsuccessful attempt to prove his worth, he is forced to face up to a life without cricket. He is a lonely man, not close to his daughter or his ex-wife, and can see only darkness ahead. He has nothing else in his life. Meanwhile, the game goes on around him. William is distracted, thinks of all the regrets of his life and can see no future.
Interspersed with his slide into depression, we cut away from him to other people around the city, country and the world, who are either listening to the game on the radio, talking about it in cabs, watching it on TV, or just watching tourists play cricket on a beach in Florida. All of these people have come into contact with William at some point, some of them only fleetingly, others obviously family members, but through them we learn the truth about William’s character and his past and a heartbreaking secret he thought he alone has held.
Events over the five days force William to confront that past and the secret, during which time he will discover that if he wants to and is brave enough, there are plenty of reasons for him to live once he walks away from the game.
That, at the moment is the best I can do to describe the book, without going into horrendous detail. It is a book I have been working on – on and off – for about eight years without being able to find the right structure. I initially wrote half a draft seen from a single first-person view of William in the game, but it was so limiting. We were spending too much time in his head and frankly, it was about a man standing in a field for five days getting sad. No one wants to read that and I’m certainly not skilled enough to pull it off.
I have lost count how many times I have put it away and sworn never to touch it until I’m 50 or something, but every time I try to start something new, it calls me back. I have to do it, I have to finish it, so that I can then move on. In many ways I hate it, but it is absolutely a labour of love and hopefully that will show in the end.
I’ve always loved the idea of a book in ‘real-time’ about an umpire, because of the nature of cricket. Test matches are much like novels in that they ebb and flow, have subplots and there is both team and individual conflict, so to have the protagonist involved in the game really appealed. Moving it to third-person – there are too many other characters for it to be first person I think – and allowing myself to take the action away from the cricket, albeit still there both thematically and in the background, opened up the story completely. So far there is a section in Florida, one in Cuba, one in New Zealand.
And that’s where I am. I’m desperate to have the first draft written by September, before the MA starts up again for the second year. I may even put up the opening thousand words over the weekend, just to give a flavour and if this post goes well and I feel comfortable, I’ll keep you updated. I know I’m always fascinated by other writers’ process and progress on works’ in progress, so hopefully this will hit the mark with a few people too.