Sunday, 19 August 2007

How To Cure Writer's Block

I’ve been writing fiction for over twenty years and I’ve never suffered from the big ‘B’ before. But it finally got its hands round my neck and threatened to squeeze the life out of me just as I was nearing the final stage of my most recent work, a fantasy trilogy called The Promises Of Dr Sigmundus. My editors in the UK and the US were getting edgy. Emails and phone-calls began coming in on a weekly basis – just wondering how things were going. No pressure, you understand, just a friendly enquiry. And there was me saying, fine, fine, everything is fine when I couldn’t do a thing except drink ridiculously strong coffee and stare at a blank screen all day. Finally, I realised that either I was going to have to pay back my advance (which has already been spent many times over) or take the bull by the horns. So this is what I did.

I hired a villa that I’d heard about in Italy. I’m not going to tell you where it is because I don’t want anyone else to know about it. But it’s in the Apennines. Right at the top of a mountain. The drive there is a nightmare. There’s no proper road, just a rocky track that winds back and forth on itself with a hideous drop on either side. You need a four wheel drive vehicle but, even so, it’s so steep you have to take it in first gear the whole way and when you get out at the top your legs are shaking so much you can hardly stand. But it’s worth it because it’s so beautiful and so completely isolated. Just this seventeenth century stone church that’s been restored by the owner, a reclusive Italian musician, and a whole lot of trees.

The place is teeming with wildlife. There are squirrels, polecats and martens; wild boar, porcupine and deer; eagles, bats and lizards. There are things that I cannot begin to identify that surround the house at night making unearthly noises. Shine a torch and their eyes stare back at you like something from a painting by Henri Rousseau. After a couple of days in their company I was more than ready to tackle that block.

On the day of my unblocking I didn’t eat anything. Instead, I searched the area for totems. I found a discarded lizard skin, a porcupine quill, a stone that felt perfect when I held it in my hand, some strangely patterned pieces of bark and some juniper berries. I traced a large circle in the dust with a stick and put my totems in the middle of it. Then I began walking round the circle slowly, telling myself the story out loud. It’s a long and involved story, since it begins with the first book. But I left nothing out. I kept walking and talking as the sun went down and the big yellow moon came up. I got to the part where I was blocked but by then I was so into the story that I didn’t even notice. I just carried right on talking. Only when I got to the end did I realise that I had passed my personal barrier.

The whole story was finally straight in my head. Of course I still needed to get it down on paper. But I knew I could do that. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years, after all. So that meant I could go home. Now all I had to do was to face that drive back down the mountain. And after spending nearly a week listening to the creatures of the night, I was ready to return to civilisation.

The Hollow People, the first book in Brian Keaney’s trilogy, is published in the US by Knopf and in the UK by Hachette Children’s Books.

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