TThere were two big differences here in my writing process when I worked on Capital. The first was that I wrote it on a computer. With my previous novels I wrote the first draft by hand, on index cards. For my first novel, The debt of pleasureI tried to write those cards, but I started getting carpal tunnel syndrome. I went on to read the handwritten version on tape, which I then sent out for typing. (Surprisingly expensive, by the way).
Reading the book aloud, I was hearing all kinds of things that I wanted to change, so I would end up with a second draft just through that process. The finished typescript would be back in a few days. Then I would leave it in a drawer until I felt ready to edit and review. Editing is more fun than writing because you know you have a whole book there, you just have to chisel it out of the ice. I followed that process for my first four books.
Capital it was different because I knew it was going to be longer and would have multiple narrative threads, and I needed to be able to see everything from a top-down aerial perspective. I used the Scrivener word processing program and it was very helpful in juggling such a novel.
Once I finished a draft, that’s when the next big difference appeared. It takes a few months after finishing a novel before I can see it clearly enough to evaluate it, think about structural changes, and begin the revision process. He had always had fantasies that he would use those few months constructively: learning German, training for a 10k charity, practicing tai chi. Instead, what I used to do was look out the window and then realize with a jolt that three months had passed.
With Capital, I finally acted as intended. I started writing the book in early 2006 with the assumption that some kind of accident was about to occur. When the accident happened, it was much bigger and more systemic than I expected. I was following the story in real time, and when I finished the novel, in early 2009, I knew quite a bit about the credit crunch.
I was concerned that when I rechecked the book, I would end up including too much of that knowledge and ruin the story. You can do a lot in fiction, but you can’t explain complex topics in depth without killing the narrative. “As Nigel looked up at the lights of Canary Wharf in the distance, he struggled to remember the definition of a secured debt obligation.” I decided to take about three months and write a nonfiction story about the credit crisis as a way to quarantine what I knew about the financial crisis. That book was Oops!
I wrote it pretty quickly, but the publishing process was grueling, and it took about 18 months before I got back to Capital. It was like reading someone else’s book, and I had never had such a clear sense of perspective when reviewing it; At first I was worried about being so distant from him that I couldn’t finish it. I was absolutely sure that I was wrong at the time and no one would want to read it.
• The reality and other stories of John Lanchester is Posted by Faber (£ 12.99).
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