The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.



On a summer’s night in Venice, 1894, the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the first American blockbuster novel, The Last of the Mohicans, fell – or jumped – from the third storey window of her elegant apartment to her death on the ancient pavement below. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and there is a memorial to her on the island of Mackinac in Michigan, USA, in the vicinity of her birth. She was a writer of poetry and novels of recurring subjects, “that of the female artist —who writes with such undeniable force that even the most successful, if supercilious, man, editing her work, can’t subdue it sufficiently for publication”; and stories which includeMiss Grief, The Street of the Hyacinth, and At the Chateau of Corinne—in which young female writers and artists appeal to chilly older men to evaluate their work… fantasies of judgment and rejection.” One older man, chillier than most, was a friend of Woolson’s, the American expatriate writer, Henry James: a man she had sought to meet and know in the mid 1880s and who eventually returned her friendship – he called her ‘Fenimore’ – but not quite returned in full measure. Woolson respected him, admired him, and some say, was in love with him, and thought his work was far superior to hers.

In 1886 the magazine The Atlantic, commissioned a piece from the more famous James about Woolson, who was a far more successful writer and whose work had graced the pages of the magazine on numerous occasions. James’ motives are unclear but he seemed to shroud his true feelings for her work under layers of polite and tactful criticism.

“She is interested in general in secret histories, in the ‘inner life’ of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried. She believes in personal renunciation, in its frequency as well as its beauty.”

And then in his 1888 volume, Partial Portraits, he presented a revised version of this article where he said, rather pompously, that her fiction was “characteristic of the feminine, as opposed to the masculine hand.”

Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 -1894)

He was devastated by her death, some say, because he felt so guilty at not returning her affection as she would have liked, believing that she didn’t fall, but jumped.

In 2004 two novels based on Henry James emerged, Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author Author. Both fictionalize his life around the turn of the century and focus on his disastrous attempt to conquer the London stage with a play, Guy Domville, in 1895. In relation to Woolson’s death, Toibin recounts the rather pathetic, but telling, almost comic scene where a guilt-ridden James, given the task of cleaning out Woolson’s apartment following her death, tries late at night to ‘drown’ a horde of the woman’s dresses in a Venetian canal; but they do not submit. He attempts to assist them by pocking them with an oar to get them to sink, but they keep bobbing to the surface, sleeves, and petticoats bouncing up full of life despite his growing frustration, horror at his almost murderous antics, and protestations of the fearful gondoliere.

There has been much written about Henry James, his attitude, dealings with, and writings about women, as well as his sexuality. Some say he was asexual; some say he was bisexual; but most agree that he was a closeted homosexual and died a virgin. Sexual conduct and relationships do not exist in his work.

“I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them. Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist.”

From W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (1958)

“His work is incomplete as his experience was.” T.S. Elliot

“Making love” to Henry James was all about talking to women, being kind to them, taking them for coffee, and, mainly, feigning interest in what they had to say. However, there was an incident in his youth that could account, not only for his own lack of sexual behaviour, but also for that same lack in his created characters.

In 1861, James was 18 and was enlisted as a volunteer fireman. While trying to extinguish a blaze, he suffered an injury. He writes about this in his 1914 memoir, Notes on A Son and Brother, when he was

“jammed into the acute angle between two high fences, where the rhythmic play of my arms, in tune with that of several other pairs, but at a dire disadvantage of positions, induced a rural, a rusty, a quasi-extemporised old engine to work and saving the stream to flow, I had done myself a horrid even if obscure hurt.”

In true Jamesian fashion he doesn’t say exactly what happened but Michael Wood in his essay “The Mystery of Henry James’ Bicycle” proposes a theory.

“What, after all is the most odious, horrid, intimate, thing that can happen to a man?  However much different men might have different answers, in the case of Henry James critics tended to see a relationship between the accident and his celibacy, his apparent avoidance of involvements with women and the absence of overt sexuality in his work.  Thus there emerged a ‘theory’ – promptly converted into a rumor – that the novelist suffered a hurt, during those ‘odious twenty minutes’ which amounted to castration”

or at least genital injury.

So, now onto the point of the above in this review, of James’ Venetian novella of 1888, The Aspern Papers.  The connections will soon become obvious.

The unnamed first person narrator is a bit of a cad. He is a writer who, along with his publisher, are desperate to get their hands on the papers of the late, and extremely famous, American poet Jeffrey Aspern. These papers, letters, etc are rumoured to be in the care of an aging spinster living in Venice with her middle-aged niece, Miss. Tita. Juliana Bordereau was the young lover of the poet when he came to sit as a model for her father’s art classes. The narrator – easy to assume and delicious to think that he is James – plans a strategy with a Venetian friend, Mrs. Prest to get the papers at whatever cost, even if that means ‘making love’ to the niece.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Prest, “wait till you see her!”

Having read several of his long and short fiction I was struck by his novelistic skill here to illicit tension, suspense, interest, and to be intriguingly clear (So he can do it!). James’ prose is usually circumlocutory and occasionally frustrating, causing the reader to shout, “Oh, p-lease! Get on with it!” or as Alan Bennett has Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II say in The Uncommon Reader (2007)

“Am I alone,’ she confides in her notebook, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”

The narrator does indeed ‘make love’ to the niece, Miss. Tita – called Tina is some later editions: he talks to her, brings her flowers, takes her for coffee, and tries to listen intently to what she has to say. He confesses his motive for being there, and his real name – but curiously not to the reader – and she offers him help. The lodger’s sinister ulterior motive, and that he speaks to the reader, confides in the reader, and surreptitiously elicits the reader’s sympathy is deftly handled by James; the tension is maintained and the reader gets a curious thrill from being on the side of a cad – or ‘bounder’ as the English of the time might say –  no matter how much self-deluded justification he indulges in: also well handled. He not only fails (Spoiler alert! Sorry!) – he is caught rifling through the old lady’s drawers and flees in shame – but his wooing of Miss. Tita produces results: the woman proposes to him although in a rather Jamesian unspecified manner; giving him another reason for him to flee but for very different reasons.

He wanders remorsefully around Venice with his gondoliere; lies distraught on the beach on the Lido, and then wanders the streets finally finding himself staring up at the magnificent equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni beside the Scuola Grande di San Marco in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, by the Florentine sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, a teacher of Leonardo da Vinci. It was his last commission and erected in fulfillment of a request made by the condotierro before his death in 1475.

James was a scholar of Venetian art and history and certainly would’ve known about this famous mercenary soldier and captain-general who defended Venice from neighbouring city-states for over four decades. He also would’ve known about the particular and famous physical attributes of this successful Venetian hero: he was a polyorchid; he had an asymptomatic rare congenital disorder called polyorchidism, or more specifically in his case, triorchidism: he had three testicles. And there on the Colleoni coat of arms emblazoned on the massive pedestal is proof of the fact:

colleoni-statue                                                          coleoni-coat-of-arms

“I found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal.”

“… it is, indeed, the whole reason for his having chosen this particular landmark as the venue for his narrator’s crisis of confidence. If the statue could speak, his message to the narrator would be: “Sorry, old chap – you just don’t have the balls.”

 Elizabeth Lowry

The narrator finds the courage to visit Miss. Tita again only to find her seemingly physically and emotionally changed. They part coolly never to see each other again. He sends her a letter to say that he has sold the little portrait of Aspern she gave him, along with as much money as he could gather; of course, he hadn’t sold it but kept it hanging above his writing table, not to remind him of Miss. Tita, but

“When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.”


If you have ever thought you might like to read Henry James but have never tried; or you have, and found him impervious, try this one. You can find the free e-book here.

You can also find a selection of works by Constance Fenimore Woolson, here.









The Madness of Art


Author, Author by David Lodge

British Writer, David Lodge

When the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, was working on his (masterpiece?) The Master (2004), about the American-English writer Henry James, he visited Lamb House, HJ’s East Sussex home in the town of Rye, and met 3 other writers all doing exactly what he was doing: researching HJ. There has been a resurgence in interest in Henry James usually considered an obtuse fiction writer but a recognition that his most alluring characteristic is that he was, like most literary greats, a writer like no other. The English writer, David Lodge, also produced a book on HJ in 2004 which seemed to have sunk from view since Tóibín’s effort was so successful: it was shortlisted for the Booker-Man Prize in 2004. Lodge’s story focuses on the same events, and in particular James’s unsuccessful foray into the theatre, as Tóibín’s, but it is a very different novel.

Lodges’s story is more old-fashioned in the sense that he puts HJ in the midst of his history setting up a life of work, friendships, and his exhausting social life, into which then Lodge plunges the unsuspecting, and dare I say it, theatrically naive writer to surround the reader with an understanding of the great cataclysm that befell HJ  and his subsequent inability to come to terms with what had happened: failure.

 It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

However, Lodge has a more nuanced ambition: the juxtaposition of a literary figure and his sense of his own talent against the success of his peers, and in HJ’s terms, his inferiors. James had a contemptuous attitude towards his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, whose unprecedented theatrical success was a claw in his side, made more painful by the success of An Ideal Husband, an early performance James attended on the opening night of his own fateful play Guy Domville. He hurried from the thunderous and appreciative applause of Wilde’s audience to the jeering ‘gods’ of his own. HJ was deeply humiliated by the audience’s reaction to his play. Guy Domville only lasted three weeks and was, ironicly,  replaced by Wilde’s even-bigger success, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s subsequent fall, social disgrace, trial for sodomy, and imprisonment were his just desserts in James’s mind even if they were, not for low-brow literary frippery, but for ‘outrageous and disgraceful conduct’; James’s own sexual proclivities were always buried deep and, it is surmised, never allowed expression. However it was the popular successes of his good friends, George Du Maurier and Constance Fenimore Woolson  that really contrasted HJ’s failure and showed his idea of friendship to be constantly compromised.

It was Wilde who quipped

Anyone can sympathise with a friend’s success, but it takes a truly exceptional nature to rejoice in a friend’s failure;

which he topped a little time later with,

It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

Gore Vidal, that Wilde-ish American, rephrased it in the late twentieth century as

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

HJ’s close friend, George Du Maurier, was famous as an illustrator for Punch magazine and only turned to writing a novel, Trilby, because of failing eyesight: he dictated the text to his wife. Trilby was, by today’s jargon, a blockbuster, on both sides of the Atlantic, in print and on stage; a level of success that Du Maurier never quite understood. Neither did HJ. The Trilby hat, the phrase ‘in the altogether’ and the name ‘Svengali’ are all due to George Du Maurier, who is now forgotten; his name only lives on in that of his grand-daughter, the novelist Daphne Du Maurier (1907 – 1989), author of Rebecca and Don’t Look Now.

Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

Henry James had many female friends but his closest was Constance Fenimore Woolson (grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper). She, as did Du Maurier, considered HJ as a writer of the highest order and was always self-deprecating about her own short stories and novels which sold much better than HJ’s; he agreed with her but never said so. He was always haunted by her suicide – she fell from her apartment window in Venice to the payment below – in the fear that it had something to do with her un-reciprocated love for him.

In both Tóibín’s and Lodge’s accounts the failure, and in particular the doomed opening night, of Guy Domville is the focus, although Tóibín places it near the beginning, while Lodge puts it near the end. Both also are deeply interested in HJ’s recovery and his return to prose-writing. However Lodge’s structure of the event wrings every bit of drama there is. He alternates the thoughts and utterances of the audience members– HJ’s friends and allies – on the opening night with James’s actions and thoughts as he dresses and prepares for the evening, sits through a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, – which he hates and thinks is crass and silly, and then hurries to St James Theatre to be on hand, if required, for the curtain-call. It’s a very effective use of dramatic irony – the reader knows what the protagonist doesn’t – and when George Alexander, having just taken his own curtain call, beckons the unsuspecting James onto the stage, HJ assumes it has all gone well (readers mentally yell, ‘No, James! No!’); but when his presence in the spot-light elicits a volley of abuse from the cheap-seats he is confused and to make matters worse bows not once but twice causing the rabble to ramp-up the volume of their displeasure. The already humiliating moment is compounded by Alexander who then makes a fawning and apologetic speech about him promising ‘to do better, next time.’ Despite mixed reviews – and positive ones from the youthful but the then unknown H.G Wells and George Bernard Shaw – no report, vocally or in print, avoided the mention of the reaction from the ‘gods’, and the play was doomed.

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

What Lodge is getting at is summed up thus,

Something had happened in the culture of the English-speaking world in the past few decades, some huge seismic shift caused by a number of different converging forces – the spread and thinning of literacy, the leveling effect of democracy, the rampart energy of capitalism, the distorting of values by journalism and advertising – which made it impossible for a practitioner of art of fiction to achieve both excellence and popularity, as Scott and Balzac, Dickens and George Elliot, has done in their prime.

And the result of this was a growing craving for un-intellectual entertainment. Lodge is referring to, of course, the difference between what today we call popular fiction and literary fiction.

The plot of Guy Domville angered the public the most: an eligible bachelor, a Catholic, plans to enter the priest-hood, but he is the last of his line; he discovers that he is loved, decides therefore to marry, then realises his intended is loved by another; he fosters that relationship, succeeds, and then joins the priesthood anyway. The End; three acts and over two hours to finish as it began, and no happy ending. To James it was a serious dilemma, skillfully presented as art, to the public it was boring.


The effect of such an event on a writer, his work, his sense of himself, and his friendships is what makes this novel so engaging. It’s one of the most enlightening works on success, failure, and friendship and any reader interested in such things should read it no matter what their artistic bent.


The review of Author, Author in The Independent in 2004 puts it succinctly;


Lodge deploys all his seductive storytelling craft to explore not merely the life and art of James himself, but the fate of any proud writer in an age of hype and spin.


David Lodge’s Author, Author is an immensely enjoyable work; I scheduled reading time – always a good sign.

The kindle and paper editions of Author, Author are available here.

I leave the last word to Henry James: We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.




Impression vs Experience

On April 25 1884 Walter Besant, English novelist and historian, gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, the London organisation devoted to scientific research founded in 1799. It was called Fiction as One of the Fine Arts. Besant’s novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men was published two years earlier and sold over 250,000 copies. It anticipated the rise of the slum novel and with the publication of The Revolt of Man (1882), The Inner House (1888) and The Children of Gibeon (1896), he consolidated his fame as a master of dystopian fiction.

British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 - 1901)
British novelist, historian and humanitarian, Walter Besant (1836 – 1901)

However he is best known today for the little pamphlet of his speech given at the Royal Institution that April day, which was published as The Art of Fiction. Most importantly it surprised everyone that people seemed to be interested in such a subject.

Besant’s little speech started an excited debate on the purpose of literary fiction and since that time many writers have weighed in to the argument with their own thoughts, beliefs, and theories on the subject.

Besant believed that writing fiction should be considered as a ‘fine art’ and like other fine arts – painting, sculpture, music and poetry – it “is governed and directed by general laws; and that these laws may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective, and proportion.” But fiction, like the other fine arts, is “so far removed from the mere mechanical arts that no laws or rules whatever can teach it to those who have not already been endowed with the natural and necessary gifts.”

Prior to this time “the general – The Philistine – view of the Profession is, first of all, that it is not one which a scholar and a man of serious views should take up: the telling of stories is inconsistent with a well-balanced mind.”

Everyone, it seems, agreed with what Mr Besant had to say, especially the belief that Fiction is an Art; but what started the debate was his assertion that “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into Society … never go beyond your own experience.”

As an exponent of the ‘slum’ novel Mr Besant seems to be saying that when writing fiction one can write ‘down’ from your own experience but not ‘up’.

You can find most of Walter Besant’s work, fiction and non-fiction, including his essay, The Art of Fiction, at where you can download them for free.

Henry James: The Art of Fiction.

James’s famous ‘reply’ using the same title as Basent’s pamphlet has become the cornerstone of fiction writing as an art, far outshining Besant’s in the fame stakes. His rebuttal is extremely polite to Besant and he certainly agrees with his elder that fiction writing is an art. However James took a more light-hearted tone and what the general pubic at the time thought of the novel, James famously wrote, “there was a comfortable, good humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding and that our only business with it could be to swallow it.” This attitude, in some quarters, persists today.

James explains his ideas thus …

Experience “is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative … it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations… I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality.”

James sums up his advice to novice novelists as,

“Above all, however, [the novelist must be] blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”

In other words, impressions are experience; and the novelist’s task is to convert those impressions into reality: “the power to guess the unseen from the seen…”

You can read James’s The Art of Fiction at

Other writers who have written on this subject.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1885): Essays in the Art of Writing
Free ebook at

Arthur Schopenhauer (1891): the Art of Literature
Free ebook at

Anonymous (1901): How to Write a Novel
Free ebook at

Clayton Hamilton (1918): A Manual of the Art of Fiction
Free ebook at

E. M. Forster (1927): Aspects of the Novel
Available through, and Gramedia

John Gardner (1983): The Art of Fiction
Available on Kindle (ebook) through

Ray Bradbury (1990): Zen in the Art of Writing
New and used editions available on

David Lodge (1992): The Art of Fiction
Available through, and Gramedia

Ayn Rand (2000): The Art of Fiction
Available through, and Gramedia

Stephen King (2000): On Writing
Available through, and Gramedia

John Mullen (2006): How Novels Work
Available through, and Gramedia

James Wood (2009): How Fiction Works
Available on Kindle (ebook) through

Colm Toibin (2010): All a Novelist Needs: Colm Toibin on Henry James
Available from

The Paris Review: The Art of Fiction Interviews
(from 1953 to 2015 and continuing)

On Experience: writing about writing


Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.

And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,

“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.

In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.

“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”

And then in the title essay he explains what he means,

“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”

The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.

He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.

Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.

Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’

The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.

Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’

On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.

It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.

What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.

I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.

In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.

Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.

I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.

What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.