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Ian McMillan's Writing Lab interviews: Julian Barnes on... starting writing

Updated Friday 12th January 2007

A sense of a start: Julian Barnes shared how he set about starting the process of creating a book.


Copyright The Open University


I often don't know when I start a novel what the first scene is going to be. Just as there are writers who – I mean John Irving, the American novelist is one example, he always starts by writing the final scene of the book and then he knows where he's going to go, and then he can build the narrative towards that final scene. I've never done that, but I often start in the middle and it's often the process of writing the sort of the meat of the book will lead you to the opening scene.

The scene at the start of Staring at the Sun with two sunrises, one after the other, which now once it's in place looks like that must have been where he started writing the book. I mean this is the illusion that you want to give the reader in any case, that the book is written in the order in which the reader reads it. I mean this is what, it's a natural illusion of the book and it's what the reader would naturally think unless told otherwise. But, in fact, it often doesn't work out like that at all and you discover the first pages or the first incident in the course of either writing it or, indeed, researching it.

I mean with Staring at the Sun I had a fighter pilot in place, I had themes of courage. I was researching various memoires and fiction about the Second World War and I came across a tiny little reference in someone's book. I mean this sounds like sort of Ian McEwan territory I realise, but I came across a tiny reference to some fighter pilot coming back over the Channel and the sun rose and then he dived and then the sun rose again, and it was just, in my terms, thrown away, there it was just something that had happened to him and I thought, "Ah, I can use that, that's mine now." It may have been his then but it's mine now.

And it sort of, something like that happens and it seeds itself in your imagination and then it either grows or it doesn't grow, and I just found this sort of expanding as if filling with sort of water and ideas and then it forced its way to the front of the book, and it said I'm not just an interesting incident, I'm also setting up the book for you.

Do you find that writing a prologue or writing a preface is sometimes a helpful way to begin a novel?
I think there's a danger with a preface, I've had one or two of them I think in my books. I remember when I was working on the New Statesman, Anthony Howard, who was then editor, used to criticise pieces for, he'd compare it to sort of, you know, tennis serves where the player would sort of do a tremendous sort of wind-up action before actually hitting the ball, and he would often cut first paragraphs which, you know, this is in journalism but there is a strong parallel with fiction that you're sort of, you're getting up to speed and then the second paragraph you start saying what you really mean.

And I think there's a danger with sort of prologues that you might – unless the prologue is exactly targeted and then I think from a prologue you should go somewhere quite different. That would be, I think that's the interesting way. But if you're doing a prologue and then you're going straight into chapter one which is the continuation of the prologue, I think just cut it and go straight to chapter one.

Where do you write?
I write in a study at a large desk, a desk which has sort of grown over the years as I've added new pieces of equipment to it. I work on an electric typewriter, an IBM 196C, which is about 20-25 years old. I've got two of them now because I'm terrified that they'll break down, and they very occasionally break down at the same moment, which is awful. Though I have, certainly on one book, gone back to writing the first draft entirely by hand. And it's a first floor room and it looks out onto the top of a prunus tree which sometimes has sort of finches and tits eating the buds and big fat wood pigeons roosting there.

So you don't use a computer at all?
On one occasion when my two electric typewriters both broke down at the same time I thought, "Well, this is the time, I've got to learn to write fiction on a word processor." And what I expected to happen was that I would write too loosely - and this is the great criticism of word processing - it looks finished when you've really only done a first draft. I expected it to be, my prose to be, sort of a bit windier, a bit looser, but in fact I corrected and corrected and corrected on the screen so that when I printed it out it was much more sort of tense and taught than I actually needed. I need a sort of first draft that is, not loose but sort of airy that I can work on, that I can work with and hand correct lots and lots of times and then type out again. And I found that perhaps it was fear of writing too loosely on a PC but I ended up writing in a much too compacted way and that I was then trying to do the opposite thing, which was put breath back into the prose, put air back into it. So it was actually a deeply failed project, those 20 pages I wrote on the PC.

What do you read when you're writing?
I know that lots of writers are superstitious about what they read when they're writing, that they fear sort of infection from someone else's prose and that, you know, they won't read novels. I don't actually find that problem. Maybe because I sort of, well I'm always writing I suppose, so if I'm always writing then I couldn't say, well, I'm not going to read fiction ever. I don't find it a problem. I mean I suppose, you know, some of the reading I do would be research for the book, and sometimes you simply are so involved in the book you don't have time. Or the way to take a break from fiction is to watch, you know, sport on television rather than read another novel. But it's not out of sort of fear or anxiety or fear of influence or anything like that.

Finally, if you do read a lot of contemporary fiction or the work of sort of new writers, do you feel generally quite optimistic about the future of writing in this country at the moment?
I think every generation thinks it's possible it might be the last generation to write fiction and to believe in fiction, you know, that new forms of technology and transmission of ideas will take over from fiction, and I know some writers are sort of pessimistic about all that. I'm the opposite actually, both from reading new fiction and also from spending a small amount of time, only a term, in America teaching a creative writing course.

I'm tremendously heartened that the next generation and the one after that still think and believe and understand that fiction is the best way of describing the world and interpreting the world and understanding the world, that there are lots of other ways of doing it but that fiction is irreplaceable in many respects in terms of the interior life, the working of the brain, the working of the heart, the relationship of the individual to the world. I don't think, I think it has a complete monopoly on that and it will never be supplanted.

And so, I'm cheered when anyone comes along aged 20 and thinks, "I want to write a novel." Of course, some of them want to write it for perhaps the wrong reasons, but if it's suddenly fashionable and well paid to be a novelist I think, you know, that makes a nice change because traditionally novelists have struggled to support themselves. So, no, I'm decidedly optimistic about both the future of the novel and the future of the novelists who are around today.

Julian Barnes is just one of the authors featured in our 20th Century Authors: Make The Connections feature.


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