One evening in 2007, just as I was sitting down to dinner in Delhi, my then-brand-new publisher phoned from London. In the marvelously parenthetical, elliptical manner that was to become familiar to me over the next few years, he began talking of symphonies. Had I considered, he wanted to know, how symphonies are structured? “Not really? Well, as it happens . . .” After around ten minutes of his apparently aimless lecture on music, my interrupted dinner stone cold, the penny dropped: On the brink of publication, he wanted me to rethink my opening chapter.
After I hung up, I returned to my plate of congealed food in silence. My husband and I were to drive up to our hill home at dawn—a holiday to celebrate the end of my endless first novel. And now at the eleventh hour this bombshell about the opening chapter. Even a novice knows that changing an opening chapter is rather more difficult than changing a concluding chapter because it means having to look again at the whole of the book, not only its ending. I could refuse to make changes, of course; Christopher MacLehose, his phrasing and voice modulated by several centuries of Scottish civility, had taken pains to emphasize I needn’t pay him the slightest bit of attention, etc., etc.
I’ve never done a creative writing program, nor had I been edited before. In fact, the boot was usually on the other foot for me: I wrote when I managed to prise time away from my editorial work at the publishing house I ran with my husband. I had just about got used to acerbic marginalia from him. But criticism from a relative stranger, even if disguised as suggestion: The turmoil made me powerless to do anything for the next few days but choose a hill and walk.
I panted up brambly hillsides, remembering my first pottery teacher, Bani de Roy. When I joined her classes, she was around seventy, straight-backed and big-boned, white hair in a small bun. She was a disciplinarian of the old school who believed in relentless practice. I had gone to her with dreams of spinning out exquisite bowls and jugs, but for weeks—however long it took us to get it perfect—she would allow us to try nothing but cylinders.
Cylinders are to ceramics what the alphabet is to writing: It is where creating begins. It is a straight-sided pot, neither bulging nor tapering as it grows taller. It sounds easy enough—until you try to make one. After many clumsy attempts, when I managed something that appeared respectable, I beamed around in self-congratulation. But Bani frowned.
“No. Won’t do. Throw it out and start again.” She returned to her own work without further explanation.
photo by Madhu Kapparath
Gradually, as the hillsides fell away under my feet, it became clear that Christopher had a point. If my first chapter had been a pot, Bani de Roy too would have said, “Throw it out and start again.” The experience transformed my view of writing. I now see fiction—my own and that of others—as work paused but never finished. I look at published novels as if they are photographs of flowing water, stilled. The image might have been quite different if the picture were taken one minute, an hour, a month later.
Three books and ten years on, I know that nth-hour crises are normal when working with Christopher: I might start to feel uneasy if there weren’t several. They occur because he thinks of a book as a constantly evolving entity right until it starts printing. He comes up with editorial ideas when you least expect them—you might have gone for a walk with him, or to a museum, and a particular painting or tree might remind him of some aspect of your book. The experience can be nerve-racking because Christopher treats your work as a garden of his own into which he is free to scatter seeds—he assumes some will take, some won’t, and the book will grow in new directions.
I know there are many writers who wince when offered editorial ideas. I have met far too many editors who combine ignorance with condescension and self-importance. Christopher and his kind are rare, almost extinct. He inhabits the world of a book in the making, responding to it with deep empathy and profound intelligence. From the moment he has read a typescript, there is a steady stream of surprises from him. These continue right up to publication. The difficulty for me now is to write without wondering which symphony he’s going to come up with next.
Potters learn through hard experience that nothing they make will please them. When the kiln is opened, what you thought would be a flawless teapot looks like a warped watering can. The disappointment can be crushing. You swear you will never make anything again. And yet time passes, ideas begin to crowd your head, your muscles remember the movements at the wheel. You prepare your clay. You prepare for imperfection, criticism, a hundred visions and revisions. This is how it is with making anything: pots, plots, pictures.
Christopher MacLehose and Miska. photo by Anuradha Roy