Part 1 of Writing a novel trilogy
This is the End of the Story is not the end of the story.
It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is and how she wants to live.
What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.
Cassie is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.
A remedy for all things
In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:
Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.
After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.
But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág.
Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.
Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?
Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?
Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.
When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.
But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.
As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.
The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.
Will this be the end of the story?
There’s a remedy for all things except death.
Quixote tells us, but what of the next life and the next?
Researching a novel
A Remedy for All Things has historical anchors — in the life of the poet, Attila József, which ended in 1937, and in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. This was a book that involved considerable research and it was a pleasure to do.
The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented. The ‘forradolam’, or ‘the boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.
The research took me to authors like Cervantes (following on from the first novel in the trilogy) to E.M. Forster. From poets like Endre Ady and Attila József to articles, interviews and works of non-fiction. Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? was a fascinating read. And Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956 was valuable and informative.
The reading was essential and, unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest was completely outside of my frame of reference. Travelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from Arts Council England.
But even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial.
Meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest. Talking to him helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days.
And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city. It’s place that has been through so much, and yet is a young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.
The solitary writer
A great deal of writing is solitary. We work though draft after draft of a novel, sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports as we go . But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion.
A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters. It is a novel of people and of a city that lives and breathes. To write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.
And then, of course, having got to know Budapest a little, I had to return home to continue writing while working.
Kafka had a large sign over his desk that said: WAIT. It’s good advice — putting a novel away and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes a huge difference. Having worried about the hiatus in writing after returning from Budapest, I’m now glad I had to take that space.
What was interesting, re-reading the novel when I returned to Wales, was that the book felt like it had arrived in the universe with very little reference to anything I did.
I’ve been talking to a writer friend who feels the same about her poetry pamphlet coming out next year — wondering where it all came from. It’s a sensation that seems common among writers. But what is it that makes us feel that our own writing happened without us?
While I was putting together a writing workshop recently, it occurred to me that this sensation is what John Berger called ‘witnessing’. When we write, we become porous to other places, other lives.
If the writing is working, we immerse ourselves in a process that is ‘other’ so that we emerge into the quotidian blinking and surprised. Virginia Woolf described writing as rapture and I’ve heard poets, when asked why they write, say they write for the trance.
No wonder we have to wait. Having been in a dreamlike-world of our own creation, we surface into a different atmosphere. We move from the trance to editing. We move to a perspective in which every comma and space has to be right; in which we weight and measure every sentence measured.
It’s a different aspect of the writing process and it needs a different kind of concentration and attention, but that’s another story…
Want to become a different story?
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