Does novel writing get easier with practice? Not in this case!

by Lesley Glaister

In 1991 I won a Somerset Maugham Award for my first novel. It was a cash prize meant for travelling and research towards another novel. As a mother of three, the amount of travelling I was able to do was limited, but I did travel to Egypt for tour which took in Cairo, a Nile cruise, Luxor and surrounding monuments. Although I was bewitched by the place, I wasn’t inspired to write until I had a weird experience in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

On the day our party visited one particular tomb I had a bug and was feverish. Maybe that’s why I experienced the painted interior, still so incredibly bright and fresh after thousands of years, with hallucinatory clarity. And why I had a powerful, terrifying dream that night, in which I was sucked up onto the ceiling of the tomb, becoming in pigment, stretched and suspended for eternity, the Goddess Nut.

I knew this was the first twitch of a new novel, and began to construct a narrative around it, but though the words came, they lay inert on the page. It obviously wasn’t enough to have had such a strange experience. That was the stuff of anecdote, not fiction. There had to be something else. And the something else did not come till about ten years later, when, from a train window, I noticed a grand but derelict house, islanded by railway lines and roads.

I wasn’t even thinking about my novel that day, but immediately felt a quickening and as if she had been waiting in the wings of my mind, my elderly central character, Sisi, appeared at the window of the house, with the shadow of her child-self, Isis, behind her. Somehow I knew that there was a peculiar twin brother in there too; that the children were neglected by their Egyptology-obsessed parents and that that there would be a threat by developers who wanted the land beneath the crumbling Little Egypt – the name of the house and the novel – where Sisi and Osi (Osiris) her odd twin brother still clung on.

There was still a long way to go and I probably discarded more words than there are in the finished novel on the way. It was my most recalcitrant novel to date and from it I learned that you can’t rush the process. Some novels might only take months, but others can take the span of a generation to write. Little Egypt caused me an enormous amount of angst for more than twenty years, but great pleasure – almost to the point of disbelief – when at last it came together into a coherent and, I do hope, satisfying story.