Remember Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s novel The Shining who tells everyone he’s writing a novel but who keeps on typing the same thing every day on his reams of blank paper. All work and no play etc
You know from the beginning that Jack’s novel is never going to happen, that it will remain a figment of his imagination.
I had a kind of inverse Jack Torrance experience recently.
I was doing a newspaper archive trawl for something else entirely when I came across a review of my last novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013). It was the third item down on the list and I could only see the headline which read: “An evocative account of a teacher’s fall from grace” and for a couple of moments, I didn’t recognize the book from this description.
It’s not that this isn’t an accurate synopsis of the plot, it is.
The main character, Bella Casey, sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, was a teacher whose hopes of happiness and success were dashed by circumstances.
But for a moment I was plunged into a kind of alternate universe, where a failed and much rejected novel of mine, my difficult third album – which I would describe in shorthand as an account of a teacher’s fall from grace – actually had been published.
Not only published, but reviewed!
The novel, entitled The Undiscovered Country (I love this title and hope to attach it to another novel at some stage) was set in Ireland and Australia in the 1970s, and was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and a real case of child rape.
I envisaged it as a Humbert Humbert story with the genders reversed.
The real story concerned Mary Kay Letourneau, a 34-year-old school teacher and mother of four, who in 1997 pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree rape of 12-year-old Vili Fualaau, a pupil at the high school in Washington state where she taught. Letourneau was arrested after a relative of her husband’s contacted the police.
While awaiting sentencing, she gave birth to Fualaau’s child. She spent three months in jail and was banned from any contact with Fualaau – for life.
But shortly after her three-month stint in jail, police discovered Letourneau in flagrante with Fualaau in a parked car. She was re-sentenced to seven years in prison for the original charges and for breaking the court order. Back in prison, she gave birth to a second daughter.
When she was released in 2004, Fualaau was over 18 years old and he asked the court to revoke the no-contact order. The couple were married in May 2005 and are still together.
The Undiscovered Country departed quite a bit from this reality – for the very good reason that reality is sometimes just too strange to be believed. (It was the situation that interested me, the notion of a woman as an abuser of sexual trust, and the different way that is viewed by society. Less predatory, somehow.)
But for a split-second when I saw the headline, I wondered – had it actually been published? Had I slipped into some crease in time and awoken, like someone from a coma, having lost a couple of years somewhere?
Then I checked myself – I knew The Undiscovered Country hadn’t been published. I had the ton of rejections to prove it!
Who knows why some novels never make it into print?
You’re always given reasons when a publisher turns down a work, but they’re usually fairly pat and formulaic – we didn’t fall in love with it, great novel but not for us, too quiet (I’ve got this last one a lot!) Once in a while you’ll get a truly original one; this is one of my favourites – “She has a wonderful sense of language and a great ear but this isn’t really a novel, it’s an emanation.”
The manuscript (or, should I say emanation?) was doing the rounds in 2003 when Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal – a novel with a similar plot line – had just come out, which probably worked against it.
Or maybe it was just a dud!
I’ve always considered The Undiscovered Country as unfinished business, a piece of work I might return to or recast in some other way in the future.
Now I wonder if I need to. Maybe I have told the story of a teacher’s fall from grace, but in another guise and at such a remove, that until I saw it in black and white, I didn’t recognize it myself.