Last chance for vampires

In 2008, one of Edvard Munch’s paintings went on sale for the first time in more than a 70 years. When it was first unveiled in 1894, the frank sensuality of the embrace it depicted caused a sensation. Munch called it Love and Pain and painted more than a dozen versions of it. That title gave over the paradox of love, and the ambiguity of the pose also made it a case study in subjective interpretation versus artistic intention. Is the woman consoling or dominating? Is the embrace a passionate swoon, or a needy one? Munch always insisted that it was nothing more than a woman kissing a man on the neck, but viewers saw what they saw and along the way the title changed. It became known as Vampire.


Last week I handed over the last major revision of my debut novel. It marked the end of six intense months of fierce love and unflinching scrutiny, neither of which the manuscript could do without at this stage. I can’t recall needing to hold on to both of those poles at the same time in any other relationship.

The only sane thing to do at this point in the process is to revisit a trusted literary mentor. Alice Munro’s introduction to her Selected Stories is a favourite of mine. For Munro, beginnings are often about an image or a snippet of a conversation. “The story I am working on right now owes its existence mostly to a long, straight path, a hard-beaten dirt path running between a double row of spruce trees. I know now who walked that path and where they were going, but in the beginning there was just the path.”

I love that image, and I return to it often. I especially like the elegance with which Munro shares her inspiration. She allows readers a peek behind the curtain, but the literary magic she’s wrought from that image remains intact.

Endings, writes Munro, are a different matter entirely. The thrill of the chase has settled into something more inherently anxious.

“Now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. New angles are introduced, minor characters brought centre stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

I wish I knew how she knows that she’s found the best way (does she?) but I expect that forty years of experience has something to do with that. Throughout the many drafts of this novel, I tried new voices and rewrote scenes and considered titles. Writers sometimes talk about the point at which the story takes on a life of its own: it’s a thrilling and frightening and defining moment when characters you’ve created become real people.

Like real people, those characters sometimes behave in unexpected ways. But as long as the editing stage persists, those characters are, for all of their willfulness, still ultimately malleable. I can still make changes, rethink, reconsider. Once the world I made becomes a book and goes out in the wider world, I truly lose control of it. Readers bring their own expectations and experiences and understanding to the world in my novel. Even if I found a way of telling the story that felt right for me, and I called it Love and Pain, others may read it and think Vampire.

I was in the midst of this kind of wrestling match a couple of months ago when my fourteen-year-old daughter asked how the work was going. She has been a witness to many stages of this process, often from the other side of a closed study door. She’s familiar with the territory.

Last revision, I told her. It’s the last time I can make major changes.

Ah, she said. Last chance for vampires.