Today author Paul Maunder has kindly written about his experience writing new book The Atomics and I’ve been lucky enough to have read it (Thank you Lightning Books for my copy). My review follows after Paul’s essay. Enjoy!
A Productive Mid-Life Crisis
My winding path to publishing The Atomics
When I started writing fiction in my early twenties, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m sure many fiction writers will recognise that feeling, but my ignorance ran especially deep. Throughout my teenage years I was engaged in, obsessed by, cycle racing. My dream was to win the Tour de France not the Man Booker Prize. I read nothing but cycling magazines. But cycle racing is a cruel sport; I discovered the sizeable gap between my ambition and my ability, and at eighteen, tempted by the opportunity to reinvent myself at university, I gave up the lycra.
At university I studied politics. Literature was only a very faint beep on the edge of my radar screen. I still wasn’t reading novels (I was barely reading the politics books required for my course), yet in the third year, when allowed to choose a course from another department, I went for an English Literature course about the American city. Perhaps that was the first glimmer of an interest in books, though I was too busy organising raves and other nefarious pursuits to really think about it.
The crucial moment came in the summer after leaving university. A friend lent me his copy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I read it quickly and was absorbed, appalled, exhilarated. It was not the sex and violence that attracted me but the idea of what a novel could be. It was so different to my preconception of what constituted ‘literature’. Immediately I thought, I can do that. And I started doing just that.
It only took a few days for me to realise that I could not do anything remotely like that. But by then the addiction had taken hold. I was a writer. I knew that with absolute certainty.
Over the following two decades I wrote five novels, plus a couple of false starts. I enrolled on the MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, where I studied with Andrew Motion. I consumed books on the craft of writing and ploughed my way through dozens of novels. My ignorance about literature had allowed me to start writing without the sense of inadequacy that cripples many aspiring writers who know what a good book is. I saw this happening in my MA classes – the older, more experienced readers in the group would produce ten pages of prose but condemn their own work because it didn’t live up to their idea of what they should be producing. I had no benchmarks so I arrogantly thought that everything I produced was top-notch.
I inched towards publication. Each novel I wrote was better than the last. I could always turn out a few pages of half-decent prose, but my downfall lay in bigger, structural issues. Plot, or lack thereof. Story, ditto. Characters that didn’t live and breathe. I submitted to literary agents and endured the slow drip of rejection letters.
In the year that I turned forty I signed with a fantastic literary agent, one of those big names in the industry who commands respect from publishers. I had a novel set in the Second World War that felt ready, and a couple of editors were interested. I felt certain this was the moment I would drag myself across the line (I still had the arrogance of self-belief). The editors passed. My agent encouraged me to redraft the book, and I got lost in a maze of rewriting that I didn’t really understand or believe in. I lost sight of what the book was about. By the eighteenth draft I was left with a big mess.
I gave up. Switched to journalism and non-fiction. Published two books – with relative ease – about cycling. This was my mid-life crisis, more sedate and productive than buying a sports car or having an affair. Writing non-fiction required me to pull together a lot of information then build a story out of it that would, hopefully, engage the reader and keep them turning the pages. That transformed the way I looked at fiction.
My earlier novels had been filled with all the strange and disparate ideas that had been floating around my head at that particular time – Cornish independence movements, custom coffin-makers, mobile libraries, dance music, Dad’s Army. The books had a facetious, too-clever tone. They didn’t hang together as stories, and there was no emotional truth at their core. Writing non-fiction taught me the importance of story, above all else. And the importance of considering the reader at all times. Previously I’d thought that whatever I wrote would be so perceptive, so insightful, that any sensible reader would be impressed. Now I understood just how daft that position was.
When I started The Atomics I focused on story and character. Create real characters, tell their story. That was my mantra. Now the book is about to be published by Lightning Books. I got there, eventually.
The Atomics by Paul Maunder is published by Lightning Books on May 3rd
My thoughts: this was a really interesting book about a man slowing unravelling while working at a nuclear reactor and living in a small, intense community in a remote part of Suffolk.
There’s a sense of claustrophobia and a sort of incestuousness, the employees and their families seem to only socialise with each other, and Alice, who’s from the local community feels like something of an outsider.
Frank is seriously disturbed following the events that drive him from Oxford, and this leads him to do some terrible things. He’s also convinced that the uranium used at the plant is gifting him powers, as opposed to making him ill. The quiet desperation of his wife, Gail, increases as his mania does.
I found the growing violence and strangeness in Frank fascinating but also repelling, the voice in his head is menacing but also seductive in its desire for destruction.
Alice and Gail are also interesting – neither really belong in the village, even though Alice grew up there. Both want things their current lives won’t give them and don’t really know how to get them.
Thank you to Lightning Books for my review copy and Paul for sharing his experiences with us.