I recently came across my very first novel, buried away in the bottom of a drawer, 179 pages of badly-typed foolscap. It’s called And We Shall be Changed, and the page after the title page carries a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Class, I thought. I wrote it for the BBC Bookshelf/Gollancz First (Last?) Fantasy Novel Competition in 1976. At the time I could say, without fear of contradiction, ‘It’s the best novel I’ve ever written,’ because there was nothing to compare it with. By the same logic, it was also the worst, and it remains so. I doubt if the Gollancz reader who was landed with it got past page 1.
It’s an odd hotchpotch of a story, with the narrative interrupted here and there by poems, news items, upside-down writing, even songs complete with music. I hand wrote it off the top of my head. I can remember churning out page after page of weird and bizarre stuff, with a portal into another world that makes a wardrobe look like hard science. There isn’t a word of dialogue until page 39. I didn’t do any rewriting, just typed it up and sent it off.
It took me over twenty years to get round to writing longer fiction again – my debut published novel, Feather and Bone. In the interim I’d produced a slew of plays, musicals, poems and short stories, and been to several Milfords, so I’d learned a thing or two about writing. Weird and bizarre stuff still happens, but in a more organised and purposeful sort of way. People actually talk to each other, characters have backstories and develop as the story progresses, it comes to a more-or-less satisfactory conclusion – for some. There was no doubt that it had become my new best novel.
Since then, of course, I have written other novels, and the picture is less clear cut. I like the idea of improving, of feeling that I’m getting better at my craft, but once you’ve reached a certain level of competence, brilliance or somewhere in-between, progress is more difficult to discern. Nobody regards you as ‘promising’ any more, but is your current novel better than the last one? Have you plateaued, maybe? Peaked, even, with the prospect of facing a slow decline? I find it impossible to tell. I’m too close to my own work to make an objective judgment, and I know I’m not alone in that.
What matters, ultimately, is that I should think I’m capable of improvement, and not just in the detail of work in progress – Milford-style critiquing leaves me in no doubt about that – but overall. I’d like to say, like Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra, Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, to tell you that my best novel is still out there, waiting to find its way onto the printed page. Or at least that it might be.
Gus Smith spent most of his working life as a teacher in as wide a variety of schools as you could possibly imagine. He was also Chair of Ecology Building Society for a number of years, which involved non-fiction writing and broadcasting, a semi-pro folk singer for a while, ran a smallholding and raised a family with his wife Tessa. After Feather and Bone he diverted into children’s literature; writing novels, short stories and poems as Gus Grenfell. He has recently returned to adult fiction, as now, in the second half of his eighth decade, he feels a bit more grown up.