We like origin tales. Creation myths. At the dawn of time — before there was
time — there was nothing. Then: a bang, Big, we are told, yet infinitesimally small; a pinprick from which the universe unfolds. A word (the
word!); then: light. A coupling, between the goddess Eurynome and the frigid might of the North Wind. A giant spider reaching down, spinning the world from its body’s silk. And as this spider — black, I picture her, hairless, wearing a chitin corset that cinches her waist — the author. Reaching into him, or herself, spinning a yarn.
Blackening the page.
Only it’s never been like that for me. Which is why I am having trouble with those questions that go looking for the origin. Where does the book come from? When did you start? Like so often in life, it feels like there are more caveats than answers.
Here is the thing about books. They grow in you over a lifetime. There is a lot of my childhood in Smoke
: that feeling of living within a framework of family rules, rules so embedded in the fabric of life they are never explained or even acknowledged, rules at once self-evident and obscure. Grandma does not talk to dad. Mom does the cooking, on all days but on Sunday. Relative X
does not talk to us but we do send her Christmas cards. Relative Y
never calls. Relative Z
died as a teen but nobody says how.
Then: adolescence. First kisses, and fumblings; the day you discover difference — social, ethnic, in worldview and temperament — not as something abstract but as something embodied, real
, and learn to see the shape of your own life as something other than the default option, the norm. A year spent as a scholarship kid at a fancy boarding school in New England: a miniature society, crude in its power games and rich in friendship. Then, also, a lifetime of reading: philosophy, political theory, pulp fiction, comic books. My love for children’s fiction, particularly that of yesteryear, written for a sensibility that now puzzles us. A fascination with the past, not as a reality to be recovered but as a challenge to our imagination: Once, we were different.
It continues to blow my mind.
All this — patiently accrued, stored away in diaries and the subconscious, kept dry against the rot of forgetting — lay scattered around my writer’s shed: combustible material, you might say, waiting for a spark. It was Dickens who provided it: that passage from Dombey and Son
that I use at the start of my book.
Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portions of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them, and in the eternal laws of our Nature, is inseparable from them, could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation! […] Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off…and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes…
I read the page and I saw it at once, my world of Smoke
; the inky black marks left by moral indiscretion as it snaked from skin to skin, infecting what it touched. My heroes came later: first Thomas then Charlie then Livia, each announcing themselves by a gesture, an expression, a word that contained the germ of them (once I see this gesture or hear that first word, I know I can write them). There is nobody who sulks like Livia, and no sweeter thing than a smile from Charlie. Thomas holds something of my father in him. He was, by all accounts, an angry youth.
For many weeks I walked around with fragments of these characters, looking for their story. The school took shape, built around the memory of a smell: of laundry bags and teenage bodies, of plumbing and over-boiled veg. If there is a mythical moment of beginning
, it came on the day when the first page and the first chapter were written: when all that had been swirling around in my head took concrete shape. What emerged surprised me because it sat there on the paper with such a clear sense of voice, confident and intractable. In a business where much is achieved through regular, patient, careful application — through work
, the daily communion with manuscript and notebook — this, the day the first page happened to me like a gift given to you by a good friend, was a moment of pure magic.
I am not a planner. There are things about Smoke
I knew from the onset, but many of the details of the plot remained obscure to me until the day when I discovered them on the page. I like the looseness of this approach to writing fiction, the possibilities of surprise, the manner in which it turns me into my book’s first reader. It also creates space for everyday life to imprint itself on the book, enriching and changing it in unexpected ways. Thus, entirely unanticipated in my early notes, was the year I spent in Durham, in the northeast of England, where I moved on short notice to take up a job at the university. The northeast is mining country, or rather it was up until the Thatcher years when the mines were closed. Imagine it: an ancient town built onto a steep hill. The university and cathedral sit on top. The poor live in the trough. My daily walk up the hill was an ascent through accents and sociolects.
I painted it all in Smoke
Other experiences similarly left their mark, some very recent, some a number of years old but relived in the act of writing. Long walks in London, taking turns at random, rediscovering, rethinking the city after years spent away in Canada and the U.S. A year of reading about the French Revolution, back when I was a graduate student, marveling at how such a thing could be: the garish totem pole that is the guillotine — it all returned to me as I sat on Trafalgar Square one day, staring at Lord Nelson high up on his plinth. Growing up with stories of life behind the Iron Curtain, of little freedoms found within a universe where every citizen is under constant observation and words can be as treacherous as Smoke.
More than any other book I have written, Smoke
appears to be rooted in a single idea: that of a world in which evil is physically manifest and can be passed from skin to skin. This, however, is an illusion. Like all books, Smoke
is rooted in hundreds upon hundreds of ideas and observations, big and small. Each character is an idea, each line of dialogue; each room has to be discovered; each emotion felt and explored. The great triumph of the form we call the novel — a single story that takes many words hence many months to tell — lies precisely in its length. The years of writing, the growing pile of pages, create both space and time for all these ideas to accrue, interact, mature. There is no happier time for me than when I am in the midst of writing a novel, far enough in to have silenced that blowhard, Doubt, but with many words yet to be written, many ideas yet to be had. In this I am no different as a writer than I am as a reader. For what happier moment is there than to lay down a book for the night—a good
book, one that speaks to you and in its modest way is transforming your week — and to think to yourself, I still have 200 pages of discovery left
It makes me so happy indeed that I have to be careful not to smoke into my sheets.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King's College, Cambridge. Vyleta is the author of three previous novels, Pavel and I
, The Quiet Twin
, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and The Crooked Maid
, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the J.I. Segal Award. His new novel, Smoke
, is set in a late 19th-century England where sin – hate, lust, need – manifests itself physically, as infectious smoke that rises out of people’s skins and leaves behind a dirty mark.