“Fallow Years: a reflection on time and success”

by David Wingrove

Ten years have passed since I delivered the final volume in the Chung Kuo sequence, The Marriage Of The Living Dark to publishers throughout the world; ten years in which my girls have grown, filling this old Victorian house in Islington with laughter and joy. As a father, I’ve been blessed. I’ve seen my darling daughters bud and flower; seen them become wonderful young women. But as a writer…

It’s often asked, on web sites, what became of that Wingrove fellow who wrote those Chinese books? Is he dead? Did he give up writing after that? Well, if you’re interested, here’s what happened next – after I’d delivered Book Eight to publishers.

But first a word about the finale to fourteen years’ work.

I’ve read – again on the web – that it isn’t very good. That after seven fantastic volumes, I lose the plot in volume eight. Well, let me conditionally agree. Not necessarily that I’ve totally lost the lot – I knew what I was doing – but that the volume, as it is, is highly unsatisfactory. It feels different from the rest of the sequence. Well, let me explain things.

In December 1995 we moved, from a modest three bedroom house in unfashionable Stoke Newington, to a big, seven-bedroom, five floor house on a square in very fashionable Islington. The old house was derelict. We moved our stuff in and lived on a couple of the higher floors while the basement was totally gutted and rebuilt. In the midst of which I began work on the final volume of Chung Kuo. Our youngest, Francesca, was one year-old and still in the waking-at-night phase. What with supervising the building work and getting up three times a night things were hard and energies were low, especially with three other young daughters to look after. I was also contracted to write a Myst book – the third in that sequence, The Book Of D’ni, of which I’m proud, so I had a lot on my plate. Even so, I still felt energised about Chung Kuo. I knew where I wanted to take it, and – with half the book completed – I went to my agent to see about getting a new contract for what I intended to be the two final books of the sequence. You see, it was always meant to be nine. It’s written and was planned as three trilogies, each with its own feel. That’s why, probably, a lot of people think it ought to have ended at Book Six, because I worked hard to give the ending to that book a sense of roundness and completion. But anyway… I waited a week or so, and then a letter came back, telling me that there was a letter of agreement between my agents and the publishers that book eight would be part of the existing agreement. I phoned up to ask what this meant, and was told it meant I wasn’t going to be paid. I queried this, but they were certain about it. I could finish the book and get it published, or I could leave the sequence unfinished. The choice was up to me. But I wasn’t going to get a penny for it.

You can imagine, possibly, how I felt. I’d just spent the best part of thirteen years working on Chung Kuo. It was near the end. Despite the fact that my British and American publishers seemed to have lost their initial enthusiasm for the series, there were still fans out there who wanted to see what happened next, and were desperate to know how things ended. Did I let them down, or did I work on for another six months for zero pounds an hour? I chose the latter. Why? Because I trusted to myself to get more work, and because I didn’t want to let people down. Only I couldn’t now contemplate writing two more books. It all had to go into one final volume. That caused problems. I wanted a more leisurely pace. I wanted to cram less in. But I had no choice if it was to make any sense. What resulted was a twitchy, hi-energy book which was much more sci-fi than anything that had preceded it. Over two volumes I could have made it work, but in one? No. I was also reluctant to jettison the material that I’d already produced and start again. If I were to do it now, I’d cut up the three chapters in Part One – ‘Inside The Gates Of Eden’ – and counterpoint them with another story. As it exists, these chapters take the story off in a wrong direction. They needed contrast to make them work.

Okay. Let me make it plain. We’d just moved into a big house, which we were re-building about us, at considerable cost, and I’d just discovered that I was down one year’s salary – oh, let’s say roughly £75,000. The Myst contract would see me through, however, and once Chung Kuo was out of the way I could move on to a new project and get some much-needed money in from that. That’s what I was thinking.

That’s the background to Book Eight. That’s why, in retrospect, I feel it doesn’t work, and why – if I’ve time – I’ll one day rewrite it as two volumes, and give the sequence a proper ending.

That as a by-the-by. Just to let you know what kind of curved balls the publishing industry can throw at you from time to time.

So… Chung Kuo was ‘finished’. What next? Well, I had this idea. It was about this writer guy in his forties who discovers he’s got a brain tumor and decides, because he’s dying, to take part in an experiment about the nature of memory. He allows intrusive surgery into his brain and goes on a journey into his real past, not the past he’s manufactured for himself as a kind of excuse for things he’s done in the past. The book was called Imagine A Man, and it exists in two very different versions. The first version I took to my agents who… promptly stopped being my agents. I took it elsewhere, and got a really good response. But when I rewrote it to their prescription, they suddenly lost enthusiasm for it. 18 months had passed and I had a 800-page thriller, with a distinct science fictional edge, that, when it finally went to publishers, won praise but no contract. I moved on.

Next up was The Beast With Two Backs, a novel about twins – one male, one female – who are both telepathic and (in the boy’s case) psychopathic. It was my attempt to get inside what being telepathic would really mean. I took as my starting point Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside and tried to write something more real and more startling than that. Again, despite the book being lauded by numerous editors, no one bought the damn thing. While it was doing the rounds I tried my hand at a few other things. I wrote a fourth Myst book (for which I was paid, even if it’s never been published) and turned Imagine A Man into a four part TV drama. I also wrote a script and an outline for a science fiction TV time-travel series, See You Yesterday. I liked it, but the TV production companies didn’t bite.

So what next? It’s now 1999, and if Sue (my wife) hadn’t been making a bit of money now writing TV dramas (she got 55% audience share in the UK for Real Women… reaching over 11 million viewers), we’d have been thoroughly sunk. As it was, she was keeping us afloat while I tried to re-establish my career. Next up was an idea I’d longed to write for ages and ages. A big time-travel book that had breadth and depth. I’d kept a box file of ideas on it for years… ROADS TO MOSCOW it was called, after the Al Stewart track of that name. Early in ’99 I began it.

ROADS TO MOSCOW is, I’d claim, the best science fiction trilogy you’ve never read. I put three years solid work into the research and the first draft alone, not to speak of two further years polishing it and making the logic of it consistent… oh, and I know, from readers’ responses (Brian Aldiss’s among them), that I got it right. Only what? Why, then, isn’t it published? It can’t be any good if it isn’t published, can it?

Well, maybe I’m self-deluded, but I know I got this one right. It’s about a time war between Germany and Russia, a war that covers 3000 years and involves two great time masters, using time as a great chess board, looking for the weak points in each other’s history and attempting, by changing events, to wipe out their opponents. In the midst of this, I have my hero, Otto, who was born in the 29th century, fall in love with a woman from 12th century Novogorod – Katerina… a Russian. With its twists and turns, I can imagine it was hard work for most editors to follow. I imagine they are used to less intellectually stimulating fare (though for god’s sake, what a love story I wove in its pages!). Rich with historical detail and endless what-ifs, I really do think that if it had been published (and who knows, it may yet be), it would have topped Chung Kuo by some degrees. It’s a big tale, though, by Chung Kuo’s standards it’s only a third the size. What’s more, it’s all told first person, exactly as Otto experiences it, and this gives the story an immediacy that’s sometimes lacking in Chung Kuo. But there you go. I have it in a drawer. One of my grand-daughters (or sons) may discover it some day and get it published. Jeeze, Grandpa could write…

Somewhere in these years I wrote another TV four-parter, Hit And Run, which I still think could work. I wrote another TV drama about Billy Meredith, the greatest football star of his time (turn of the 19th/20th century), called Gentlemen And Players.

Best of all, I spent six months writing and rewriting something called ‘The Wounded’, which I deliberately kept to 60,000 words, if only to prove to myself that everything didn’t have to be in 3, 8 or 10 volumes.

The Wounded – the title is taken from Perfect Circle’s ‘Three Libras’ – is an exercise in world-building. It’s based on a colony planet and is about the coming of the Enemy, but also about the seasonal swarming that shapes and dominates this planet’s life. It’s also about a young girl and her rite of passage. Again it’s unpublished. Several editors loved it, but they couldn’t publish it. Why? Because it’s too small.

Which brings us to roughly three years back, and a decision that will probably affect the rest of my writing career (if I have one). Back in the early 80’s, before I had ever come up with what was to be Chung Kuo, I had another big idea. I was watching the Booker Prize on TV, and moaning to Sue that the English novel was too thin, too lacking in ambition, too middle class. It no longer dealt with big issues. There were no ‘state of the nation’ books anymore, like those written by Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot. Someone needed to come along and write one. So began the slow process of researching such a wide-screen project. For the next twenty years and more I filled box files with notes and cuttings. Indeed, I set up a personal cuttings library, and, sometime in 2003, I decided that it was time to actually organise this mountain of material and get something written.

My thinking was like this. I ought, for once, to write about what I know best. So what do I know about? Being English. Being male. Being English and male in the 20th century. While this thought process was underway, I was listening to Pete Townshend’s Psychoderelict album, especially it’s opening track, English Boy…. So

That’s what it became, my project – An English Boy.

Never one to shrink from ambition, and conscious that it would no doubt make it hard to sell, I launched into the project, researching and designing it until I had it clear in mind. Twelve books, it would be, covering the whole of the 20th century, from the first day of 1900 to the last of 1999. It would cover three generations of ‘English Boy’, Tom, his son, Will, and his grandson ‘Dan’. Each would have four books dedicated to their life story, books 4 and 5 and books 8 and 9 overlapping in subject matter, but told from differing viewpoints. It was going to be BIG, but it was also going to be as readable as I could make it. And where it would differ from other sequences was that it would chart history as suffered by those unfortunate enough to be subject to it, rather than those who shaped and moved history. Mine was to be a distinctly working class history, rooted in the traditions of the working class. Up from the Clay, if you like. A history of England in the 20th century that included boxing and football, beer and women, music and TV and cinema. A book centred in family.

As it now exists, I have one whole volume written and polished and in with publishers. I’ve another four books fully plotted out, in every detail, and the rest exist as shorter synopses. I’m also – never one to shrink from a challenge - writing Books 2 and 12 contemporaneously. To give the sequence proper ‘shape’.

Will it sell? Who knows? And if it doesn’t? Then maybe it won’t get written. Maybe I’ll write some of the other projects I’ve got sketched out, like Dawn In Stone City, a first person novel set in the Chung Kuo universe, or the prequel, When China Comes, about the colonisation of Britain by the Chinese. There are others, too, some of them plotted out in considerable detail, and there are plans to develop Chung Kuo as a film project in Hollywood. Even as I write, there’s a company out there trying to raise development funding. Oh, and there’s this wee thing called The Portal, a big science fiction project, which currently exists as a film script, two half hour TV scripts and 24 synopses, not to speak of 14 minutes of 3D computer graphics. That too might yet be made.

Amidst all of this, I’ve done a lot of other things. I’ve researched for Sue, done an 18-month stint working in a bank, helped a good mate out on a building project he was working on, and other temporary things. All of which fuels the writing.

Finally, on the Chung Kuo front, I’ve been busy these past six months getting back all the rights to the books, with the idea of re-packaging and getting them out again. If so I might take six months off to set Book Eight right and develop it (and write it, of course) as two volumes. I know exactly how I’d do it. So watch this space.

And thanks for the interest. Who knows, one of these days you might even get to see some of these books…

DW - 18 August 2006