Has it been done before? We don’t think so. Yes, there’s been dual authorship (is that the right term or is it a theological concept?) like Nicci French, Ellery Queen or Sergeanne Golon (remember lovely Angelique?). But, fifteen writers collaborating on the writing of a novel? It’s more like something that happens in television – a stable of writers developing the on-going story of EastEnders or Mad Men. Then again, thinking about it, there was the King James Bible.
But these fifteen writers aren’t scholars or translators – they’re Dark Angels. Now Dark Angels, these Dark Angels, aren’t bikers or Goths or heavy metal rockers; they’re an eclectic bunch of writers who have come together through the Dark Angels creative writing programme (now entering its tenth year) and, having been through three course levels together, are embarking on their second collaborative project (the first, last year, was an exhibition, pairing with visual artists, at the Oxford Story Museum called 'Other Worlds').
The next challenge was to write a collective novel. How do you do that? We had no precedents. So we had to invent our own process. First step was to get fifteen writers to an interesting and remote Scottish country house for a long weekend of planning and writing. Our starting point had been to read William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying. We thought this was a useful model as the story is told from the viewpoint of a number of characters, each chapter being a different voice.
So, once gathered together around the fire in the coldest March on record, we started to create characters to tell a story about a woman who dies in a Scottish country house – and whose family decide to transport her body back to London in a white van via a few special, possibly secret-laden locations. It seemed to have some comic possibilities – and other possibilities too, poetic, psychological, philosophical. It’s an adventure we’re writing and it’s an adventure in writing.
Follow us, support us – come along for the ride. We plan to deliver a stonking good story.
They say you should walk towards the light. Well I didn’t. I fled. I ran away from it. I pushed the light back and it splintered in my hands like glass. I thought I might be dead because there was no blood. I raged, I wept. I shouted. There was no pain. I screamed. There was no noise. It wasn’t time. It wasn’t right. But still, I did not know that I was dead. Still, I hoped that I was not. I wasn’t ready.
So now from a distance I must watch this private life of mine unfurl, spilling secrets over the children, over Solomon, like a rose bruised in a storm. I never intended to hurt them with the truth. I believe in the power of secrets. I believe that they can protect the ones you love. I believe that secrets can hold you down to earth when all you want to do is fly away.
When Rebecca was a newborn baby and the boys were at school, day and night swam together. I would lie beside her in a darkened room, inhaling the top of her head, listening for the lengthening of quick, shallow breaths. Her puckered, jerky hands clasping my index finger. I wondered if she could hold us together. If she would be enough, this tiny life of ours?
We’ve come to the nearly final stage of our book Keeping Mum. It now seems like quite a long time since we finished writing it, but actually the whole process from our first gathering in the Scottish highlands has taken just one year and one month – almost record time in the book world. We’ve done the thinking, writing, editing, designing, production, and now I type this with a finished copy of the…
Working on this novel, I was reminded of something that a teacher said to me many years ago - he was talking about improvisational theatre. I paraphrase a little but not much:
"To collaborate is necessarily to compromise but not in the acceptance of what can be done at best but in pursuit of what is best to do"
He also left me with another piece of advice, important for any collaborative effort…
I t's not quite as cold today as it was that weekend a year ago, when 15 of us gathered within sight of the Cairngorms to start plotting this book (though there was a brief flurry of snow this morning). March in the Highlands is still the tail end of winter, without much hint of spring yet in sight. The lambs aren't due here for another two or three weeks, and this time last year there was a corresponding…
Hello, it's Elen again. I wrote the character of Iris - the mother with the secret past that unfurled when she died. I like writing characters with secrets. I think we all hold them and that's what makes us interesting and layered like onions.
I used to be a journalist and one of my most effective questions during an interview was, 'Tell me a secret.' There's something disarming about being asked…
Jonathan here. As the publication of Keeping Mum gets ever closer, I took a look back at some of the iPhone photos I snapped during the weekend (a year ago, next week) the group that would be the Dark Angels Collective gathered in the Scottish Highlands to plan a ‘collective novel’, with little idea how that would actually work.
Looking at the photos, I was a little startled to see just how much…
Thought you might like to see a piece I wrote for D&AD on the theme of stories and how Keeping Mum came to be. It may prove mildly diverting.
This is a story about a story. It’s about how rules can be a writer’s best friend and how the humble brief helped steer a unique writing project to a successful conclusion. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Last January I was asked to…
Last time I was here shedding and posting, I was directing all possible victory vibes via Tutu, The Terrier of the Balavil. The dog had watched as 15 writers grappled with the bare bones of plot and character.
“Tutu,” I said. “The book will happen.” And it did.
Now we are past the hundred per cent mark and still going strong. So the tasks of brainstorming, writing, assembling, editing, proofing…
I'm Martin Lee, and I've been writing the part of Solomon White, the long suffering husband of Iris, or perhaps insufferable husband, if you listen to the opinion of other characters in the book, including Iris.
It's been an enthralling process, this collective novel writing business. I spend quite a bit of time in my day job thinking about the relevance of storytelling for businesses…
The second most interesting thing about my character Iris is that she's a botanist. I like writing a character who's an expert at something. Whenever I was stuck, I'd find an interesting plant and use it as an entry point into her head and her thoughts.
I've been writing my sections in Kew Gardens on a shady bench in the Temperate House. I write by hand in my orange notebook and sometimes I…
In a modern art gallery in Rome this week, I came across a photography book with a familiar-looking title: As I Was Dying.
I doubt Paolo Pellegrin, the photographer, was thinking about William Faulkner's and As I Lay Dying when he chose this title (as we were when developing the structures and voices of our collective novel). More likely he was thinking back to the original source of that phrase…
I’m going to say something controversial now. I didn’t really like ‘As I Lay Dying’.
That might sound a bit odd, considering it was the book that inspired us to write ‘As I Died Lying’. It may also be sacrilegious to suggest that the work of a Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner could be anything other than wholly satisfying. But there it is.
Let me pour petrol on those whooshing flames…
We have a Dark Angels writers discussion group organised by Richard Pelletier of Lucid Content in Seattle. Richard’s a terrific writer and photographer. Another dark angel, John Dodds of Air Products in Pennsylvania, recently asked the question of the group: “Why read fiction?” The photo here is John shot by Richard on our course in Oxford this April.
As the discussion developed over many weeks…
Hi folks, this is Paul. I’m writing the character of Rebecca, the sulky teenage daughter, which is great fun and something of a challenge. Part of the challenge is that, being a typical modern 15-year-old, Rebecca communicates solely through text messages, tweets and Facebook posts. Plus the occasional email when she really wants to go deep. That means very few words are available to get across her…
The Baskerville Hound? No, the Balavil Terrier.
This is Tutu. Mark her intense, intelligent gaze. She has just been reading the floor beneath her paws: the rough workings, the plot notes, the character studies, the scrawls of a dozen word-wild collectivists fuelled by oats and fire.
Tutu, the book will come.
Welcome to my shed of stone
Larch and slate.
The walls are stuck with skewwhiff post-its
The floor is strewn with paper fists and OS
Maps, manhandled, discarded.
But there’s a hubbling kettle
And two chairs – the skylight’s
To catch the drift of the honeysuckle
And the early butterfly.
Come night, the moon, feted around here,
Like a saucer of shining…
Roger here with a quick video update on how it's all going - that's me wearing the fetching blue polo shirt.
Apart from writing and editing I'm mainly busy begging everyone who knows me to pledge their support. It's a fine line between being enthusiastic and being a pest, but it's all for a good cause. If you're reading this and you've already pledged then many thanks. If you…
(Do you mind if I call you fans? I thought ‘fans’ wasn’t too presumptuous given that you’ve all paid good money to support our book and see this post. For which THANK YOU. And do tell all your friends. 35% and counting.)
So, what to tell you? Well, first and foremost, you’ll be pleased to know that we have written half the book – and so are we, actually. And I’m especially pleased…
These people are helping to fund Keeping Mum.