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So Long, Napoleon Solo by Patrick Chapman discussion on Writing.ie

 The great Russian-American author Isaac Asimov once remarked that if he were given only six months to live, his response would be to type faster. Famously, he published hundreds of books in his lifetime, so such a prognosis could have yielded him about twenty novels, an opera, five collections of stories, and a shopping list. Not everything he wrote was rendered in glistening prose, but he was a genius whose ideas helped shape the world we live in. It is not just any writer who can say that, or be so prolific. For most of us it takes a bit longer to write a book.

My new novel, So Long, Napoleon Solo, took fifteen years, on and off. That was not intentional. I started work on it in 2001 in response to the self-deliverance of a childhood friend, who was and is utterly unlike the fictional Tom, whose suicide sets the story of the novel in motion. My first draft was laughter in the dark, written blindly in marathon sessions made possible by solitude; I needed to get everything down as fast as I could, in a fugue of energy and work, banging it out until I’d got an ending. The result looked like a novel and read like a novel but what it wasn’t quite, not yet, was a novel.

Being a poet, I came to the task of writing a long prose piece as one who didn’t realise what he didn’t know. I learned that there’s a different art to it. An agent, when I showed an early draft too soon, said that the writing was good and the dialogue amusing, but the characters and story needed work. His advice made the book better. As the process went on, I found myself detaching creatively from the cathartic origin of the book. It assumed its own surprising course. What a trip it was to hold an entire world in my head, as the characters become semi-autonomous and their journey took on a life of its own.

Words are a time machine. I’d put the text aside for long periods then take it out and the characters would still be there, as they were, waiting to tell me what they needed. In between, I wrote other things. Poetry and stories, scripts for film, and plays for Doctor Who and Dan Dare. I also worked in advertising, the profession of my protagonist Jerome, and felt his nostalgia for a world long departed. Revisiting the book, I’d make changes and polish the prose until it gleamed and I was done. Then, every time, the flaws would appear, and I’d realise it needed more work after all.

A book is done when it’s done. In 2008 a publishing company accepted So Long, Napoleon Solo, then folded when the publisher himself disappeared. That mystery remains unsolved and I often wonder what happened to him. In the grand scheme, the fact that my novel no longer had a home, was a very minor consequence of a possibly tragic story. In the years since, the book matured while I wasn’t looking, like a literary sourdough starter kept in the hot press of my mind, as I put it away again and wrote more poems.

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