Denise Leith discusses writing her first novel, What Remains
I have never wanted, or indeed, thought I could write fiction* so the writing of this novel has come as the most delightful surprise to me.
I was cleaning out files on my computer when I saw a file called, 'Book'. I had no idea what this file was, or why it was on my computer. When I opened it I discovered a scene that I had written about six months previously. When I read the paragraph I remember thinking it was good and began writing immediately, finding myself unable to stop. Within three weeks I had 60,000 words. The book just poured out of me.
I knew from the beginning that it came from my professional and personal frustrations as a university teacher, an author and a human being. I was powerless to stop war or counter the hype at the time championed by our politicians that war was a noble, just and brave (it was at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq and I knew journalists who were going there and also soldiers who were going there to fight).
When I'd finished the book it was an outpouring of all these frustrations, wound through my own experiences and moments in history. I knew immediately that if I wanted anyone to read the book the anger and frustration I wrote about needed to be countered by love. It was also very clear immediately how that love story should be played out – in fact it had always been in the book.
Apart from the initial, immediate outpouring that created the manuscript the rewrites were slow and difficult, I had only ever been a non fiction writer and a serious academic so I'd learnt to tell, not show; I'd never written a scene before or used adjectives; characters and characterisations were foreign to me; emotions were difficult to write and sex scenes were impossible.
I spoke to a number of well known authors with regard to writing sex scenes and they all told me they were the hardest thing to write. The first person I gave the ms to was author and friend, Rosie Scott. She came back with the encouragement to 'go where the fear is.' So I nervously sat down at my computer one evening with the deliberate intention of writing a sex scene. When I had finished I thought it needed a bit of finessing, but it was reasonably good. In the morning when I reread it I was appalled - it read like I was describing a gymnastic tournament. It was a complete disaster. What I finally found I could write about was sensuality, rather than sex.
Writing about love was also uncomfortable for me, but I have always known that when soldiers or journalists go to war love is the best antidote to the horror the see. In the book, the love story serves the same purpose – it is the antidote to the scenes of horror witnessed and the frustrations felt.
The novel is a new and challenging way of writing [for me]. It is exciting and at the same time liberating. Dealing totally in fact, as I did in all my previous writing, could sometimes be inhibiting. The fiction genre gave me freedoms in writing I found exhilarating. For the first time I could fully express my horror of war and all its consequences.
I have loved writing this book more than any other book I have worked on – it was in every respect a labour of love and I am loathe in many ways to leave the world and the characters I have created.
*Denise Leith is the author of the non-fiction works The Politics of Power and Bearing Witness
See Denise in conversation with Caroline Baum:
Sometimes only a work of fiction can reveal truth ... Following the tumultuous life of journalist Kate Price from her first assignment as a naive and idealistic young correspondent in Riyadh in 1991, to Baghdad in 2004, this is an epic story of love, war and friendship that will stay with you forever.