Back in 1984 I travelled through Finland and Russia to research the book that would eventually become The Boat House. I say eventually because it was a far from easy road. Not the travelling, that was an adventure that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Helsinki, Joensuu, Savonlinna, the towns of Western Karelia… then onto the Leningrad train and into Soviet Russia, to sneak away from the Intourist guides and find the psychiatric prison hospital on Arsenal Street. Did you know that Russian trains depart without announcement, without a whistle, without even making a sound? I didn’t, until I glanced back while stretching my legs on some little rural halt’s platform to see mine leaving with all my luggage, money and passport but without me. I had to run on slippery ice and get the door open before I could scramble on board, which earned me a finger-wagging from the enormous babushka in charge of the carriage.
No, the problems started when I got home, turned yellow, and was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the form that gets transmitted by faecal contamination in the food chain. I can’t be sure of the source but if the chefs in the Hotel Europiskaya were as diligent and professional as the waiters, they probably couldn’t tell the difference between the sliced ham and the toilet paper.
Believe me that you never really appreciate your liver until it shuts down on you. It goes hard, and it hurts. It leaves you listless and delirious and drained of energy, and recovery takes months. Mine did, anyway, but I couldn’t afford an idle convalescence. My last published novel had flopped, the one I’d written right after it was still unsold, and I was broke. We lived in a small bungalow at the time, and it was about five paces from the bedroom to the room that I used as a study. For many weeks those five paces were about as much as I could manage in one go.
The first draft of The Boat House was written in those months. At the end of the process I looked back at what I’d done and became aware of two things. The bad news was that the manuscript read exactly like the ramblings of a sick person – it was shapeless, barely coherent and certainly unpublishable. But there was good news too, because I saw stuff in there that no well person could ever have come up with. The whole thing was like one long, sustained flood of vivid dream imagery.
So for the next few months I rewrote and reshaped, putting in the craft while trying to preserve that gift of tone. I had to be pretty ruthless with the material, and a lot of interesting stuff went by the wayside because it had no place in the new, tighter narrative scheme.
I suppose The Boat House has a special place in my affections. There have been several attempts to film it, including one by a Prominent British Director who raised finance on my screenplay and then replaced me with his non-writing office assistant.
Sometimes, the crashing of a project can bring more relief than disappointment.