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Work in Progress: On writing The Resurrectionist

Resurrectionist cover“Sometimes we wake, an hour yet till dawn. Our bodies cold, possessed by the memory of something known a moment before and now forgotten. Beside us our lover still sleeps, their breath moving through the spaces of their body, in and out. Otherwise silence. And in that sudden wakefulness our death seems so close we might touch it. Is this premonition? Or memory? Even now I find I do not know.”

Novels – or at least the ones I am able to write – always seem to me to be curiously fragmentary things, at once prismatic and elusive. These pieces, these fragments, are part of a pattern, and they take their meaning from the whole, even as they reflect the whole within themselves. Finding these pieces, fitting them together, is not so much an act of creation as one of uncovering, of giving voice to something that is already there. This thing, the unwritten book, is like a potential, and to find it you need to learn to give way to the lines of force within it, the invisible tensions and attractors which give it its shape. The closest thing I can find to compare the process to is music, the way the notes interact, and counterpoint each other:

“At first it is nothing, or less than nothing. A sort of hesitation in the air. Behind me Bourke has fallen still, and all about us silence, the only sound the breathing of the bush. In the depthless mirror of the water’s surface the clouds move by, a silent motion, the dipping flight of a currawong moving crosswise to their current as if it were a stone forever falling but never striking. On every side the world unspools.
“Turning my hand I look at it, as if something in this moment has altered it: held there the fact of it, of all of this, somehow both strange and almost too distinct, as if possessed of the unreal clarity of a dream. And slowly as a feather might, the water splashing down from it, a beaded ribbon of light.”

I don’t tend to begin a novel with a story. Instead I begin with an image, a fact or a feeling, maybe a character or two. These pieces are like shards, little pieces of some larger whole as yet unseen. Though it is the process of worrying away at them which leads me into the book these images don’t always find their way into the finished work, nor do I necessarily remember them when I’m done. I’m in the habit of saying that my first novel, Wrack, began with the images of a buried ship and of a woman singing in the wreckage of a burning city, but to be honest this long after the fact I’m no longer sure if this is strictly true. Anyone who writes and has had to speak publicly about their work will be familiar with the process of creating a comprehensible story to encapsulate what the book is about and how you came to write it for the audiences you have to speak to. At first this story is a useful shorthand, but in time it has a habit of supplanting the real events even in your own head. There is nothing sinister or even very strange in this. Any novel which exists on the page will invariably have several different lives hidden within itself, sometimes ones which bear little resemblance to each other beyond a few key points. What is strange is the very particular dissonance which sometimes occurs when you look back over earlier drafts and find versions of the book you have no memory of writing, ones which seem to have been written by some version of yourself you no longer remember.

In its final form The Resurrectionist is a novel in two parts, the first set in 1820s London, the second in 1830s New South Wales. Drawing on the history of the resurrectionists, the criminal class which catered to the growing need of the period’s hospitals and medical schools for subjects for dissection, it follows the descent of a young surgeon’s apprentice into the corruption and violence of London’s underworld, a place where everything and everyone is for sale, and where the taking of a life is easier than it might seem. When he himself is murdered by his accomplices another man, with a different name and a different life is born on the other side of the world. This second man, a former convict, makes his living catching birds for collectors and giving drawing lessons to the better-off of the colony, while spending his private hours alone, making paintings of the birds he captures and kills.

If I was in the habit of making proper notes it might be easier for me to reconstruct what I was thinking when I began the process that led to the novel as it now exists. But like many people with good memories I am in the bad habit of keeping most of what I know in my head. I call it a bad habit because though it is good my memory is far from perfect, and so when I do forget something I have no written back-up to draw upon. What notes I do keep tend to be scraps and questions, words or phrases that I like:

Where do we go in sleep? Watching Arabella. This being. This life no more substantial than breath.
Twice-birthed, twice-dying.
Lucan. Misrule.
Mrs Gunn serves tripe a lot.

I began writing the novel some time in 1999. My second book, The Deep Field, was published in April of that year, and for a while afterwards I flirted with the idea of writing a short novel or novella as a way of recharging my batteries after the fairly fraught process of finishing it. The truth was though that the only book I really wanted to write was The Resurrectionist. And so at some point late in 1999 I gave up on the short novel and began to work seriously on the longer one. Looking back now I remember beginning with several things. One was the story of Burke and Hare, the Irish labourers who murdered fifteen people in Edinburgh in the late 1820s and sold the bodies as dissection subjects to Dr Robert Knox (whose later career as a proto-race scientist was the basis for one of the characters in Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers). I’d come across the story in Stephen Jay Gould’s study of phrenology, The Measure of Man a year or two earlier. There seemed to me something so peculiarly, so suffocatingly horrible in it that I knew at once I wanted to write about. The second was an image of the bush at nightfall, and of a man’s figure in the gathering dusk. In Australian writing the bush is almost invariably depicted as somewhere warm, but I was interested in the idea of it in the cold, of the bleached light and the wind, the eerie, keening quality of its silence in the winter. The last was a literal process of resurrection, of being buried alive only to returnonce more.

Exactly how these fragmentary pieces grew into the framework for the novel I’m not sure. I know I was interested in the oppositions: life and death, up and down, Europe and the antipodes, black and white. I know that in my mind the figure in the dusk was a ghost of some sort, and that I understood that this idea connected to the Aboriginal belief the original Europeans were spirits returned from the dead, and vice versa, to the erasure of the Aboriginal peoples from the landscape, the way they were made ghosts in their own land.

“Enclosed in the cage of my hand she trembles, a hot weight, scarcely heavier than breath. Although only moments ago she fought and shrieked within the net’s tangling strands now she does not move, her body sitting motionless. Not stunned, or injured, merely stilled, her tiny body seeming to quiver with the necessity of flight, its arrested presence filling her form with a strange intensity. And yet she does not strain, or fight, just lies within my grasp, as if waiting for some sign from me.”

The hardest thing about writing anything is finding the voice. Every novel’s voice is different, and it can often be very difficult to find your way into the one which is right. I tend to write the first page or two of a novel over and over again, trying to find the voice, to hear its cadences until at last I feel its rhythms begin to emerge. With The Resurrectionist this process was particularly difficult. Since the book was historical I was faced with a series of questions about how to represent the world I was writing about. The material too was ripe with temptations, lending itself too easily to gratuitous grisliness. There was no doubt in my mind I could write a splatterfest, but there seemed to me something wrong in that, the material’s macabre dimensions demanding not excess but restraint. And so I found myself pulling back, into a place at once observing and disconnected, intimate but removed

“In its womb of glass it floats suspended, half turned as if it sought to hide itself from the viewer’s gaze. Though it has but one set of legs, above the waist a second body grows, smaller than the first, a chest and arm which emerges from the chest of the first, and though it is only half-made itself, on its top there is a head, as perfect as the body is grotesque. Half-hidden by its larger twin this smaller head seems to sleep, nestled close against its protector, its tiny form cradled in turn by the larger’s arm.

“Yet though the smaller seems to sleep the larger is awake, or so it seems, for by some trick of the preserver’s art its eyes are rendered so they seem to follow the viewer to every corner of the room. Its heavy lids half-hooded over its sightless, staring orbs, their depths somehow malign, like those of a toad or some heavy, hateful thing, jealous of life and all its pleasures. And indeed but for the puckered stitches which run in a Y from their necks to their common nave their skin is smooth, perfect as any child’s, yet so pale and chill it might be marble or alabaster.

“On the shelves about stand another several hundred jars, each filled with some monstrosity. Here the limbs and organs of the dead preserved, hands and eyes, ears and feet, their flesh turned grey and horrible by the alcohol, and beside them other things, less easily recognised: a blackened lung, a massive heart, and eyeball trailing its white thread of nerve like a jellyfish. In another stands the head of a man neatly bisected with a saw, the face on one side perfect and unblemished, eyes closed as if in sleep, the other pressed close against the glass so the layers of bone and brain and muscle can be seen, the delicate chambers of the nose, the fat root of the tongue. But beside these float other things, monstrous twins drawn from the shadowed realms of fevered sleep. Six-fingered hands, a scaled foot, the generative organs of an hermaphrodite, a half-grown cock and balls nestled in its vagina’s anemone folds. And in their centre a line of larger jars, each holding in it a child deformed in some dreadful way; one’s head an empty sac which billows on its neck, another made as a mermaid is, its back and legs disappearing into serpent coils, another’s head turned inside out, the teeth growing in concentric rings through the exposed meat of the palate so the inverted hole seems to consume the face in which it sits from chin to brow.”

One thing I do remember though is the way mouths kept intruding themselves into my mind in the novel’s early stages. Mouths, graves, birth, death, holes and passages, all the associated imagery of generation and the generative organs. There was a prologue in the early drafts which made these connections explicit, where the grave becomes the birth canal and being buried alive is being born:

“And so it ends as it began. In blood, and soil, and darkness. The circle turns and we are unborn, returned to where we were begun, and unmade.”

It is in this process of subconscious association that the novel really takes form, but it is one that can play off the outside world in unpredictable ways. For instance there is a scene I wrote very early on in the dissection room:

“Mr Poll slips two fingers into the dead man’s mouth, pulling the jaw open once more. Glancing up he surveys the watching students. ‘Death is a mirror,’ he says, ‘in which life is reflected for our edification.’
“Beneath his fingers the dead man’s tongue can be seen, purplish-grey like an oxen’s on a butcher’s slab, and beneath it the darker mass of the tumour, displacing it.”


At about the time I was writing this scene I was attending dissections at the university. I’m not much of a one for physical research but I was uncomfortable with the idea of writing about the dead without actually seeing them, without knowing for myself what the inside of a body looked and felt like. Fascinating as they were though, these dissections were also less than the real thing. The bodies dissected by students are drained of blood and pickled in formaldehyde to aid in their preservation and to prevent the possibility of disease passing from the subjects to the students. This process not only permeates their flesh with a particularly unpleasant and clinging smell (or at least what seems to be a clinging smell – like the students I soon learned to shower as soon as I came home, and became familiar with the way I would catch a whiff of the formaldehyde upon my hands hours or even days afterwards, long after my rational mind was certain there could be no trace of it left on my skin), it makes them somehow inert, more like plasticine than flesh and blood.

By contrast the early nineteenth-century dissections I was writing about were carried out on subjects who were still full of blood and often beginning to spoil. So through a friend who works at a Sydney hospital I talked my way into a few autopsies. Strictly speaking these were the final stage in the confidential relationship between practitioner and patient, and so I had to attend them discreetly, watching and listening, not mentioning any names afterwards.

Where the dissections had been curiously surreal and clinical experiences – emptied of blood and refrigerated human flesh looks like cold roast pork, and the fat is identical in colour and consistency to creamed corn out of a tin – the autopsies were another thing altogether, all slopping guts and blood and shit, a parade of images which forced themselves upon me at unexpected moments for some time after. There’s something unforgettable about the sound of the ribs cracking as the chest is broken open or the burning smell of the saw cutting through the skull so the brain can be removed.

The subject of the first autopsy I attended was a man who had died of cancer of the mouth. The pathologist was an attractive woman of about my age, who treated me with the curious mixture of bemusement and curiosity that you often get when people learn that you write for a living. As I stood watching she pulled the mouth open exactly as I’d described it in the scene I had written only a day or two before. His tongue was already missing – it had been removed in an operation a year or so before he died – but the tumour was there alright, almost exactly as I had imagined it.

‘Do you want to touch it?’ she asked, and for a few moments I stood looking at it

‘No,’ I said, and she nodded, watching me.

‘You can’t come to the autopsy and not touch the tumour,’ she said then, and I knew she meant it. Embarrassed I came forward and put my fingers in the mouth. Through the latex of the glove I could feel his front teeth against my fingers, unexpectedly sharp. To my surprise the tumour was hard, not pulpy. Touching it made me a little queasy, just as pressing veins or glands tends to.

Looking up I saw the pathologist and the assistants grinning at me, and despite myself I laughed.

‘I can’t believe I’m standing here with my fingers in a dead guy’s mouth,’ I said.

Then somewhere in the process of writing the second draft something went terribly wrong. At first it was just a snarl in the plotting I couldn’t resolve, but as I tried to unravel it the whole thing began to collapse, the clarity that had been there in the first draft seeming to dissipate. Trying to fix the problems I wrote and rewrote, over and over, and each time I did so there seemed to be less there when I was finished than I had started with. Piece by piece I pulled the book apart, and as I did everything seemed to unwind. Sections which had flowed sinuously into each other stopped moving, scenes which had been filled with energy grew static and heavy, even the language seemed to fall apart in my hands, passages that I had thought near perfect unravelling into stilted sequences. The doubt was infectious, and like some sort of universal acid it ate its way through everything it touched. I began to feel physically ill when I had to look at the computer. Over almost a year it got worse, and worse, until finally I could barely compose an email. I abandoned the book twice, but each time I went back to it, unable to let it go.

Part of what made me feel so desperate was the knowledge that there was something that I had begun to find in this novel that I needed to do. I knew I was writing something which possessed some power I needed to make real, that these pieces – the dead bodies, murder for profit, the images of the birds – somehow had to make a whole. And, more frighteningly, I didn’t know how I could extricate myself from the book without leaving behind whatever part it was of me that had once known how to make words stick together.

Though I didn’t know how to fix the problems I understood a lot of them arose out of the structure and the voice. There is a point when novels are still plastic, but once they begin to crystallise then their ground rules are often set in ways which cannot be altered without doing irreparable violence to the whole. For structural reasons which were now mostly forgotten I’d been shoehorned into writing in the first person and the present tense, and though those reasons were no longer there in the way they had been the voice was inextricably entwined in what I had, despite the problems it presented for releasing information or using any of the tricks of juxtaposition and time transitions which novels usually draw upon. Moreover the oppositions which had originally drawn me to the material now seemed more like a prison. I sometimes think there’s a level at which all novels are like this, sums of the mistakes we have made in writing them, but this was worse than normal.

Then one day in late 2002 I took the most recent of my several dozen drafts and printed it out. Then taking scissors I chopped it up into pieces and started laying them out on the floor, scrawling notes to myself on them as I moved them around, casting others away. I changed the titles of the novel’s two parts, and broke part of the story down. All at once I felt it open out, as if there was a lightness in it again, a sense of possibility which hadn’t been there for a long, long time. And as I did I realised I was writing a quite different novel from the one I had been writing when I started almost three years before, a more human one, about escape, and imprisonment, and guilt.

“There are those who would tell you that to make the likeness of a bird you must begin with the head, then proceed to the throat, and hence along the breast-line to the legs. The wing must be begun at the pinion line, then at last the tail, with the details filled in once the lines are made. Yet in truth there is no rule to it, no system. The line speaks to the page, and back again: drawing forth the image that is borne within the mind. And this image, for all the precision that it has, is as much one of impression and of feeling as of craft, a thing that takes its life from its line, until it brings itself into being, a thing new born, and new made.”

There seems to me to be a danger in trying to explain your own work, and not just because that’s really a job for others if they choose to make the effort. It’s more a kind of supersitition. I don’t really know how my process works, and in truth I’m reluctant to draw back that curtain in case I find Oz sitting there, pathetic on his stool. But having written three books now I am able to see the threads that run through them a little better, the anxieties and images that recur in each.

Finding the source though, tapping the vein, is a matter of letting go, of releasing conscious control into the work. But for me this letting go, this loss of the self is an act which unmakes me as almost nothing else. I find it exquisitely difficult to watch films where characters pretend to be someone other than they are, and ever since I was a child I have been troubled and unsettled by the idea of acting, that process of losing oneself in the semblance of another. The only time I have been required to try and act myself, as part of a playful workshop at Film School, I was profoundly upset by the experience, reduced quite literally to tears. What frightens me is something I cannot quite make sense of, and yet I suspect it is part of the tension that is at play when I go into my work, the way the sense I have of the fragility of my self, of the tenuousness of the hold I have on who I am is subsumed into the loss of self that writing requires of me.

“By the door I pause, seeing Robert within, intent upon his work. When he does not turn I step inside, approaching him. On the bench before him a woman’s foot, already blackened with the taint of its own corruption. Whose it is I do not know, divided from its body it is anonymous, the gracile toes twisted and burred by years of shoes worn too tight. Yet as Robert works it reveals itself, his steady knife pressed against the flesh’s soft resistance, the slipping meat slowly exposing the sinewed bone and cartilage. As I approach he does not turn, oblivious, lost in this thing he does. From the window pale light falls on his face, smoothing the lines of care away, while as he works he pauses now and then to make a mark upon the page he keeps beside himself. As a draughtsman he has an awkward hand, yet in this sketch, its very clumsiness I glimpse now something I have not seen before. A quality of grace it seems, as if these simple lines of light and shade marked out a plainsong for this strange temple, its small cathedral of bone and flesh, an obscured divinity.”

First published in Heat 6, 2003.