A journey to the past

New cover design for The Last Island (original art work by David Voss; cover design by jcartworks).

I’ve been living in the past for the last month or so, and it has been both interesting and confusing — as a writer, in particular.

In the mid-Eighties, Bantam published a trilogy that developed from one of my novels; I usually refer to it as the Hatch Trilogy, based on the main characters name. The original mss for that novel was called, “The Last Island”. It was in the original about 130,000 words. That saga is a familiar story to regular readers of his blog. Basically, succumbing to the temptations (stronger in my poverty days) of triple the advance, I agreed to make three books, a trilogy, from the one. It was a literary mistake, but a wonderful financial windfall.

Almost thirty years after writing the original version, having in the meantime all rights to the trilogy and the original returned to me, I am recreating the original from a huge pile of curling, yellowed typed pages (this was, as well as all the first five of my novels, written with a pen on paper, typed for submission on a Royal manual typewriter, with a single carbon copy, and was never any sort of electronic file).

I began working on this novel while an MFA student at Iowa. The mss went through multiple revisions and versions over the course of the four years I spent writing it. I’ve found a few pages out of order or that don’t make sense (some previous version?), and one entire section seems to be missing. I have three boxes storing ancient typing paper and handwritten notebook versions of all my novels, both published and unpublished. We move often, and much of our stuff remains in storage until the day we stop moving a lot. I have one box of old work here in my Buenos Aires flat, but not the other two, which I assume (and hope) are in storage. It is possible another version of The Last Island could be there.

I remember what the original was like. When making the trilogy, I used from the original essentially all of what would become book one, and most of what would become book three. Book two was crafted from whole cloth and stuck in the middle — the core of the literary mistake. In returning to the original, book two is gone entirely. But trying to make book two work in the trilogy required making a few minor changes to the end of book one, and major, extensive changes in book three from the original story. The key problem returning to the original, without a coherent version to work from, has been getting rid of the add-ons in book three (created to fit with what happened in book two).

That process is now complete. But I want to read it straight through (again almost 130,000 words), because I am sure there remain many mistakes, and not just typos.

This will be an eBook only version, and I hope it will be available in those various formats in two to three more weeks. After I proofread it, my wife needs to do it; she is way better at catching mistakes than I am, plus she knows more accuate English grammar than I do.

What most interests me about this process is continually, happily encountering again the days when I was young and energetic and hopeful and romantic and often enough quite a brilliant stylist (if I may); but counterbalanced by blocks of truly abysmal, amateurish writing. Page after page I asked myself: Where was the fucking editor?

I have always been attracted to this piece by John Fowles, and I have found it to be particularly appropriate during this process.

It is not only species of animal that die out, but whole species of feeling. And if you are wise you will never pity the past for what it did not know, but pity yourself for what it did. John Fowles, The Magus


10 replies »

  1. Alright! Thanks for going through all this. I’m really looking forward to this. Didn’t you at one time describe it as Conrad meets Rambo? Something like that?

  2. Sometimes, when I read one of your posts, it seems uncanny since we have never met and live thousands of miles apart, that we should be pondering the same issues. I too have been reading about the past albeit in a different way and for very different reasons than you give here.
    I am happy to see you being so involved with technology and for being so evolved Don to see these new opportunities breath new life your way.