10 August 2017

Blogival Guest Post: Joe Treasure on writing The Book of Air

I'm participating in the Clink Street Publishing Blogival 2017 this month, and am proud to introduce the following guest post by Joe Treasure. Joe says that after writing The Book of Air, he understood why he’d been writing and explains why.

Writing and the accidental discovery of meaning 
You might think that before embarking on a novel a writer would have a story to tell. For me it’s never been that definite. For my first two novels I’d written the opening chapter before I began to think about what might develop from there. I’m sure other writers have this experience. A glimpse of a scene can be enough to get you started, a chance encounter, a moment of conflict, a distinct setting coloured by a mood or an atmosphere. Once you’ve got that on paper you can begin to see what direction it’s pointing in. 

With The Book of Air, what I began with was less concrete even than that. There was the familiar impulse to write, strengthened by the confidence that two published books had given me. I had a vague sense that I should attempt something more ambitious. I’d been impressed by The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s brilliant futuristic satire on the oppression of women under a Biblically inspired tyranny. This powerful modern myth stirred me to think beyond the ordinary.

Meanwhile I’d long been interested in books that take off from classics. I love the idea of interacting creatively with an established story, to subvert or reimagine it. In her justifiably celebrated Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys drew Rochester’s mad wife from the shadows and allowed her to tell her own story, a Creole heiress married off and forcibly relocated, finding herself locked up in an isolated house, increasingly neglected by her husband. Since that was published in 1966, giving voice to marginalised characters in 19th novels has become a familiar device and I didn’t feel I had anything fresh to say in this form. Besides, I wanted more freedom than a historical novel would allow me. I was drawn to a futuristic setting.

And so I began imagining a community that has constructed itself around the close study of a novel. In a way, any novel would do – the randomness is the point. The community, having elevated this book to a unique status, is unaware that it’s just a made-up story, one of countless books, whose purpose is to give pleasure. I considered various novels. But I returned to Jane Eyre because it’s so well-known and its central drama is so strong and elemental. To emphasise the randomness I would give the community two other books, each completely different in kind – a children’s picture book and a technical manual from which they can derive no coherent meaning.

But still all I had was an abstraction – not a story, not even a single character – until I heard Agnes’s voice, as she responds for the first time in her life to the impulse to write about herself. Hidden away in the corner of an attic, she has found a mysterious object, recognisably a book, but not a book because there are no words in it, none until she writes them. From the first moment, she is aware of the strangeness of what she is doing and the danger of it. She is fifteen, on the verge of adulthood. Her story will be about secrecy and self-discovery, oppression and rebellion, friendship and love. It will explore her experience of growing up and challenge the limits of the community she has been born into.

As I worked on it, other questions came up. How had this community come into being? Why this house, these cottages, this farmland? Why these books and no others? And why this isolation? I thought of Jason, a man of our own time, waking from a fever, surprised to find himself still alive having survived a virus that has killed so many others. He has left London in chaos and retreated to his country house, the very house where Agnes will begin her journal in the distant future. He has two stories to tell, what led up to this moment – the collapse of society as he has always known it – and what will follow from it – the struggle to survive and find a new way of living among a handful of strangers.

I had no idea until I began writing that these were the stories I wanted to tell. And I found, when I was done, that certain preoccupations had emerged. How do communities form and what makes a community oppressive or benign? How are collective memories kept alive? What is the connection between the experience of loss and the urge to create, both of which seem essential to being human?

Blurb - The Book of Air
Retreating from an airborne virus with a uniquely unsettling symptom, property developer Jason escapes London for his country estate, where he is forced to negotiate a new way of living with an assortment of fellow survivors.

Far in the future, an isolated community of descendants continue to farm this same estate. Among their most treasured possessions are a few books, including a copy of Jane Eyre, from which they have constructed their hierarchies, rituals and beliefs. When 15-year-old Agnes begins to record the events of her life, she has no idea what consequences will follow. Locked away for her transgressions, she escapes to the urban ruins and a kind of freedom, but must decide where her future lies.
Joe Treasure

These two stories interweave, illuminating each other in unexpected ways and offering long vistas of loss, regeneration and wonder. 

The Book of Air is a story of survival, the shaping of memory and the enduring impulse to find meaning in a turbulent world.

About Joe Treasure
Joe Treasure currently lives in South West London with his wife Leni Wildflower. As an English teacher in Wales, he ran an innovative drama programme, before following Leni across the pond to Los Angeles, an experience that inspired his critically acclaimed debut novel The Male Gaze (published by Picador). His second novel Besotted (also published by Picador) also met with rave reviews. 
Visit Joe's website or follow him on Twitter.

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