Writing Vernon God Little made me a crash test dummy for metaphors: bull by the horns, taking the plunge, going for broke. The job was a deliberate dive into an abyss before I could come to my senses. But if you’re teetering on the edge of writing a first book, take note: I recommend it. Leap before you look. The tools do appear.
I was out of work in London at the time, due not only to a mystifying arts CV but the wrong hair and a shortfall of buzzwords. I hadn’t much to lose, which removed some excess pressure, and my cultural life stretched to a chat with the fruiterer on Streatham High Road – so there was time. More crucially I was soaked in feelings, 20 years of them, maybe the kind a writer secretes until the lid blows off and he writes something. Then a trigger came in the form of a TV news clip, which gave the feelings a voice.
The first step on the slippery slope was realising writing a novel wouldn’t be one job. I found a lime at a stall in Balham, which was the rarest lime I’d ever tasted, full of zing without being sour, and I decided that this was how the book should taste. It was such an enigmatic thing that I couldn’t think of a mechanism, so I just aimed to get all the words down, see how they tasted and adjust them. I’m someone who ordinarily wouldn’t get past page one if it wasn’t right, I had to make a rule to ignore everything but the word count, and write like the wind. I wrote a hundred thousand words in a few weeks flat and felt as if I’d written a book. The problem was I couldn’t afford to look in case it was gibberish.
Job two: get over the gibberish and look. And there were glimmers in there, there was a strong, spicy voice, the spirit of the book was flowing; but nothing really happened, which brought the season of job three: turn all the talking into a world, make it move and interact, make it thwart and thwart and thwart things till the end. Back in the beginning, throwing caution to the wind, I’d felt that whatever came out in the first draft would be the whole artwork, flowing along spontaneously like a performance. But I now found I was wrong: the spirit was written for me, but the glimmers themselves wanted the effort of a structure, a shape to live and breathe in. There were seeds already there in the blur of the pages, so I dug them up, extracting each one into a document of its own to expand in isolation.
I think this was probably doing it backwards, but it managed the focus of the work, made the book a contraption that could be polished piece by piece, a barrel organ you could start to crank and hear little pipe blasts from. It might be common in new writers to imagine that a book will – or should – tumble out in all its dimensions from the start, but this expectation alone is probably why so much great potential work is still in a drawer somewhere. Getting the job of words out of the way, good or bad, gave me a mass of raw material to mould into shape. The book itself knew what it wanted to be, there was a tailwind behind some parts more than others, which showed the direction of travel.
I just followed, chasing the lime.
• Vernon God Little won the Booker prize in 2003. Meanwhile in Dopamine City is published by Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.