Finishing a novel, for me, has been a matter of total isolation and recursive composition. I lock myself away somewhere and, while writing the end of the first draft, simultaneously attempt to catch my own narrative tail with the second and third drafts. But then, I've only written three; doubtless by the time I reach number ten, I'll find myself tap-happy in the Piazza San Marco while chatting to my agent on a sugar-cube-sized mobile phone.
In the past, I've ended it all at friends' houses in Orkney and Dartmouth, but this time I terminated in the Barle Suite of the Carnarvon Arms Hotel outside Dulverton in West Somerset. There were logistic reasons for this - to do with kids and half-term - but the Carnarvon Arms was well nigh perfect for creative ones as well. There's a peculiar sense in which all fiction-writers are political exiles. We like to be incognito, we like to infest other's worlds, we are observers, and we are waiters - biding our time until the book-sized passport can be obtained from the muse in the trench coat.
This country hotel, off-season, festooned with stags' heads, foxes' heads and the heads of just about anything else that could be fitted on a wall, was exile incarnate. The large lounges were stuffed with empty armchairs; at breakfast, I was the sole kipper-eater. I arrived on the Monday evening and didn't set foot outside the front door until I left on the Thursday. Apart from good solid meals in the bar, I played the plastic piano in the superbly neutral atmosphere of my suite, the Barle Suite. I began to feel such a fixture myself that I even considered buying one of the rustic headscarves on display in a glass case in the lobby. Every night as the hours grew small, I expected a tap on the door and a whispered imprecation: "Meester Self, it is time for us to go! Tonight I will smuggle you across the border and into Devon!"
It wasn't until the Wednesday that I learnt quite why it was that everything was feeling so right at the Carnarvon Arms. Up in London, my wife was reading the first two-thirds of the MS. The novel features a depiction of a purgatorial London, in which my protagonist experiences life after death in a northern suburb dubbed "Dulston" (there's also a southern suburb called "Dulburb"). "Hasn't it struck you as rather odd," she said on the phone, "that you're completing the book in Dulverton?" Cue for a creepy Outer Limits-style signature tune. Pulling together the multifarious strands of a long narrative involves a desperate attempt to control the horizontal and the vertical, but as one hacks one's way through the descriptive undergrowth, there seems no prospect of relief at all. With this novel, the tree cover appeared dense beyond belief. Right up until typing the final full stop, I couldn't see how the hell I was going to get out of the place. Then, at last, there was the longed-for epiphany. It's as if, having struggled to ascend a mountain, never looking back for fear of being discouraged by a lack of progress, you turn on the summit and see the entire terrain spread out below. I'm not claiming that this landscape appeared beautiful to me - but at last it was manifestly there.
Back in London, I gathered together the MS and went into town to have copies made for Liz Calder, my English publisher at Bloomsbury. My seven year old, Madeleine, was charged with the all-important task of MS portage. This she took very seriously - there was to be a celebratory visit to Hamleys afterwards. We were standing in the reception area at Bloomsbury, when one of the staff arrived to take the other copies. Suddenly, the novel was gone.
No doubt, within a matter of months, the demure muse I nurtured will have become a slovenly jade, prepared to climb on to the bar and simulate masturbation with a beer bottle for the grotesque titillation of the punters.
When I finished my previous novel, Great Apes (which was about a parallel world in which chimpanzees rather than humans were the successful primate species), in the months running up to publication, everywhere I looked there appeared references to the great apes. Advertising hoardings, television documentaries, T-shirts - all were blazoned with orang-utans, gorillas and chimps.
When I told movie buffs the subject of the book, they would nod wearily and say: "Of course, you realise there's a remake of Planet of the Apes in production right now?" Whatever happened to that, I wonder?
At least with this novel there could be no such pre-publication delusions. Its themes - mortality, Jewish anti-Semitism and the death of modernity - are both too specific and too general to be encompassed by the short-term zeitgeist. Or so I thought until, within hours of delivering the MS, I found myself driving through Notting Hill Gate between ranks of Hasidim who had massed outside the Czech Embassy to protest against the destruction of the Jewish cemetery in Prague. To make their point ultra-clear, they had set up a series of black-swagged plinths, on top of which they had placed life-size plastic skeletons. Looks like it's time to sandbag the wilder shores of my imagination and tackle a more prosaic subject. Perhaps a novel about a man who lives in the Barle Suite of the Carnarvon Arms near Dulverton?
The novel "How the Dead Live" will be published by Bloomsbury in June