For a long, long time, The Bone People was my favourite work of fiction. I haven’t been back to it for a long while, but found a battered copy again recently and have started it again. As I started it I was wondering whether it’d fit into that “I enjoyed it when I was a teenager but I’ve grown up now” thing – but instead I’m being reminded what a blindingly original, beautifully deep roller-coaster of a story it is.
I did a quick Google search for the author, Keri Hulme – and landed on this page which describes in some detail the astonishing journey behind the novel. Hulme won the Booker Prize with The Bone People in 1985, and also published a selection of short stories which I’ve also read (and recommend) but apart from that her literary career has been somewhat sparse. It seems amazing in some ways that an author who writes with the extraordinary scope and creativity represented in The Bone People hasn’t been more prolific, but this is explained perhaps by the obsession which obviously drove her to write it in the first place. According to the piece on the New Zealand Book Council site, one of the three characters of the novel, Simon Peter, a mute boy of unknown age and origin, began haunting Hulme’s dreams an incredible 17 years before she wrote and found success with the novel. The article describes the journey she took – and in particular how this character kept appearing in some form in her short stories, being slowly moulded into the person he is in the final work. It also explains how Hulme had to fight to keep the original text as various editors and publishers tried to cull it.
I found this stuff very interesting from a budding writers’ perspective – not only does it make me feel better about the long time it seems to be taking me to pull together a chunky piece of fiction, but also that this strange, ongoing, intimate relationship with the characters you’re writing about seems to be quite common amongst those of us trying to write a novel. I think a lot about my main protagonist, Palmer while I’m out and about – and find I’m very often coming back to ask: “what would he do here? how would he react now? can I use this somehow?”. Hulme’s obsession with this lost boy character was obviously hugely intense and drove her through nearly two decades of writing before arriving at some kind of end-point. I don’t dream about my characters (yet..!) but find it fascinating that they occupy large chunks of my thinking time. As a reasonably new arrival in the land of fiction writing, I also find it reassuring that this process of writing can go on over a long period of time and still reach some kind of satisfying and rounding conclusion.