Years ago, 20 years in fact, I started writing my first novel. It didn’t start out as a novel. I had no idea it would actually be a book—an object—edited, designed, printed, bound, promoted and distributed by a proper publisher.
What was I writing? A series of fragments. Little stories that coalesced around the mysteries of migration, spiritual belief and imagination. Thoughts about a character inspired by my grandmother, but not her. A woman who left behind the Old World and ventured to the New World. Who was rural and became urban. Who was Italian and became Australian. Who lived through those colossal disruptions of war, technology and feminism.
I wrote, mostly in my notebook while commuting to work by bus, hoping for London’s best traffic jams. The story grew by slow accretion, like a hailstone. I scribbled and researched on weekends and late nights.
One holiday in Australia, I got deep into libraries, old newspapers and migrant mementos. Italian Australians told me their stories, handed me notes. Octogenarians in village Italy were willing participants in oral history.
Back in London, I was urged on by a gathering of near-strangers who had met in a creative writing evening class and couldn’t bear to lose each other after the course finished. We met at The Three Johns pub every week, without teacher or institution. None of us had been published. We gathered upstairs, beyond an obstacle course, on sticky floors, surrounded by junk. The arrangement was unofficial and it was free.
We workshopped our stories in progress. The story that became Matilde Waltzing was read out there in tentative weekly instalments. The book is dedicated to my darling grandmother Clementina, with thanks to my family and The Three Johns writers.
We continue to meet, almost every week, 20 years on. The venue has changed, and the group has changed, like the sock that is darned so much over time that we can hardly call it the same sock.
But we are the same old sock, really. Roger Levy and I, the only two from the earliest days, have continued to write, to meet, to give and take feedback, without hierarchy, house style or negativity. That spirit continues with all the people who have joined and stayed over the years. Many of us are published now.
It was Roger who first suggested I try exploring the character that eventually took form as Matilde. I had no sense of story—some would say I still don’t—but I was interested in character. And in this case it was the character who drove the story. I wanted the narrative to be fragmentary in form, like the protagonist’s life journey, a series of dislocations. There are different voices and times. It is not a straightforward tale. I’ve always loved books (and films and artworks…) that are disruptive.
The raw manuscript won me the literary agent I wanted, and the publisher I wanted, in one fell swoop. I had no idea how lucky I was. I edited, and rewrote, and edited, in the butt-ends of days left by my more-than-full-time job as creative director. I had one single night to proof the galleys, starting in the late evening after work and finishing in the morning just as it was time to go to work again.
The book—the physical object—was published in Australia in September 1997. It was reviewed in more than 30 publications, from national broadsheets to niche magazines—dieting one week, business investment the next. There were interviews on TV and radio, some in English, some in my nervous Italian. Most of the responses were enthusiastic. Some were not. This is the risk of any creative work that gets out from under your wing. You must be sensitive enough to dream it up in the first place; then you must be insensitive enough to withstand rejection or indifference.
The only constant thing about luck is its inconstancy. My publisher had distribution issues. A new distributor came on board. A container of books vanished. There’s something poetic about tales of migration in a lost container. I was one of nine authors whose books became ‘out of print’ overnight. Matilde Waltzing now existed, as an object, only in the homes of its buyers, or at rare-book prices, or in my cupboard.
I say that I was “one of nine authors” whose books were lost. But I didn’t really think of myself as a writer until very recently, when it occurred to me that the necessary evidence had been gathered… Published fiction, non-fiction and journalism. Script consultancy. Creative writing teaching. Roles as writing judge, mentor, examiner and board director. And a day-job that is mostly about, er, writing.
So what does this self-identifying writer want with the first thing she wrote 20 or so years ago? I’ll tell you a thing: apart from the occasional extract at a book launch, I hadn’t actually read Matilde Waltzing since it became a bound object.
And then comes another event that I can only attribute to luck. It’s 2015. A stranger calls out of the blue to ask where she can get copies of Matilde Waltzing. She was helping a friend move house, and noticed the book, the physical object, probably in a box marked ‘op shop’. (That’s Aussie for ‘charity shop’.) She had a quick browse and decided that it looked interesting for her book club.
My friend, the writer Sam Patterson to whom The TV President is dedicated, used to say: “Even if your book is out of print, it’s like an empty lot on the edge of town—you never know when someone will come along and notice it. They might even do something with it.”
So Matilde Waltzing is out of print. And a book club wants it, nearly 20 years after its first incarnation. Thank God, or Saint Barbara of the Apparition, for the technological revolution. Physical objects have their place, but now we stream films, download music, and read e-books. We have virtual objects. Reincarnation.
I’ve spent much of this summer getting to know Matilde again. It’s a strange experience, like meeting a younger self, and meeting a stranger at the same time. The protagonist is not me, not at all. But the story, and the storytelling, are a version of me. I have resisted the desire to edit and rewrite. The book was written by a different person in a different time. I have no desire to mess with its works now.
But I confess. I have done some editing. My creative writing students would sue me for those moments where I failed to practise what I preach. And that single night of long-distance galley-proofing left some typos unchecked. I have edited with a light hand. Tweaks, stitches, snippets.
One conspicuous change made possible by e-publishing is this: the story of Barbara, the saint I invented for Matilde, is now in her own digital niche, and I have cut her down to size, just a bit. So if you have an appetite for “a certain playful gold-leafed tone” (as my publisher at BareBone Books puts it), or palimpsest, or magical fragment, her hagiography is still here, prefiguring the story of Matilde. But it’s not a prologue any more, so it doesn’t stand physically in the way of the main story.
What’s next? I hope to hear from the book club in Oz. And from my creative writing students, past and present. And from my ‘old sock’ co-writers, whom I see once a week, all of us armed with work in progress. And from my other readers, wherever they are. This virtual book is not bound to Australia. Like a fictional saint I know, this virtual book has wings.
Elise Valmorbida grew up Italian in Australia but fell in love with London. She is the author of acclaimed literary novels Matilde Waltzing, The TV President and The Winding Stick, and award-winning script-consultant/producer of indie Britfilm SAXON. Her non-fiction includes SAXON – The Making of a Guerrilla Film, and The Book of Happy Endings, now published in four languages and four continents. Elise teaches creative writing at Central Saint Martin’s and Arvon. She is founder-director of communications consultancy word-design, board director of writers organisation 26, and External Examiner for the MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. Elise is currently developing an inspirational non-fiction guide for creative writing. Her latest work (forthcoming in 2016) is a historical novel inspired by folklore and family stories.
You can find Elise on Facebook here.