On one level, this is the easiest question for an author to answer. On another, it’s the hardest.
I guess the simple answer is that I write because I can’t conceive of a life without writing. It’s the only thing I’m good at, the only thing that brings me even a sliver of satisfaction, the only thing that shoves those whirling thoughts of death to the back of my mind. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t write – it’s inconceivable to me; I wouldn’t be good at much else.
On a deeper level, it’s about the transportative function of reading. I’ve wanted to be a writer of fiction since the age of ten and the reason is that by then I was already under the spell of books, of fiction, of stories that take you out of your life and send you on wild adventures, eventually dropping you back off where you started, a somehow different person. I read voraciously as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on, whether it was the Famous Five or Stephen King, Alistair Maclean or Wilbur Smith. Books did something to me that nothing else could approach. They pulled me out of my boring middle-class childhood and thrust me into rich and exotic worlds filled with war or revelation or unimaginable landscapes. Writing is transportation. It is also an escape hatch and we all need an escape hatch. I remember that even during dinner I’d have a book snuck on my lap, snatching furtive sentences and paragraphs between bites. Books changed my world as a child and I wanted to to write books because of that – their power, their transformative nature, the way they allow us to view our lives from the side.
Of course, once you start writing seriously, once you start being published, the reasons modulate and shift. This is true of everything. The reasons I give myself for writing these days are different. I get obsessed with an idea, a theory or a period of history and that obsession grows and gnaws inside me until the only way to release it is to write about it. Whether it’s the question of representation and the Holocaust in my first novel, cults and Greek islands in my second, Africa and the phenomenon of child soldiers in my third or Liberation Theology and the nature of religious activism in my most recent. A novel (which takes two to three years to complete) allows you to indulge your obsession for a period of time befitting it. Delving deep into the universe of old books, articles, newspapers and rumours. There’s nothing better than that. And this brings me to the next reason, perhaps the main reason of why I still write, and that’s that writing, for me, serves as an extended mode of thinking. When I start to write about a subject I think I know what I feel about it, but the nature of writing uncovers deeper layers and allows me to probe the subject on many levels and discover new things. Writing is an exploratory activity, a journey into the deep recesses of one’s thoughts and beliefs, a way to understand the world and one’s self a little bit better.
How I write is a different matter. I nearly always begin with landscape, with setting – knowing where a certain book is set will delineate the parameters of what can and cannot happen within its pages. I’m very interested in the intersection of landscape and consciousness – psychogeography, if you will. Once I know where the novel is set, I read everything I can about that particular place and time. Ideas appear. Notes fill up blank pages. I normally start writing the book when I have the first scene worked out. I don’t know where the novel is going or what the characters will come up against but that’s part of the fun and thrill of exploration. Write what you don’t know you know, I often tell students. I bang out a first draft, or zero draft, very quickly, 4-5 weeks, writing a chapter every day but never looking at the screen, let alone trying to edit. The zero draft is the blank space that allows me to throw out all my ideas and stories and see where they fall.
Then comes the real work – and the real joy – of writing. Revisions. Drafts. I normally end up doing ten drafts per novel, each draft going through the entire book from start to finish. Every draft adds a new layer to the novel. The first few are often concerned with getting the plot shored up. This can take up to a year, sometimes more. It’s normally at this point that I find the gravitational centre of the novel, the core around which all the stray thoughts metaphors, characters and scenes coalesce. Each draft then adds further detail. For me, re-writing is the only time I start to feel good about the book – re-write each sentence 20 or 30 times and eventually something decent slips through. In reality, I only spend about 10% of my time writing and the other 90% re-writing which, I think, is common to most novelists.
Stav Sherez is the author of The Devil’s Playground, The Black Monastery, A Dark Redemption and Eleven Days. From 1999 to 2004 he was a main contributor to the music magazine Comes with a Smile. From December 2006 he has been literary editor of the Catholic Herald.