London Bridge in Plague and Fire

For the past 55 years, David Madden has been writing novels, short stories, poems, and nonfiction. And he hasn't run out of ideas and projects yet.

His latest novel is London Bridge in Plague and Fire, which he's been writing and revising for more than two decades, between other work.

Madden's mind is lit by a kind of awe-inspiring creative flame. I've interviewed him before.This time we focused on both the new book and his creative process, and he was remarkably frank about both the ups and downs of a long career in many genres.

The Q & A

Q: David, this new novel, London Bridge in Plague and Fire, is a much more complex work than the one we talked about before, Abducted by Circumstance. I can't imagine how you kept all that research and all those disparate elements in your mind. You've said elsewhere that you wrote "ten huge drafts." Can you describe that lengthy process for us?

Around 1995, for a year, just before going to bed, I locked myself in my study, as if in my subconscious, and for 10 to 20 minutes each night, I read a few passages in Old London Bridge by Gordon Home, full of old prints of the construction of the bridge in 1177-1209 and its changes over the centuries, and, stimulated by the facts, I wrote as if in a trance, almost literally listening to voices of the architect and of folks who lived in shops and houses on the bridge. Often they spoke surrealistically, so I ended up with 250 handwritten pages of surrealistic passages, from which I intended to derive guidance in writing the epic of the building and history of the bridge. But I submitted the surreal version to Random House, and it was rejected.

While later writing the novel itself I included poems as written by a poet who lived on the sixth floor of the famous Nonsuch House on the bridge. I also submitted without success a collection of those poems, called London Bridge Nocturnes. The first draft of the novel ran 500 pages. Then I decided to write a whole novel only about the building of the bridge. Then I conceived a quartet consisting of London Bridge Rising, London Bridge Is Falling Down, a meshing of those two as London Bridge in Plague and Fire, and London Bridge Nocturnes, well aware it would never get published. Each of the three novel versions went through two or three major revisions.

I kept all their disparate elements clearly in mind because that's how my mind normally works. I am, in a sense, myriad-minded.

Q: The "feel" of the book, its language and dialogues, suits the long-ago eras you're writing about. How did you get that to work?

I gathered and read about 1,000 books of and about the 12th and the 17th centuries, and soon felt an affinity for the language and dialogue. Some of it, in tone and syntax, is somewhat made up, imagined. From start to finish, the language felt natural to me, rather than a conscious striving to get it to work.

Q: Was it ever a challenge to know when to veer off the historical record? Did the historical record ever feel confining, or did it offer you the leeway you needed to tell a good story?

The wild freedom of the surrealistic sensibility enabled me to move without challenge back and forth at great ease from the vast array of actual history to imaginative elaboration and deliberate distortion of history. I reveled in the historical record as readily as in my bizarre subconscious, so that the “leeway” lay in the mingling and meshing of the two.

Q: Were there surprises for you during the writing of this book and getting it published?

The flow of creative energy, especially in moments of revision, just naturally gives rise frequently to surprise. When I re-read each draft, I was continually surprised, wondering how and when I wrote a particular word, phrase, paragraph, or episode. When a new idea for a major revision in structure or in expanding a character wells up out of my subconscious, I experience surprise.

Because I was convinced as I wrote them that several of my novels, including this one, would never get published, I was not surprised that the many editors who rejected them declared that they were “very fine, brilliant, but won't sell, being inaccessible to the general reader.” I was surprised not only when each of them was finally accepted but that readers found them accessible and, after some adjustment to their strangenesses, very enjoyable.

Q: Would you like to say something about the psychology of your books, and about what you like to write best, psychologically deep fiction or plot-driven fiction? Both, I figure.

Of course you are right, for most of my 12 novels—psychological and plot-driven, sometimes both at once, London Bridge in Plague and Fire being less plot-driven than complexly psychological. The novel before this one, Abducted by Circumstance, was deeply, uniquely psychological, confined to the mind and compassionate imagination of a woman. In the current book, I delve into the mental processes of six very different characters, while simultaneously involving them in actions that are psychologically revealing.

As Wright Morris said, “The drama of narrative event interests me far less than the drama of human consciousness,” which is, of course, a fitful mirroring of the subconscious.

Q: This book exemplifies so much about the creative process and the uses of the imagination. Are you aware of that while you're writing or does that stuff just find its way into your fiction "naturally"?

“Naturally” is the key word in my response because the subject of all my writing in all genres is implicitly the nature of imagination and its effect upon my reader, as my attentive collaborator. And it is the techniques of art that facilitate that effect, the experience that the reader has, emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually, a trinity.

Q: What role does poetry play in this book, and in your life?

In a book about my writings, David Madden: A Writer for All Genres, George Garrett makes a case for my poetry, stressing its variety of subject and technique, citing my unpublished collection Venice is Sinking as example. Those two elements help explain why I can't get that volume published, while continuing to publish each poem I write. I imagine poets, who recommend poetry manuscripts, much prefer to publish poets, especially emerging ones, unless the novelist-poet has a close friend involved in publishing poetry. More than novelists, poets network tightly. I am very happy that readers over the past 55 years have always declared, “Your style is so poetic!”

Q: Are there still stories you'd like to write? How do you stay motivated?

In a vital sense, my whole life, in my many roles as father, husband, teacher, activist, writer is one unbroken motivation to create, in one way, one genre or another, always reaching, never stumbling over writer's block. At 79, I like being able to answer that I am currently deep into seven books simultaneously, and screenwriting. Two nonfiction titles are suggestive: My Intellectual Life in the Army, a memoir, and Myriadmindedness, a revolutionary method of feeling, imagining, and thinking.

Q: I'm busy myself finishing up details for the publication of my own first novel, Kylie's Heel. After so many revisions, I'm very pleased that I won't have to immerse myself in it again. Do you ever feel that way once you've sent a final draft off to your publisher, that, oh goody, I get to move on to something new?

I never tire of revision, the vein system of the living organism of a fictive body, and so I am never glad to relinquish a novel to a publisher. But, yes, that act ignites a fiery desire to finish one of the several works in progress, the one that leaps up out of the file cabinet and seizes me by the throat.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

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