Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Enter At Your Own Risk:
This is the house that Pauline built

b y   p a u l i n e   h o l d s t o c k,   c a n a d a

EDITOR'S NOTE: Pauline Holdstock read from her novel, House, at the April
2005 anniversary event for
Margin in Vancouver during the AWP conference.
We struck up a delightful conversation about her magical experience of watching
the house in her novel come to life during one of the most chaotic periods in her
own life—early motherhood. The following essay by Holdstock captures the
otherworldliness of what is typically thought of in Western culture as the most
ordinary landscape—the day-to-day world of a stay-at-home mother. Which only
goes to show that, no matter what life station an author resides within at the time
he or she pens a manuscript, the process of writing magical realism can be as
extraordinary as the story elements themselves.—
TKS, Margin

THIS IS how your day begins:
“a baby crying and porridge burning and all the small shoes not cleaned
and the phone ringing and the cat walking by with a bird and it still
flapping…dear God! The shining day all trampled, muddied somewhere
underneath the torn ski jacket and the spilled box of Cheerios out in
the hall.”
At least, that was how my days began when I was writing my novel, House—under duress. The quotation comes from one of my own short stories, "Lost and Found," and for me still perfectly nails the sense of hopeless domestic clutter and chaos.

“There were so many babies, finding the time did become a problem.
It did not help at all to know that time and space were curved.”
Time, I imagined, was a fast-moving track carrying me, rushing me, to the end of my life. I saw writing time as an empty room I could step into, a spare minimalist cube upon the track.
“…inside the cube space was cornered, time suspended and everything
was possible—even falling off the track, which could be dreamed here in
immunity, no repercussions ever.”

Daily, I imposed a kind of shut-down on my so-called ‘real’ life when I stepped into the imaginary cube. For two hours each afternoon, the entire household fell silent—well, almost—and held its breath in a kind of suspended animation while I wrote my book.

Under these conditions, writer’s block is not an option. There simply is no space for day-dreaming or measured consideration. There is no musing, no planning. Asked at the time, ‘What are you writing?’ I doubt if I could have given a coherent answer. Propelled by a demented motivation, I aimed for my desk each day with that exaggerated forward momentum that drunks have, wrote blindly for two hours and re-emerged to change the baby’s diapers and start another load of laundry. (It reminded me of the joke about the room in hell where everyone is standing knee deep in excrement drinking tea—until one of the devils comes back and says, “OK. Tea break over. Back on your heads.”)

As if to economize on thinking time, my subconscious had delivered the impetus for the book while I was asleep. It arrived one morning on waking, in the shape of a spoken, a heard, sentence—two, in fact—fully formed:

She knocked the snails from the pantry shelf. ‘Tough titty, Tots,’ she said.

The language was so certain, so sure of itself…and so was the sense of a whole, as yet unseen, world behind it. I wrote it down and for a long time—until one of the later edits, when it was shifted and rearranged—it stood at the head of the book in what I still think of as the first sentence. From those words, I wrote to find out what kind of house not only had a pantry but kept snails in it; and who was that spiteful antagonist and who was the pitiful Tots? My dreaming self had even told me how to do it. The word ‘knocked’ was a loud hint. I went knocking on doors for my story.

What emerged was a story that unfolded within the crumbling walls of a London house the day after tomorrow. A catastrophe, cheerfully referred to as ‘the Mishap’, has devastated society but the Master, his family and his servants are scrambling to continue as before. Amid the devastation, they prepare for their annual day trip to the sea. Thirteen-year-old Tots, told that she was found as a newborn on the doorstep, embarks instead on a quest to find the missing half of her indenture papers. Each room, from the cobwebby attic, to the moldering cellar, hides its own secret, including, in one of them, the Master’s plan to destroy the House.

“Time and identity are what we write about when we create. Only, when we create, they do not exist.” That’s one of my favourite quotations. It’s Gertrude Stein getting at the heart of the creative process. It’s related to another great paradox at the heart of fiction: only when we lose ourselves completely do we begin to find ourselves.

For my book’s spinal narrative, a search—since I hadn’t a clue where I was going—seemed to be an obvious choice. I would send this Tots character on a search. Since I didn’t know who she was, she could search for her identity. (Why she had to or who she would turn out to be were not questions I had time for just then.) For a setting, I chose a house I knew well, a decaying Georgian relic, several storeys high, in the heart of London.

With these bare bones, I sat down to write each day for two hours. I sent Tots knocking on doors. My only ‘plan’ was that she would visit each room in the house in sequence, discovering the inhabitants as she went (she would have to, since I hadn’t a clue who they might be). It was one of the most exhilarating writing experiences I’ve had: to sit down at a desk blind and to reach, still blind, for the doorknob; then to open the door to be able to see, to meet someone new. I would watch the new character form right there on the page. It was for me something like seeing fireworks bloom in a dark sky. Out of nowhere! And then, look, there’s another one!

Of course, there was nothing magical about it at all. The time constraints, the rigid ‘house’ framework, and my own compressed attention conspired to put me in that state of concentrated ‘play’ (1) where creativity flourishes. It’s a place poets go to all the time, a place where severe constraints lead to liberation. Not surprisingly, metaphors abounded, from the library, whose books held only decomposing pages and mouse turds, and where a single computer screen glowed eerily; to the sea, the ancient conundrum of water changing, unchanged. I was at large in my own psyche, accessing long-buried memories and moving them through my own subconscious fields of fears and hopes and dreams.

The characters, of course, had been there all along, waiting behind closed doors:

The Woman in Silk, dangerous double-edged earth goddess, spending her days spurting milk and devouring infants; the Old Lady, masticating tidbits for her scrofulous lap dog; the Master, holding sway by the power of his pin-striped pants and the snapping of his shiny crocodile toecaps. There was Mr. Hawkin, the softly batty clock collector on the top floor, and Mrs. Phelum, the terminally congenial cook, in the kitchen. MacMillan, the undertaker’s man, drove the bus for the day out; he had his eye on Morgan-the-Not-Very-Fey, amazonian ex-safe breaker and alcoholic who wore the parlour maid’s costume of French farce. Unlikely as these characters seem, I can trace them all. It was no accident, considering the babies crawling at my feet, that I gave Cali, with her necklace of bones and her maternal amnesia, 27 children.

At the time, it seemed somewhat risky, to embark on a book without having the faintest idea where I was going. I might end with nothing more that a bizarre cast of characters, a jumble of props. Opening more blank doors required a degree of trust. In practice, because the experience was a source of daily delight, it wasn’t hard to make that commitment. The two hours would fill with sudden surprises, fresh connections, resonances, epiphanies. As the connections developed, I found myself beginning to deal with some of the current issues that troubled me most. The process not only gave me a story and a theme, it taught me the value of leaving my rational editing self outside the door while I write.

For the fact that I emerged with a book at all, let alone one that cohered and was publishable, I have to hand it to the subconscious, admirable old trouper who, whether we are listening or not, goes on with the show. And I have to thank the babies who distracted me long enough for it to sneak on stage.

Read an excerpt from House.


(1) In an address, Translation and the Oulipo presented to the French Institute in London and subsequently published subsequently in Brick Magazine, Harry Matthews has written about the value of writing under challenging self-imposed constraints. ‘Thanks to the impossible rules,’ he says, ‘we find ourselves doing and saying things we would never have imagined otherwise, things that often turn out to be exactly what we need to reach our goal.’ Exactly.



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