This article was originally published in 'Discover' magazine, issue 48, summer 2023.
Words: Colin McIlroy.
– Manuscripts Curator, Colin McIlroy
"There is far more to creative writing than just to sit down to write and simply vent your feelings," said Muriel Spark, one of Scotland's most prominent 20th century novelists. This was written in an essay about how the craft of poetry was a crucial step towards her career as a novelist, but the quote also speaks to the kind of work involved in novel writing, as well as the habits and idiosyncrasies unique to Spark's writing process.
For example, she wrote the first drafts of all of her novels by hand but did not settle for any old notebook or nearby paper; no, she had a fondness for a specific type of notebook ('Bothwell spirals') that was sold only by a stationer in Edinburgh called James Thin. These spiral-bound notebooks contained 72 pages of lined paper, upon which Spark would write only on the recto (right-hand side), leaving the other side empty for potential revisions.
Even after Spark moved away from the UK in the early 1960s, she would still request and use these exact notebooks in whichever European or American city or province to which she had relocated. There is a receipt in the archive showing her bulk order of 48 Bothwell spirals.
Perhaps Spark's deep attachment to the notebooks derives from a place of nostalgia for her first home (Edinburgh), or the kind of superstitious, writerly quirk that attributes good fortune to certain materials or rituals (Spark admits to such eccentricities when she says she can only use pens that have been touched by her alone).
But equally as compelling are the practical constraints that the notebooks imposed on her novel writing. For instance, most of Spark's manuscripts take up just five James Thin notebooks and the manuscript usually concludes at the very end of the fifth notebook. There are, of course, exceptions: Spark's two longer novels, 'The Mandelbaum Gate' and 'The Takeover', required far more space and therefore paper than the others. However, for the most part, it appears that these writing materials informed if not entirely determined the length and pace of the novels.
Spark became so dependent on these notebooks that when Thin discontinued them in the early 90s, she contacted the company to enquire about the possibility of acquiring notebooks that resembled, as close as possible, her beloved Bothwell spirals. To Spark's delight, Thin responded by producing – in consultation with Spark – custom-made notebooks.
"You are indeed an angel!'" writes Spark in reply to Hilary Thin (then regional director of the Scottish branch), who had been liaising with several companies to gather the materials needed to construct Spark's ideal notebook.
The enterprise was successful. "This will be just right," says Spark, "I am so happy and regard them as the true Spark-Thin notebooks."
Before she began writing her latest novel inside her treasured notebooks, she would research the topics or settings explored in her burgeoning narrative.
Having written several books of literary biography and criticism on writers such as Mary Shelley and the Brönte sisters well before she became famous as a novelist, Spark was no stranger to research.
Her 20th novel, 'Reality and Dreams' – about a controlling film director recently made redundant – draws on an eclectic mix of cultural, political and historical environments and contexts including the film industry, the nature of labour and employment, and the distant world of Roman Britain.
The archive shows that Spark consulted, among other things, book titles such as 'On Filmmaking', 'Filmmaking Foundations', and 'The Film Director as Superstar', plus books on make-up and special effects.
Curiously, the archive also contains a newspaper clipping of an interview with Harrison Ford who is, according to the article writer, "well known for involving himself in every aspect of [film] production". The interview, published two years before the appearance of 'Reality and Dreams', likely contributed to the creation or development of Tom Richards, the tyrannical film director at the heart of the novel.
When Spark did start writing, another project hummed in the background, managed by her close friend and living companion, Penelope Jardine. This was the creation of 'Character Lists' containing not only an index of every character that appears in the novel, but also individual lists pertaining to each character that traces their appearances and actions throughout their time in the narrative.
These lists were compiled alongside Spark's writing and though it is unclear how exactly she used them, their value is obvious – as well as ensuring the continuity of the narrative (consistent physical descriptions for characters, maintaining a logical sequence of events), the lists also helped her discover traits in her characters that she could then flesh out: "I can sort of pick out a characteristic and this is a way you can build up a personality."
Jardine also proofread Spark's drafts, all the way up to the final proof copies. While Spark's manuscript would be scrutinised by her publisher's editorial team, she clearly trusted and respected Jardine's opinion enough to let her also apply her keen and critical eye to the text.
Jardine is precise –in the proof copy of 'Reality and Dreams' she questions whether something the protagonist said early in the novel contradicts something said 100 pages later (it did not, but Spark must have appreciated the attention to detail).
Though Jardine's editorial interventions were relatively minimal, the dedicated work she performed behind the scenes for any given Spark project (she even made suggestions for book blurbs) shows that 'secretary' – a word often used to describe Jardine's professional relationship with Spark – is something of a misnomer. The kind of care and support she bestowed on Spark's work reflects not only the duties of an administrative assistant, but the enthusiasm and thorough inspection of a fellow artist (Jardine is a painter and sculptor).
Writing, as Spark says, is far from simple, and her archive is a testament to that, containing as it does fascinating stories about all the different kinds of work (and play!) that come together in the act of storytelling.
Writing is, for the most part, a solitary activity and Spark was protective of her individual writing style, quick to correct any interference, accidental or otherwise, with her finely wrought compositions. As she said to – or warned – a publisher in the 1980s: "I'm famous for my austerity in proofreading".
But the archive highlights that writing is full of collaboration –whether it is the annotations of a close friend, the provision of bespoke writing materials, chance encounters with news items or the unexpected rabbit-holes of research, Spark's writing is borne of, and animated by, dialogues with others.
Extracts from materials held in the Muriel Spark Archive are quoted by permission of the Spark Estate, and with the kind assistance of Penelope Jardine.
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