Steven Maxwell on writing The Dark Confides
The Dark Confides, my second published novel, follows an undercover police officer falling through the topological space of his own fractured psyche and the real-world consequences of his nightmare descent. It is a story overtly concerned with the multiple personalities that drift in and out of the unmapped dark of the subconscious, the faces we wear for different people, different occasions, different mirrors. Maybe mirrors above all. I am not always I. I do not speak like I write. I do not think like I dream. The distinctions are fractal. I read books deeply personal to their authors and so it is my books are deeply personal to me, for fiction must come from a deeply personal place or what’s the point? That this novel is a crime-thriller makes it no less personal, genre simply being a structure to house a story within, a set of predefined rules, tropes, expectations, all of which can and should be altered or shattered or completely ignored.
First I visualise the novel like a film trailer, all these great flashes and bursts of scenes told out of order and with an ominous soundtrack lying heavy over everything. Then research. Then a long outline, the novel itself completely worked-out before the actual writing starts. Characters, plot points, locations, time, weather, internal structure, even the last line, all is known before I begin the first draft, allowing me to ‘see’ the entire novel before writing it. This isn’t to say that things don’t change—they do—and when they do, I rewrite the outline to reflect the changes so the cumulative effect is felt at the outline level, not the draft level, making big changes easier to deal with. Some writers can start a novel with a single sentence or scene and go from there. I can’t. I need a map to know where I’m going or there’s a lot of aimless driving, wrong turns, the inevitable breakdown. Once the first draft is written, then more research to nail specifics, but not too much, this is a work of fiction after all. Fiction heavily reliant on research over imagination and the personal often leaves me cold. It’s at this point, far from where the novel began, that I step back, look dispassionately at what I’ve written, and rethink everything.
The real life stories of undercover police intrigued me only to a point, a point where my imagination hijacked the narrative and I put reality under the prismatic spotlight of fiction to see what mutations would develop from the exposure. Reality may be the way in, but it’s the mutations that hold my gaze. Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police (Rob Evans and Paul Lewis) and The Cartel: The Inside Story of Britain’s Biggest Drugs Gang (Graham Johnson) offered insight, while metaphysician Peter Wessel Zapffe’s 1933 essay The Last Messiah cast a long shadow across the text. Some authors I’m always reading: Martin Amis, JG Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, Raymond Chandler, Dennis Cooper, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, William Faulkner, Denis Johnson, James Joyce, Thomas Ligotti, Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, Matthew Stokoe.
The novel was written concurrently with two others, unrelated, both of which I’m still working on, and I’ve recently begun another novel for a PhD that will further explore the extreme mindscapes of numerous characters, in numerous genres, over one hundred years, and it may be here, through deep reflective analysis, that I learn more of the mind-forged masks we wear like grafts and what I was really thinking when I wrote The Dark Confides.