On Sheds and Cathedrals

NITRB editor Ellen Lavelle on turning literary sheds into literary cathedrals

In a recent episode of the podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, novelist Sadie Jones describes the writing process as like setting out to build a beautiful cathedral and, by the end of the first draft, having a perfectly serviceable garden shed. 

‘As a novelist, whether or not you plan ahead, before you put a word on the page, it’s perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s the platonic version,’ Jones tells Elizabeth Day. ‘The moment there’s a first sentence, it’s a sentence and then you’ve got a book. That’s an ongoing thing and the more I write, the more part of the job is silencing the inner critic and taking the risk.’ 

Every reader has their own idea of what constitutes a literary ‘cathedral’. When readers judge a book, it’s rare that we’re able to consider it from exactly the same perspective. Land is uneven, our positions precarious. We have our own prejudices to wade through. When we approach a cathedral, we’re always coming from somewhere. Our direction of travel changes our perspectives. As do changes in light; the time of day; the moment in our lives. 

Consider Lincoln Cathedral: one of the most impressive medieval buildings in the country. If you drive towards it from the North, you’ll see only the tops of the towers, poking out above the Victorian old town. You’ll see the Chapter House and the statue of Tennyson first. If you drive up from the South, you’ll see the whole thing on the top of the hill – the towers, the windows, the buttresses – staring down the castle.  

Our perspective changes what we see, but there are some constructions in the literary landscape that are non-negotiable. Some monuments that you can’t go over or go under but have to acknowledge, plough through. Not simply because they amass an incredible word count or because they sold a lot of copies but because, in a world that is changing constantly, they are still there. They might adapt, have wings extended or knocked down so they fit in with our modern lives, but they’re still standing, informing the other constructions growing around them. I’m thinking here of The Lord of the Rings, of James Bond and Harry Potter. I’m thinking of creations that are not just books but literary estates. Books we’re still buying, movies we still watch. Release dates we commemorate with anniversary editions and extended features, directors’ cuts and bonus content. What did it take to elevate these creations – ink stains on a page – to consecration? What does it say about us that we invest so much time, money, faith in these productions? And to what extent can we trace the result – vast sprawling empires, devout followers, pilgrimages to holy sites – to one person: a writer, with an idea and a pen. 

A cathedral takes a lot of people a long time to build. In 1072, William the Conqueror ordered Bishop Remigius to build a Cathedral in Lincoln. There was already a Motte and Bailey castle: the medieval equivalent of an Ikea flat-pack . Motte and Baileys were constructed quickly, in strategic locations, to supress localities and demonstrate the strength of the new king. But cathedrals are different. To build a cathedral, you need stone and blind faith.

The cathedral built by Remigius took twenty years. It was a Norman construction with a wooden roof: small and plain compared to the cathedral now standing in its place. There were problems – the roof burned down, was replaced by stone and then, unfit to carry the weight, the walls caved in during an earthquake in 1185. Only the west front survived. 

Though this initial phase was fairly disastrous, it was the start of a process. Bishop Remiguis, the man behind it all, is now buried in the cathedral but, as a guide informed me, no one knows exactly where he is. There are at least two tombs within the cathedral building that could contain his remains, but no one is sure which one it is. The architect, the man behind it all, has been lost. 

J.R.R. Tolkien started working on The Lord of the Rings in 1937, under instruction from his publishers to create ‘another Hobbit’. However, in the foreword to the second edition, he writes that he ‘desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration…’ In February 1952, Ian Fleming began working on the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, to distract himself from his upcoming wedding. He finished the first draft in just over a month and, unimpressed, gave it to an ex-girlfriend to read. Similarly underwhelmed, she advised him that if he insisted on getting it published he really ought to do so under a pseudonym. 

The Lord of the Rings and the James Bond franchise are cinematic phenomena. Though Tolkien and Fleming were the original authors of the books, Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis, Albert R. Broccoli and Sean Connery, are names as closely associated with the stories and characters. Both The Lord of the Rings and Fleming’s Bond have had subsequent literary spin-offs penned by other authors. Christopher Tolkien continued the stories left unfinished by his father and Kingsley AmisSebastian FaulksJeffery DeaverWilliam Boyd, and Anthony Horowitz have all written their own Bond missions. With each new instalment, either on page or screen, the characters have to adapt to context. The idea of scantily-clad Bond Girls draped over tuxedoed white men doesn’t seem quite as fun in 2019 as it did in 1962. The female characters Arwen and Éowyn were expanded in the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings, while producers created an entirely new female elf, Tauriel, for the Hobbit movies. Original plans no longer fit for purpose, walls too weak to hold stone roofs. Sometimes, things have to be knocked down, part extended. The original architect – Bishop Remigius with his contentious tombs – still present, but not always corporeal. 

There have now been twenty-six Bond films, starring seven actors in the titular role. The franchise is the fourth-highest-grossing film series in the world, beaten only by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and the Wizarding World films. Which leads us to J.K. Rowling, sitting on a train in 1990, travelling from Manchester to London King’s Cross. Most people know the story, that suddenly the idea for Harry Potter arrived in her head, that she scribbled it all down on the back of a napkin. That napkin turned into books, movies, theme parks. 

If you go on J.K. Rowling’s website, you’ll see it’s designed to be a computerised aerial shot of her desk. On the desk, among keyrings, candles, pictures of her dog, are open notebooks showing her plans for her books. They’re written in black biro, on lined paper. Motte and Bailey. Scroll down and you’ll see a script book, open on scenes from one of the Fantastic Beasts movies. There’s black biro all over that too, detailing Rowling’s suggested changes on line for actors. I’m a Harry Potter fan – I grew up with the franchise and believe wholeheartedly in the magic a black biro can create. However, the leap from biro and napkin to page, from page to screen, relies on the belief and faith of other people. That’s how sheds become cathedrals. 

I’m not a religious person but I like going to cathedrals. To me, they symbolise not the glory of God, but the glory of what an ordinary, sweating human can do with a hammer and chisel. I don’t believe in magic but I believe in the power of belief. Medieval builders lived in conditions that we would find unbearable – poor sanitation, scarce food, no real healthcare. Any yet, their faith in life – in God and the spiritual – made them get up, heave brick upon brick, set stained glass in lead, carve dragons and imps into stonework. Faith is hard work. 

Every year, people go to parties dressed up as Hobbits, James Bond, Harry Potter. Bestselling books are bestsellers because people buy them. Midnight premieres are screened to crammed auditoriums. Legends need an audience, willing ears. 

Like Jones says, a piece of art is perfect in your head, before its creation. When you start to make it with your own, human hands, when you start to write it with your biro, the one about to run out of ink, it’s all too real, too flawed to be sacred. But that exposes the narcissism of writing – a cathedral can’t be created by one person. It’s the toil and graft, the unlikeliness of turning that into that that makes that so impressive. Writers are all working on garden sheds – sometimes that’s the best you can do on your own. Chop the wood, get the planks in order. But then someone comes with a ladder, helps you thatch the roof.

 Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a novel. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the nitrbeditor@gmail.com email address.

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