Holding a copy of the book you have written in your own hands is, in a sense, a creepy experience. Creepy in a good way, of course—excuse my oxymoron. You might feel the urge to flip through those pages to check if what’s there is really yours—to recognise those evenly printed lines as the ones you once typed and retyped, switching between several computers, saving numerous numbered drafts in files never to be opened again. And recognition may not quite occur. You might sometimes find yourself immersed in reading your stuff as someone else’s. In “Borges and I”, Borges described a more radical case of writerly depersonalisation. So you might wonder if all authors develop this slight personality disorder, but you end up never asking other writers you know. You just learn to take this for granted, habituating to the fact that you have published a book. Not a big deal, after all.
It might be different with poetry, drama or fiction. I’ve never written any of those. Mine is an academic monograph, and it developed gradually through the stages of a routinely natural academic evolution, just like many other scholars’ first books: I wrote Musical Stimulacra: Literary Narrative and the Urge to Listen by reassembling, supplementing, cutting, rewriting, and retitling my doctoral thesis—the one I worked on between 2014 and 2017 as a Hong Kong PhD Fellow at Hong Kong Baptist University’s (HKBU) Department of English Language and Literature. Between the autumn of 2017 and the summer of 2019, I taught literature and academic writing part-time at HKBU and full-time at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in St. Petersburg, Russia. I still teach at HSE, and the reason I mention 2019 is that it was only then, two years after I had finished the dissertation, that I managed to compile a book proposal and send it to the publisher, Routledge. Teaching was taking up all my time, and it still does, with new courses to prepare and old ones to revise each year, so the summer months are the only time for proper writing.
Writing and rewriting require concentration. There are writers I know who are able to alternate between writing and all sorts of other tasks on the same day, losing none of their thoughtful focus. But I guess most of us (the first-person reference still feels a bit weird) are not like that. As for me, I need a span of several spare days to get into writing and back out to everyday matters, so I sometimes perceive other duties and concerns as distractions from writing that will disappear only if I get them done. As you can imagine, they are never done because chores replicate like viruses. Hence our modest productivity, especially in terms of book projects. Articles and conference papers are easier because they take less time to write. My book proposal for the publisher had the preface and two chapters—which was half the book, actually. Yet when they accepted it, having three positive peer reviews and all kinds of additional material I submitted along with the chapters such as the information on market competition for my book and on its potential buyers, they were wise enough to give me another eight months instead of the three I had requested to complete the manuscript. Writers are slow, especially those who also teach, as the publisher’s experience must have suggested. Full-time teaching—part-time writing. And rewriting.
Most my writing, of course, happened while I was a PhD student at HKBU. Doing my coursework and planning the thesis in the first year and a half still felt like a magical opportunity for concentration, compared with my previous ten years of full-time literature and language teaching in Russia. By the end of the first year of my PhD fellowship, I had picked the three American novelists to explore and started drafting the William T. Vollmann chapter. It took me a whole year to write that chapter—the one about Europe Central, the 2005 novel set in the mid-twentieth century Russia and Germany, in turns, and featuring the composer Dmitri Shostakovich as a character and as the focal point of my musico-literary research interest. The chapter about William H. Gass’s Middle C (2013) took me six months. Richard Powers’s Orfeo (2014) was dealt with in another three months of writing. As you cansee, my speed improved—but that was because I had already done so much preliminary work in the first two years, with thousands and thousands of words in notes and copied quotations from the novelists themselves and their critics and narrative theorists and musicologists and philosophers and even cognitive psychologists. I mention the quotations not to repress their return in the next round of the project, which was rewriting the thesis into a book.
I knew that I would get permission for the copyrighted quoted material, but that didn’t worry me: the project was never commercial, and who would charge me for citing things in an academic study, where citing is essential? So I took my time off teaching to edit the already submitted chapters based on my peer reviewer’s recommendations and to prepare the other two chapters of the book, making it all circa 80,000 words as I promised to the publisher. Four months before the deadline, I finalised my manuscript and counted the words I was citing to figure out which permissions I would need to request. It turned out I mainly needed those for fiction, so I contacted the publishers of my three novelists and learned, when I heard back from them two months later, that I would need to pay a fee—several fees, in fact, since the rights for each novel were split around the world between the US, Canada, the UK and the Commonwealth, and the rest. The book ended up costing me some money, not just the effort. It was worth it, of course, but had I known about the permission I would have probably written it differently—with fewer passages of direct quotations.
It was just a year and a half between submitting a proposal to Routledge and the actual publication on 30 December 2020. But it was seven years between the beginning of the project in 2014 and the official publication year, 2021. That is a magical span of time: Hans Castorp spent seven years on the Magic Mountain, if I recall my Thomas Mann correctly. Those have been very happy seven years, and despite my feeling a bit detached from my text now that it’s out there, I have some optimism about the future: I hope the next book won’t take as long. Even if it hasn’t been so easy to replicate the amount of time for concentration and the super-friendly and creativity-fostering environment that I enjoyed at HKBU between 2014 and 2018.
Editor’s note: Please click HERE to find out more about Musical Stimulacra: Literary Narrative and the Urge to Listen.
Some pictures from Ivan’s HKBU days:
Ivan Delazari is currently an Associate Professor of Philology at National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. He holds two doctoral degrees in Philology (2003) and English (2018) from St. Petersburg State University and Hong Kong Baptist University, respectively. From 2004 to 2014, he taught Comparative Literary History and American Studies at St. Petersburg State University. He was a Fulbright visiting scholar at the University of Mississippi from 2009 to 2010 and a Hong Kong PhD Fellow between 2014 and 2017. [Click here to read all entries by Ivan.]