You might find it synchronous that I completed my very first work of fiction – a novelette titled “The Mind’s Eye” – almost exactly twenty-four years ago.  I honestly didn’t realise the timing until I checked the date on a copy of the latter just yesterday: it said 24 March 1992.
    You might find it even more synchronous that this novel is essentially a retelling of that same story.

Regardless of what you might think of the present “remake”, I can assure you that it is far better than the original, which was terrible in every sense of the word.  Various writing colleagues and friends read it in 1992 and some couldn’t even bring themselves to damn it obliquely with faint praise – they flat out told me how bad the story was – right from the clichéd title (I ripped it from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, of course) through to the corny dialogue, predictable plot and lack of characterisation.
    Looking back, those readers did me a huge favour – I needed to learn the basics of the writing craft, and their unvarnished critiques help me realise and accept this fact.  I spent the next decade or so studying and honing my skills.
    I had always intended to “fix” “The Mind’s Eye”: I saw it as “unfinished business”.  I just wasn’t sure how to go about achieving my goal.  So I did what I generally do when faced with a difficult task: I avoided it.  Nevertheless, I felt somewhat fixated by the characters I’d created: Leila, Edin, Isabella, Sandra, Max, Konrad, Marta and Tad.  So I decided to tackle their stories in an indirect way, using surrealist fiction (with which I was experimenting through the nineties and beyond).  “The Shadow of Dusk” was the product of this exercise.
    After the publication last year of that collection, I wondered if I should revisit “The Mind’s Eye” to see whether it could be salvaged (it bothered me in the way unwashed dishes bother my character Leila!).  And so, with trembling hands, I went searching through ancient backup drives until I found a copy of my original story.  What I discovered was much worse than I remembered.  How much does a writer change in twenty-four years?  A lot.
    In an instant I realised what I should have known years ago: my original version was beyond redemption.  The story had to be completely rewritten.
    Indeed, in writing this novel I have consciously abandoned almost every structural feature of “The Mind’s Eye”.  For example, that novelette (it ran for about 12,000 words) was written from a neutral, third-person perspective, biased towards Edin.  By contrast, this novel is of course Leila’s story – written from her first person perspective.  I did this deliberately as a counterpoint to “The Shadow of Dusk”, which offers the reader Edin’s “dream perspective” of events.  Actually I had intended that the entire “Shadow of Dusk” collection function as the dreams Edin is having while in a coma.  Despite the fact that they sometimes purport to be written from Isabella’s, Konrad’s or Marta’s viewpoint, they are still ultimately Edin’s dreams – albeit ones in which he finds himself examining the world from another’s perspective.  After all, the dreams on which the stories were based were all mine (which is not to say that I am anything like Edin – more on that later).

Of course, writing the present novel entirely from Leila’s perspective presented unique challenges, the first being finding a credible and consistently sustainable “voice” for her.  Happily, I seemed to stumble onto it straight away.
    It helps that I work using what I call “method writing”: I “inhabit” the character from whose perspective I’m writing for the entirety of the particular project.  In this case I’m sure it raised some eyebrows among my family, friends and colleagues – all of whom must have regarded me somewhat oddly as, over a three month period, I increasingly spoke and acted in a different manner (ie. one consistent with a troubled, somewhat depressed and grief-stricken woman in her late thirties!).
    As it always does, the pressure of “method writing” ultimately propelled me to write faster and longer as the project progressed.  I found myself going from writing once or twice per week to writing every night – even after a full day of work (mirroring Leila!).  My usual writing times of between 10 pm and 2 am morphed into the occasional all-nighter – especially with the final three chapters (written in one long, sustained sitting from 22 to 23 March 2016).
    Complicating all of this was the fact that, as with all my novels, I write and publish in “real time” – completing a chapter then publishing it immediately on a website dedicated to the novel.  Some might wonder why I do this.  To be honest, I’m not really sure.  My best guess is that it has something to do with Dorothea Brand’s injunction (and I’m paraphrasing her here) that a writer should never tell others what they are going to write before they actually write it – because once it is spoken, it is “written”.  Anything written after that becomes a pale imitation of the writer’s initial vision – a fading memory.
    So I never tell anyone what I’m planning.  And on any given night I write in a stream of consciousness, never looking back – using Dean Martin’s assumption that “the first take will be the best”.  Once I finish a chapter (I have to have a feeling that I’ve cleared a particular benchmark) I publish it.  After that, I’m locked in: there is no going back.
    As you can imagine, this writing approach has the tendency to produce crises of confidence and sometimes even a mild sense of panic.  Indeed, there probably wasn’t a single night where I didn’t wonder whether I was inadvertently writing myself into a corner.
    But, thankfully, there is a kind of spell that falls over me once I open the file and see the last line of my previous chapter.  It feels a bit like remembering where I left off in a conversation with a very close friend.  Any sense of “panic” or other loss of confidence abruptly vanishes.  In other words, I only worry about what I’m writing when I’m not writing.  When I’m in the “zone” I have no doubts, no concerns, no second thoughts: there’s just me and the page.
    I must confess to a level of considerable exhaustion at the end of this particular novel.  Where I felt a sense of elation at the end of “The Mirror Image of Sound” (which had a zany humour and a happy ending), this particular story left me feeling rather melancholy.  Two days later I’m still clawing my way out of Leila’s character and back to my own self.

As an online exercise, this novel garnered more than 8,000 readers in two and three quarter months.  Consequently, and somewhat unusually for a writer, I have already received a great deal of mail regarding the novel.  The most frequent question I get is whether this story is in any sense autobiographical.  My answer is always the same: no.  And yes.
    No, because nothing approximating the events in this story has ever happened to me or to anyone I know, nor do the characters remotely resemble anyone living or dead.
    But on the other hand, yes, everything you write comes from some aspect of your own experience – even if it does so very indirectly.  In my case, you’d have to dig very deeply to find loose connections to the emotions felt by Leila (and, to some extent Edin and the other characters).
    To give you an idea, the genesis of this project is to be found in a dream I had in 1992 which I converted into the short story “The Mallard” (published as part of “The Shadow of Dusk”).  In that dream I was a woman – the person I’ve called Isabella for some years now – mourning the loss of her husband.  I have some idea that the dream was an allegorical manifestation of my subconscious – referencing the loss of my father seven years before.  As you can see, personal experiences can shape a story even if they do so rather indirectly.
    That first dream was a springboard to the development of a larger narrative – with a universe of characters, all of whom now appear in the present novel.
    Am I Leila?  Yes, in a small way.  Am I Edin?  Yes, in a small way.  A small part of me is also in Sandra, Max, Konrad, Marta and Tad.  I’m in all of the characters and yet I’m none of them.  To me, they assumed their own identity years ago.
    I have never had, and will never have, a desire to pen something “autobiographical”.  Personally, I would find such a process tedious in the extreme.  To me, writing is no more about telling your own story than painting is about constantly doing self-portraits.
    Don’t get me wrong: one self-portrait might be okay.  And if you’re like Vincent Van Gogh, you might get away with a few more.  But if you attempt self-description you have to be open about what you’re doing – as well as brutally honest.  In addition to all of this, I believe you have to be sufficiently interesting as a subject – and I’m afraid that, like most people, I’m not.  So don’t expect any autobiographies from me (open or “thinly-veiled” in fiction!) any time soon.
    No, I think the primary job of any artist (including a writer) is to create a work that has an existence completely independent of the artist.  Of all the things I can say about this particular novel, I feel I have at least achieved the latter brief.  Leila, Edin and all the other characters in this novel have lived in my head for so many, many years.  Now, finally, they have an existence that is independent of me.  What’s more, I have managed to give them an existence that faithfully reflects my vision.  That fills me with joy – despite the bittersweet resolution of the story.
    I hope you, the reader, will experience at least some of my vision – so that we can, for a brief period, share the same “dream” – a kind of “spiritus mundi”.
    That would be something.

Dan Djurdjevic
25 March 2016