On Writing the Shard

It was 2010 when I had the idea for my first novel, Glass. The recession had had time to trickle down to people of my standing, by then, and I was spending my Saturday taking a free stroll along the river, when I noticed a large concrete pillar poking up between all the glass buildings that squatted on the South Bank around the mayoral egg. This concrete pillar had a sign fixed to the top of it that said, THE SHARD, which didn’t seem like a particularly good name for what was essentially a blunt post. I took a photo of it on my phone, probably thinking I could get some mileage out of it on social media, and forgot about it.

The next day, I was again dodging the recession by lying on my bed. After I grew tired of looking out the window at the flats opposite, I began to look at the window itself. I hadn’t cleaned it, ever. In fact, I realised with a kind of dull horror, I’d never cleaned a single window in my life. Everywhere I went, windows must be quietly accruing dirt, rooms getting darker, more obscure.

In those days, I had a large mural across one of my walls, depicting a whole cityscape in silhouette. Looking at it made me think of that dirty pillar, the ‘Shard’. On googling it, I discovered that it was going to be the largest skyscraper in Europe, dubbed ‘a shard of glass through the heart of historic London’ by English Heritage as an insult and repurposed by the building’s developers as part of their branding.

These buildings were always started during a boom and completed during the bust, when their existence seemed like an insult. The Empire State Building had been completed during the Great Depression, with a mast designed for mooring rich people’s dirigibles. These great skyscrapers were the epitome of collaborative achievement, one of the great feats of the modern age, and yet their completion so often heralded divisive politics, with a swing towards the political right. It could be a fascinating setting for a story, I thought.

glass buttonThere were already a couple of great skyscraper stories: there was William Golding’s novel The Spire, about the building of the famous cathedral spire at Salisbury, and then there was the story of Babel, that ur-skyscraper (lol) after which all are modelled. It is a stranger story than most people seem to realise, raising more questions than it answers about God’s intervention in human affairs. God comes to see the tower; he realises that the people is one, that they have one language and they can do anything they imagine; he decides to scatter them and confound their language so they can’t understand one another. To me, it’s a story about how easily we might overcome our limitations if we were to act as a single body. The God depicted in the story seems fearful of human capability, and the scattering of humanity into rival factions who cannot understand one another is not righteous but melancholy. (It is like Aristophanes’ story, in The Symposium, in which the gods decide to split eight-limbed humans in half because they are too powerful – the reason, he says, why we spend our lives searching for our other half.)

Skyscrapers seemed to carry all this freight of interesting oppositions: corporate and personal, boom and bust, collaboration and divisiveness. And here was a skyscraper being completed in the heart of contemporary London, its design already iconic, not nestled among other skyscrapers but jutting improbably out of the low lying markets of Borough.

I built my novel over the next couple of years, watching the Shard grow and take shape before my eyes. The novel is set around the inauguration of the building in the spring of 2012, but at the time, I was writing into the near future, and that race with the building itself compelled me on to keep writing, to get my concrete in place, to clad it in glass and, finally, to assemble and perch the great spire – in my case, the climactic final scene, which takes place 70 floors up, dangling off a window cleaner’s cradle, with all of London spread out below. The hero of my book is a window cleaner, his mission modest but important: to confront the dirt and darkness, to seek clarity, to seek the light.

First posted as a guest blog for On the Literary Sofa.

Confession: this isn’t my first novel

They say everyone’s first novel is a veiled autobiography, so how did I come to write a novel about a window cleaner who finds himself hanging off Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard?

Well, this isn’t technically my first time. In 2010, I read back through my recently completed first novel about a (handsome) young man called Alex who moves to London and gets depressed because it’s the recession. In a sort of weird homage to Greek tragedy, he also inadvertently has sex with his estranged twin sister. It was a masterclass in fiction, you see, because I don’t have a sister.

Imagine how disappointed I was when I read it back. It was not only tooth-achingly pretentious (each chapter was based on one of Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms), but the plot ended about two fifths of the way through the book. Characters would sit on benches for whole scenes, thinking about how nothing was happening. The Irish critic Vivien Mercier once said that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was a play ‘in which nothing happens, twice,’ and I guess I was trying to beat old Sam’s record.

After a month’s slump, I realised that I had learned two very important things. First, my book was so unremittingly bad that I didn’t have many mistakes left to make. Second, I now knew I was capable of completing a novel in the gaps around a full time job. I realised, to my horror, that what I had really done was pave the way to write a first novel.

I tried to stop myself. I met up with friends. I took up jogging. I even bought a bonsai tree. It was tiny and almost impossible to cultivate without killing – it didn’t cry when I did something wrong, it just quietly shed leaves. But as I stood there, pruning cautiously with kitchen scissors, I could feel my mind, plotting something new.

So I set myself some ground rules. If I was going to write a novel, it had to work first and foremost as a good yarn, a fireside story. It was only allowed to be as sad as it was funny. It should give a voice to some characters that felt genuinely unique. It also had to deal with proper problems like grief and morality, not fake problems like being a graduate with ennui.

A character began to take shape. I knew he wasn’t a detective, a lawyer, a doctor or a writer. His outline was… Portly. He had glasses. He was holding a squeegee. I’d never read a novel about a window cleaner before. It felt novel. I named him Günter Glass.

I realised I knew what Günter’s family was like. His brother was deaf, although that made people assume that he was nice, which he wasn’t. His father drank too much because Günter’s mother wasn’t around anymore. His girlfriend claimed to be clairvoyant, but could only see five seconds into the future; his landlord was an hermitic philosopher who ate only fish; his boss was proud to call himself a fascist.

By giving my characters their own lives and concerns, I forced myself to open up about issues that we can all relate to. Through Günter, I started to ask what it means to be human beyond the everyday: to grow up, to love, to die. Günter doesn’t get everything right, of course, but I’m proud of him. He has a good heart, he knows how to laugh – and if there’s one thing window cleaners have in spades, it’s perspective.

First posted on the Waterstones blog