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The Challenge of Novella Writing

March 19th, 2010

I’ve just been putting the finishing touches to my novella, Rattus.  I have never written a novella before. In fact I’ve never liked the word ‘novella’ much: it somehow suggests smoking jackets and dry sherry. (Possibly I’m confusing it with Ivor Novello.) But actually, I have long believed that my thoughts naturally run to about 100 pages: the 300 page novel has always felt like a marathon. Beryl Bainbridge says somewhere that every time she starts planning a new novel, her first thought is: I can’t do this again.

Simon Maginn

Rattus is about 70 pages, and really couldn’t be any longer. It is a single strand story, told in first person. I have written in first person before (A Sickness of the Soul), but have never attempted the double jeopardy of first person/present tense, a mode which any creative writing teacher (such as, for example, me) would tell you to avoid assiduously. But that’s how it came out, or rather that’s how the first line came out – ‘New people over the road, she says. Look.’  – and so that’s how it had to be.

David, our hero, sees a rat in his toilet bowl, and something starts to go horribly wrong in his head. He undergoes a slow and subtle psychological transformation, until he ends up in a place no one should ever end up in. The story is about loneliness and surveillance. It asks: when does protection become control, when does neighbourliness become predation?

I wrote it over a three week period, while I had a rat infestation in my house (yes, there was one in the toilet bowl). I got the council in and a cheerful, somewhat Dickensian man in blue overalls put down poison and invited me to inspect droppings. I told him I thought we had mice. Yees, he said, showing me the evidence, something like a grain of cooked basmati rice, but black. Yees. Quite some size, then, these mice? He was happy as a Jack Russell. I was quiet and coldly dismayed. I felt, more than anything, offended.

It’s fourteen years (fourteen!) since my last Simon Maginn publication, though I have published novels in my other name during this period. But this is my return to horror, or psychological thriller as I always say in polite company. And the moral of the story? Always check the toilet bowl. Before you sit down.

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