Last night I completed the final version of The Green Table and winged it off to my publisher, expecting to feel great relief and celebration. I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss, emptiness and sadness I felt instead. What now, I wondered? How do I let go of those characters I’ve lived with so long? I knew it was irrational; after all they’re only fictional characters in an imaginary world. But the act of creating something over a long period of time has a powerful influence on the mind – the characters are like friends, strange as that may sound. As much as I was responsible for creating them, they, in turn, have entered my world and affected me.
Writing The Green Table was mostly a joyful experience. I learnt a great deal, both about my subject matter – the Nazi Occupation of The Netherlands, and the history of dance in that time – as well as about the art of writing fiction. Along the way I’ve received insightful criticism from other writers that has helped me to see my work with more clarity.
The germ of an idea for a novel set in Nazi Occupied Holland began over thirty years ago, when I lived and danced in Amsterdam. As I walked around the city, or sat in cafés, I could sense the shadow of World War 2 and Nazism in a way I never had growing up in England. Then, in 2005, I attended an Arvon Course – writing fiction for young adults – led by Celia Rees and the late Jan Mark. Our task that week was to begin a new piece of work. For a long time I’d been captivated by the true story of the choreographer, Kurt Jooss, who had to flee Germany in 1933 for refusing to dismiss his Jewish composer. So this is where I began – with a passionately anti-Nazi German dancer exiled in Holland, and her young students. On the final night I read out the first pages of The Green Table to the rest of the group.
I loved the period of intense research that followed – Dutch history, dance history, a visit to the Resistance Museum and Theater Museum, translation of Dutch newspapers, and discoveries about the moral struggles of Dutch medics during the Occupation. Slowly the characters emerged, and a narrative took shape.
The Green Table as a book for teenagers never quite made it. Two agents tried to sell it – including the wonderful Pam Royds, children’s fiction editor with Andre Deutsch for many years, who persuaded me to redraft a version with a stronger heroine, and call it Dance for Your Life – which I wasn’t keen on. At least two editors were enthusiastic, and one accepted it, but it was turned down by the marketing departments. It was never going to make big money. So in the end I abandoned it for three years and went off to do an MA.
But I could never quite let go. I had the notion that if I were to redraft it as novel for adults there would be scope to go into greater depth with the material. I’d first met Jan Fortune, Cinnamon Press, on the Arvon course all those years ago, and reconnected her when she published one of my short stories. She’d loved the opening pages of The Green Table, and I was delighted when she agreed to mentor me, and subsequently accepted the reworked novel for publication later this year. What I hadn’t bargained for was the immense struggle involved, how much material from the original I had to eliminate, and how often the early work hindered the development and deepening of my characters. It came together, finally, when I spent a week alone last August, house and cat-sitting for Jan in Wales – something like solving an intricate puzzle, I could at last see the form, the shape of it.
So now I have to let go – no more revisions, no more corrections. In a few months something that has belonged essentially to me, will become public. Those who read it will like it, or not, and, where it’s noticed, some kind of judgement will be made. I’ll try not to mind whatever comes my way.
Writing The Green Table has been a fulfilling and absorbing task, and has given me much joy. The act of writing, though personal, has seemed, at times, to reach far beyond the self, and the imagination to be profoundly connected to the heart, or to whatever it is we call the soul. I have loved the journey.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.