It’s every writer’s nightmare – losing the only existing copy of your current book. Doesn’t happen that often these days, what with the mantra of the modern world being
‘Thou Shalst Back Up’. What’s particularly galling for Francis Wheen is that he had backed up, in the surest way possible, namely printing out a copy of the his latest novel. But
even that isn’t enough when you suffer the fate that "http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/bonfire-of-the-first-editions-author-loses-lifes-work-in-garden-shed-fire-7646612.html">befell Wheen last Friday: his garden shed,
which acted as his office, burned to the ground. It contained not just the printed copy, not just the computer on which the novel had been written – it contained Wheen’s entire
collection of 5000 books (including valuable first editions), and every notebook, letter, research document and (to use his own phrase) ‘billet-doux’ he’d collected over
a lifetime of ‘inveterate hoarding’. Interviewed about it on Monday’s World at One, Wheen seemed incredibly composed about the disaster; perhaps he was still in shock.
Many of the books are replaceable. The personal documents clearly aren’t, so there’s nothing Wheen can do about those. The really interesting question, the one he does have some control
over, is: does he attempt to rewrite the novel, or will he abandon it? He’s opted for the former. As he sets off on this daunting task, what lessons can he learn from other writers who
suffered similar fates?
We can discount, cynics that we are, the temporary loss suffered by Peter Ackroyd, one of whose typescripts was reportedly mislaid by a courier delivering it to the publishers. Several people at
the time commented on the publicity this afforded the book, and questioned whether Ackroyd really had made only the one copy. Either way, the typescript was found and the book published. Similar
scepticism greeted Bob Monkhouse when his notebook containing years’ worth of jokes went missing, and his offer of a reward for its safe return earned him appearances on several high-profile
T.E. Lawrence famously left the manuscript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train and had to start again from scratch – I wonder if, as with his trick of holding his hand over a
candle flame, the trick was ‘not minding’? That was certainly the approach taken by Thomas Carlyle, who lost his history of the French Revolution when he leant it to John Stuart Mill so
that Mill could provide comments, and Mill’s maid used it to light a fire. ‘Early the day after tomorrow,’ wrote Carlyle after knuckling down to a rewrite, ‘I count on
having the First Chapter on paper a second time, no worse than it was, though considerably different.’ In the same vein, Keith Waterhouse left 10,000 words of the first draft of Billy
Liar in a taxi, but said later that losing the ‘pretentious twaddle’ was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Someone who has recently undergone the trauma of having several months’ work vanish is the beer writer Pete Brown. His book about the George Inn at Southwark, Shakespeare’s Local, will
still be appearing this autumn, despite the theft from a (wait for it) pub of Brown’s laptop containing 40,000 words of research. ‘It was everything I needed for the book,’ he
tells me. ‘Quotes from old books, stuff from newspaper cuttings, historical references, the lot. I’d spent six months visiting libraries gathering all this material from original
At first, realising the computer was missing from his bag, he went into denial. ‘I asked at the bar, thinking “no, it can’t have been stolen, one of the staff has just noticed it
and put it away for safekeeping”. Then, eventually, you have to accept what’s happened.’ Brown describes his reaction at that point as ‘grief. I remember how I felt when my
dad died in 1996, holding his hand as he went – this was the nearest I’ve felt to that since then. I bawled my eyes out for an hour. Absolutely bereft.’ If it’s any
consolation, Joseph Conrad felt much the same way when, in 1902, a fire claimed part of one of his manuscripts. Looking at the charred remains, ‘my head swam; it seemed to me the earth was
But the next morning Brown told himself he had two options. ‘I could either give up, or get on the bus right that minute and go and buy a new computer.’ Like Wheen, he chose to fight
on. ‘I got the computer, and went back to all the libraries, all the original sources, and found every bit of research material again. One of the beige wallets crammed with cuttings was three
inches thick – I had to work my way right back through it. The research took me six months the first time. I recreated it all in five weeks, then got on with writing the book itself.’
But Brown rejects the notion, which several friends have put forward, that carrying on required bravery. ‘It wasn’t brave at all. The alternative was stark: hand the advance back, give
up being a writer, which is what I’ve always dreamed of doing, and go back to the day job. I knew I didn’t want to do that – so it was a case of “just get on with
it”.’ Brown had to commit to a regime of writing seven days a week, producing 5000 words a day. Most writers – him included – normally struggle to get past 2000.
As Francis Wheen found out last week, any method of backing-up that leaves every copy of a work in the same physical place is fallible. Hence the trend towards remote back-up, where you transmit
your material over the internet to so-called ‘clouds’. Does Pete Brown do that?
He gives a rueful laugh. ‘I do now.’