After Heartland, my friend (and then publisher) Tim Binding said to me: No more thrillers for a while. Push yourself.
So I pushed myself.
My idea was to do a kind of English John Irving novel; big and rambling and full of incident. In the end, it turned out to be quite the opposite — full of incident, but quite short and structured. Getting from that rambling, rough idea to the compact, multi-layered final draft was the cause of some grief.
I knew the story would centre on a chimp sanctuary. I knew the setting, the characters, the themes….but not the plot, not quite. So I chose a day to start — January 2nd, 2005. On that day, I sat down and went to Google News to run a search on ‘zoo’. The most recent zoo-related story involved the mysterious poisoning of some animals in, I think, Brazil. Which gave me my starting point.
The rest of it, I made up as I went along…and it span out of control. After nine months (which is longer than it took to complete Heartland), I scrapped 100,000 words and pretty much started again.
It was too vast, too uncontrolled — and too researched. You do all that research, you damn well don’t want to waste it. You want to put it all in, making the novel read like a series of links between essays. I spent weeks killing darlings — binning vast, polished chunks of educational narrative with a piteous sigh.
I finished Natural History eighteen months after starting. Thinking about it, I suppose that’s not so bad — especially because by now I was also busy writing for TV. But it felt longer.
The end result looks nicely constructed, easily the most deftly put-together of my novels. But really there was nothing deft about it; not in the beginning, anyway. Having finally reached the end of the first clean draft, I cut the whole thing up into individual scenes and spent a good two weeks just moving them around like index cards, finding the right order.
The result is both the most layered and the most chaotic thing I’ve ever written. It’s also far better than anything I’d previously believed myself capable of writing. So Tim was right.