Steven Boykey Sidley on writing his literary mystery, 'Leaving Word'

If someone dies at the beginning, you had better explain the hows and whys before the last page

29 September 2019 - 00:00 By Steven Boykey Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times: 29/09/2019

A thought experiment. Someone dies at the beginning of a book. Someone important to the story. A central character. What happens if no-one ever finds out how and why he died? The book's narrative is based on the story of characters grappling with his death, rather than the cause of death itself.

Leaving Word didn't quite work out this way, but that was the catalyst. Craig Higginson, the literary fiction writer, loved the idea - a metaplot. Craig Freimond, film director and screenwriter, said I would be slaughtered by my readers. If someone dies at the beginning, you had better explain the hows and whys before the last page.

I found a solution that sort of combines these opposing narratives. Which, of course,
I won't spoil here. But we are off to the races quickly - we need to unravel the plot: was he murdered, did he commit suicide, was he felled by disease, or did he just keel over and die without apparent cause?

So the story launches in search of its plot. And who better to be seeker of plot than a distinguished fiction editor, my protagonist, who came to me in the guise of one Joelle Jesson, 40 and single, who has edited novels all her life, burnishing plots in the service of her famous authors.

And she is now, suddenly, unemployed. Let go because no-one reads novels anymore, preferring the seductive pleasures of the small screen. She has been fired by the man who just died, the CEO of the publishing company at which she no longer works. And now she is obsessed with finding out about his death.

Leaving Word is a literary mystery. Characters (and potential suspects) come into and out of focus: a detective, cynical, sexy, and seeming to know more than he should about the death. The deceased's lookalike brother, a dark and inscrutable artist, envious of his younger sibling's success. An angry loner without literary talent who carries around his constantly rejected manuscript, tragically dreaming of fame.

Underneath the story bubble some themes that make it fertile ground for dialogue and narrative: art, and why we do it; fame and why we want it; sex and why we are sometimes undone by it; the novel and its place in a small-screen digital future.

And Joelle. Seeking not only a reason for her ex-boss's death, but a new narrative for her own life.

This book was alternatively easy and hard to write. Easy in that my characters arrived fully formed (sometimes characters need to be painstakingly built). Hard in that I was not sure how to resolve the death narrative until late in the process. It came suddenly. Then everything fell into place and it was done.

Leaving Word by Steven Boykey Sidley is published by MF Books Joburg, R240