The world my book is published into looks very different from the world I started writing in | Ronnie Scott

Writing fiction is always an exercise in letting go of relevancy. Publishing a pool scene in a plague year achieves this. Writing a gay novel does too

In the place where writers keep talismans that egg them on and freak them out, I keep a quote from an article that discusses where consciousness “lives”. The quoted scientist – whom I will not name, as I do not understand his theories – claims the mind is like a phantom limb: “One is the ghost in the body and the other is the ghost in the head.”

I mostly enjoy this line because the language is very dark (who wants to think of their mind as a ghost that lives in their head?) but also because it prompts me to ask questions about writing novels. If the mind is the ghost in the head, what is the novel a ghost of?

Like every Australian novelist putting a book out this month, I’m publishing it into a different world than the one I wrote it in. The Adversary is a novel of manners, meaning it’s a book where people hang out and socialise and not a lot actually goes on. There are two best friends. They’re both gay men. They have to change their friendship. Along the way, they share cigarettes and touch each other’s hair. They step over strangers to find the right spot at a shockingly populous pool, where they sweat liberally, sweat stickily and share meaningful bites of their food.

In other words, the novel of manners is a handsy, social form, which meant one thing when I wrote it and another in April 2020, when it now suggests a Covid-19 incubator. Not many projects age quite like that while they’re at the printer. But writing fiction is always an exercise in letting go of one’s relevancy. Publishing a pool scene in a plague year is one way to achieve this. Writing a gay novel is another.

Let me tell you the tragedy of the best image I found for The Adversary. The year was 2015. The place was Brunswick, Victoria. I walked down a street where a giant-sized poster was glued on to a brick wall. It featured a blue pill and the commanding text: “YOU CAN F*** RAW. PrEP WORKS. NO MORE HIV.”

“PrEP” stood for pre-exposure prophylaxis, an HIV-prevention regime – but you know this, because in our current year it’s on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and up to 27,000 people use oral PrEP in Australia. Back in 2015, I moistened my quill and exclaimed, “A ha! A symbol,” loving the image of that floating blue pill, which looked like a capsule from Venus.

Cover image for the Adversary by Ronnie Scott

Before the next draft, the posters were gone, along with the shock of their impact. More than that though, PrEP had become one part of a wider discussion about HIV’s place in the world, thanks to waves of entertainment about the historical Aids crisis, the U=U campaign – a public health campaign showing that a person with an undetectable viral load can’t transmit HIV – and the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which had a way of raising questions about what kinds of queer stories were told, and who told them, and with what purpose.

Yes, this changed my sex scenes and increased the scope for misunderstandings, which is very helpful when you are trying to work with comedy and/or drama. But the novel also had to be different at its deepest core. Viruses are not metaphors, or not only metaphors, but they shape and structure our worlds – as you’ve probably noticed from the recent effects of another conspicuous virus. Shapes and structures are also part of the fabric of any novel, and the more time I spent with mine, the more it came to depend on the invisible. It became a story about undetectability, living among the unseen.

All this makes me think of a line from The Waterworks by EL Doctorow, a wonderful novel that happens to be narrated out of the past. “You may think you are living in modern times, here and now,” it warns the reader, “but that is the necessary illusion of every age. We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time. There was nothing quaint or colourful about us.”

Even so, we love to live like we’ve come out of muddier times, into a clearer present that offers perspective and judgment. A novel reminds us that this is not true. Do you get that shivery feeling when you realise you write from a certain position, then another, then another, and time moves forward, leaving space between moments, and into that space comes … something? It’s here that we’re touched by the ghost of time – the ghost that inhabits the novel. We may not feel like we live in the past. But of course we do.

The Adversary by Ronnie Scott is out now through Hamish Hamilton


Ronnie Scott

The GuardianTramp

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