On Writing The Green Table, by Tricia Durdey
As Booker winner Marlon James reveals his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was rejected 87 times before finally being published, Cinnamon Press author Tricia Durdey writes for us about the journey that finally saw her book, The Green Table, take shape.
I was a young dance student when I first heard of the choreographer, Kurt Jooss, and saw his iconic ballet, The Green Table. It was a pirated video copy in poor quality black and white, but even so I was struck by the extraordinary opening scene. Twelve Gentlemen in Black sit around a conference table. Are they diplomats, politicians, bureaucrats? The opening piano chords sound, and they gesticulate, preen, bow, shake fists – the tension mounts, and then they back off again, circling round each other in a predatory fashion, until finally they draw pistols, gun shots sound, and the figure of Death appears. It’s a classic work of German Expressionism, and won a prestigious choreography prize in 1932. Then in 1933, Hitler came to power, and demanded the Jewish company composer, Fritz Cohen, was dismissed. Jooss refused, and the company had to flee Germany overnight.
A few years later I moved to Amsterdam to continue my dance training. On my many walks through the city I was aware of a long shadow of Nazi occupation, even though it was by then the early 80s. One day I will write a novel set here, I decided. And so the seeds of The Green Table were sown.
Almost thirty years later I attended an Arvon Course at Lumb Bank – writing fiction for young adults – led by Celia Rees and the late Jan Mark. It was there that I first met Jan Fortune, who had not yet launched Cinnamon Press. Our task that week was to begin a new piece of work. I remember sitting in a writing hut in the garden, overlooking the steep wooded valley and talking to Celia about Amsterdam and the Nazi occupation, and how I wanted to write something about a young girl who was determined to dance. As I began to write, I remembered Hilde Holger, a Viennese Jewish dancer I trained with briefly in a basement in Camden Town. She was a very old lady, fiery and passionate, who had survived, and danced, despite the daily threat of being discovered by the Nazis. I heard her voice shouting at us as she banged her tamba, and the first scene wrote itself. 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 Theatre 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. At this point I reconnected with Jan Fortune when she published one of my short stories. She’d loved the opening pages of The Green Table, heard all those years earlier at Lumb Bank, and I was delighted when she agreed to mentor me, and subsequently agreed to publish the re-worked version in 2015. 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.
Writing The Green Table has been a fulfilling and absorbing task, and has given me much joy. The act of writing, though personal, seems at times to reach far beyond the personal. It feels then like soul work. I have loved the journey, and am immensely grateful to Jan for believing in my work from the start.