Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

by Nell Stevens


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When she was twenty-seven, Nell Stevens—a lifelong aspiring novelist—won an all-expenses-paid fellowship to go anywhere in the world to write. Would she choose a glittering metropolis, a romantic village, an exotic paradise? Not exactly. Nell picked Bleaker Island, a snowy, windswept pile of rock in the Falklands. Other than sheep, penguins, paranoia, and the weather, there aren’t many distractions, but as Nell soon discovers, total isolation and 1,085 calories a day are far from ideal conditions for literary production. With deft humor, this memoir traces her island days and slowly reveals the life and people she has left behind in pursuit of her writing. It seems that there is nowhere she can run—an island or the pages of her notebook—to escape the big questions of love, art, and, ambition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385541558
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nell Stevens has a degree in English and creative writing from the University of Warwick, an MFA in fiction from Boston University and a PhD in Victorian literature from King’s College London.

Read an Excerpt

Any Idiot Can Write a Book

In my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, the English Department secretary circulates an “opportunity.” A production company is looking for contestants to participate in a new TV show. They are seeking unpublished writers who have completed a novel. The show will be modelled on The Apprentice. Each week, a writer will be voted off and sent home. At the end of the series, the winner will be given a “financial prize” (amount not stated) and their novel will be published (publisher unspecified). Applicants should respond with a CV, photo, and description of their writing. The name of the show is Any Idiot Can Write a Book.

I have just finished my gap-year novel: a tortured romance about a young woman in Northern India who falls in love with a Tibetan refugee. An agent has seen it and gently suggested that the story might be better if more things actually happened. I am not ready to accept this advice. Instead, I write a synopsis of a book in which nothing happens, set against a backdrop of glistening Himalayas, and send it off to the people behind Any Idiot Can Write a Book.

Two weeks later, I am taken in a taxi to a farmhouse on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon, where I am filmed over several takes getting out of the car and walking up the garden path. The front door is open, because the cameraman is standing there, but I have to pretend to ring the bell and wait.

If I have had any suspicions that the premise behind Any Idiot Can Write a Book was flawed before I arrived, these are confirmed once we start the work of filming the show--which in fact is not a show at all, but a pilot that may or may not be developed and which we will shoot over the course of a single day. Aside from me, there is only one other contestant: a skinny Mancunian called Jake, who has a shakily drawn snake tattoo winding around his neck in the shape of a noose. The judge is an eminent literary critic of whom I’ve not heard. This is her farmhouse.

Jake and I are ushered into a barn that has been converted into a large study. We are told to sit at computers and type.

“Type what?” asks Jake.

“It doesn’t matter what,” the director says. “We’re not focusing on the screens.”

“Well then, what are you focusing on?” Jake responds.

The director says nothing.

Jake faces his keyboard and begins to jab at it with his forefingers. I turn to mine and pretend as best as I can to be hard at work on the novel I have already finished, but beyond frowning at my screen as I type nonsense into Word, it’s unclear how exactly I should dramatize the moment. The essential issue with the premise of the show is apparent at once: there is nothing remotely interesting about observing people writing.

“Can you walk around the garden a bit?” the director asks me. “Can you look troubled?”

Trying to look both whimsical and perturbed, I meander between elaborate flower beds of hollyhocks.

“What’s wrong?” a girl with a microphone asks.

“I’m . . . I’m worried about my novel,” I try.

“What’s worrying you?”

“Nothing happens in it.”

The director interjects. “Let’s try this one more time.”

“What’s wrong?” says the girl.

“I’m worried about my novel.”

“What’s worrying you?”

“Nothing happens.”

We do this over and over.

“What’s worrying you?”

“Nothing happens.”

“What’s worrying you?”

“Nothing happens.”

By the final take, my distress is genuine.

In the afternoon, I read the opening scene of my novel in a recording booth--my voice will play over the footage of my dramatic typing--and sit on a bench under an umbrella in the drizzle answering questions about how much I want to be a writer (very much) and what it would mean to me to get through to the next round of Any Idiot Can Write a Book (as the day wears on, less and less). Just as it begins to get dark, we film the judging and elimination scene. Jake and I sit at the kitchen table opposite the critic, with our novels in front of us. I understand by now the ridiculousness of the situation, but still, I’m nervous. My hands and forehead are sweaty; my throat feels dry.

I read a scene from my book in which the two lovers meet for the first time, in a temple in Dharamsala, surrounded by flickering candles and stray dogs. I try to keep my voice steady and expressive, but as I go on, it becomes increasingly raspy. I look up at the director to see if she wants me to start again from the top, but she is whispering something to the microphone girl and doesn’t appear to have noticed.

Next, Jake reads a chapter of his novel, which is called Bad Splatter and follows the adventures of a happy-go-lucky drug dealer called Rad the Fucker.

The director interrupts. “You can’t say that.”



“But that’s his name.”

“Give him a new one.”

Jake looks troubled, but eventually begins again and gets through his scene, in which Rad the Bastard drowns an adversary in liquid concrete on a building site.

“Thank you both,” the critic says. “I know you’ve worked hard on these chapters. I’ll start with Nell.”

She absolutely loves my chapter. It is poignant, and romantic, and sad. The characters are robust and sensitively drawn, and the whole section is full of potential, suggestive of all the many things that might, at some point, start to happen. My face is getting hot; I try to nod seriously. Somehow, despite the praise, I feel unwell. I hold onto my manuscript so tightly the paper turns furry with sweat.

“Now, Jake.” The critic turns to him and her face sets into a grimace. “I have to say, I was really disappointed by your work. I found it incredibly predictable. I’ve heard it a hundred times before.”

“What?” Jake is half out of his chair. “That’s not true.”

“Drug dealers . . . concrete . . . I mean, it’s all cliché, isn’t it? It’s one cliché after another.”

“You haven’t understood the project,” he says. “Let me read it again.” He picks up his pages and starts from the top.

“No need, Jake.” She cuts him off. “There is absolutely no future for you on this show, or as a writer in any shape or form. You are untalented, unimaginative, offensive and tired.”

I am sitting so tensely in my chair that my shoulders start to cramp. My gaze swivels between the two of them as they argue. Their voices are rising. Jake looks a little unhinged; his eyes begin to bulge. A shout of “You’re a fraud!” is accompanied by a plume of spit that lands between us on the table. I might throw up.

“You can argue and shout,” the critic snarls, “but it won’t make your writing any more palatable.”

Jake is on his feet now. “This is pathetic,” he says. “This is a waste of my time.” He turns, knocking his chair over behind him, and stamps out of the kitchen.

In the aftermath, the room is silent, and then the microphone girl says, “I think that was really good.”

When everything is wrapped up, the microphone girl walks me to my taxi.

“Great day,” she says. “You were just right. We think this could be a segment on Richard and Judy, actually. They’ve expressed interest.”

“Is Jake OK?” I ask. I haven’t seen him since he was eliminated at the kitchen table.

“Jake? Oh, he’s fine.”

“He seemed pretty upset.”

“Yes, he was good, wasn’t he?”


“Yes, we thought he did really well. Oh--you know that was staged, right? They were practising that scene all morning.” When I look blank, she repeats herself. “It was staged. They rehearsed the whole argument. Jake was totally fine with it. He loved it.”

My head is feeling thick and fuzzy. This information sinks in slowly. “It was staged,” I repeat. And then, “But does that mean she didn’t really like my book?”

“I thought someone had told you afterwards,” the girl says. “Sorry. We had to keep you in the dark before and during, obviously, to get your reactions.”


“Which were great, by the way. You looked really happy, and then really shocked.”

I nod. “I was,” I say. “I was really shocked.”

I sink into the taxi seat, ready to head back to Warwick and what turns out to be a severe bout of tonsillitis. I will be bedridden for a week and lose a tenth of my body weight, and by the end of it, I will have arrived, somehow, at the conclusion that it is important for things to happen in a novel.

Boston University Global Fellowship Proposal

Excerpts: Text and Subtext

1. There has never been a literary novel set in the Falkland Islands . . . When I discovered the lack of fiction set in these remote islands, it confirmed to me that if I could go anywhere in the world to live, and write, and observe, for an extended period of time, it would be the Falklands.

1. I want to write--to be a writer--and still, at twenty-seven, don’t know what exactly I want to say.

2. When I contacted travel agents to get quotes and information for this trip, the general response was incredulity. Many don’t actually operate in the colder season, when I plan to be there. Most tourists, they told me, arrive on cruise ships, offload for a day and leave before dark. The few independent visitors come in the warmer months, between November and April. I might have a nicer time, they suggested, gently, if I delayed my trip until the summer. They stopped short of asking me directly, “Why?”

2. I do not want to have a nice time. What I want--what I need--is to have the kind of time that I can convert into a book.

3. It is hard to explain the appeal of loneliness to a writer; of isolation and disorientation, displacement and homesickness.

3. I am scared that the life I want to lead, the life of a writer, is inevitably built on loneliness, and I need to know if I can hack it. If I can teach myself the art of loneliness, then perhaps the art of writing will come more easily to me. If I can break my habit of being distracted, maybe I’ll also break my habit of writing novels that don’t work.

4. I want to go to a place, not just where I can write, but which I can write about. So much about the Falklands makes them a rich subject for stories: their extreme isolation, both geographically and culturally; the way the language has developed independently of British or American English to become something completely its own; the contrast between the Islanders and the soldiers on the vast British military base; the hardships and extremity of life lived in a place so remote. The fact that the islands are, according to the local government, “free from crime” makes them a ripe setting for drama of any sort. In a place where nothing criminal ever occurs, how would people respond to peculiar or sinister events? Two years ago, the bodies of two Chinese fishermen washed up on the shore of one of the more remote settlements; the strangeness of that occurrence, and the possibilities for ensuing mystery, suggest to me that the Falklands are brimming with potential for fiction.

4. My peers from high school and university seem to have spent their twenties nimbly climbing the ladders of their respective careers: from med student to trainee to junior doctor; law degree to bar school to pupillage to tenancy. Teachers. Scientists. Journalists. Successful young people who know where they are going. Meanwhile I have been pursuing this intangible goal of “becoming a writer” and I have nothing much to show for it. I do not, therefore, have the time or money to waste a second of my Global Fellowship. When it is over I will need to find a new job to support myself, and that will inevitably reduce my writing hours, and the goal that is always just out of reach will slip further and further away, and soon enough I will turn thirty and still not know what to say when people at parties ask me what I do, and at some point--when?--I will have to join the ranks of people who wanted to be writers but are now something else. In short, this trip needs to offer everything all at once: material and time, drama and silence, because otherwise I do not know what I will do. I need to leave the Falklands with a novel.

5. Jorge Luis Borges described the 1982 Falklands War as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” I would like to spend my Global Fellowship exploring all the reasons why he might have been incorrect.

5. I really hope he was incorrect.

Closed to All Vehicles and Pedestrians

My journey to the Falkland Islands unfolds in increasing degrees of strangeness.

From London I fly to Santiago. It takes thirteen hours, overnight, and I share the economy cabin with the Chilean football team. They spend their time affably autographing shirts for other passengers. When I walk out of the airport in Chile the air is cold. It is late June, and I realize with a spasm of shivers that I’ve flown into a new hemisphere, a new season: it is suddenly winter.

From my hotel room: a view of the city and snow-capped Andes. The peaks of the mountains turning pink at dusk. Strains of Amy Winehouse drift up from the courtyard that make my skin prickle, familiar and strange. Fighting jet lag, trying to stay awake, I read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle: August 27th, 1833, “I stayed a week in Santiago, and enjoyed myself very much.”

The next day, after a restless night, I wake up late to the sounds of sirens and shouting. There’s an angry crowd marching through the city. The ebullient receptionist at the hotel, Daniela, cautions me against going out--the park is closed in any case, she says--but she can’t explain in English what the rally is about. I watch from the window of my room as armoured vehicles pass, streaked with brightly coloured paint. Later, it’s quiet. I wander out into the city and find myself in a cloud of tear gas lingering from the recently dispersed protest: burning in my throat, stinging my eyes. Almost immediately, while my breath is still tight and my vision blurred, I experience a blossoming dread. Tomorrow I leave Santiago for the Falklands. I am going somewhere stranger, wilder, colder, and bleaker than I want to imagine. When Darwin arrived there, in the March of 1833, he found an “undulating land, with a desolate and wretched aspect.” They were “miserable islands,” he wrote, inhabited by “runaway rebels and murderers.” I cough, and wipe my mouth, and squeeze water out of my eyes.


Excerpted from "Bleaker House"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Nell Stevens.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. If you were given the chance to go anywhere in the world to write a novel, where would you go? Why?

2. Nell spends a lot of time trying to control the distractions in her life. Have you ever been able to rid your life of distractions? If so, how?

3. At one point in the book, Nell writes “It seems clear, now, that I have been alone in my relationships . . . It is hard to love someone, if you are in the habit of taking every experience you have as material for your work.” How does this idea play out in the book? Do you think other writers feel the same way?

4. If you had to describe Bleaker House to a friend in one sentence, what would you say?

5. Have you ever written fiction before? If so, how does your process mirror Nell’s? How does it deviate?

6. How does Bleaker House compare to other memoirs you have read? How does it compare to other books you’ve read about writers?

7. The fiction pieces in the book seem to mirror details of Nell’s real life. What did they add to your experience as a reader?

8. Did reading Bleaker House increase or decrease your desire to visit the Falkland Islands?

9. Why do you think Nell choose to share her experiences in Bleaker House? What did you gain by reading this book?

10. What aspect of Nell’s life did you relate to the most?

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