Le texte s’écrit” is a useful phrase that survives the nonsense of much “literary theory”. I know that this is just the passive form, but for me the text really does write itself. Not all the time, of course, but for the production of anything original, the writer has merely to be prepared, by long practice, to listen and write down. That’s what happened with Bad to the Bone. I’d had no intention of writing a book about professional bike racing and drugs. Cycling was merely a pastime, a way of getting away from the desk and giving myself time to think at the deep, slow level, which comes most easily with rhythmic exercise (so it has just been proved in the lab. apparently); walking or in my case pumping the pedals over the slanting topography of West Yorkshire, where the hundred and first edition of the Tour de France starts in a couple of months. What I was trying to write around that time was science fiction. And then I became absorbed by the existential conundrum of what is it that it takes to win.
Winning seldom brings content. Those who try nothing and lose nothing are the most untroubled. To win, to be a champion, it seems you must make a sacrifice equivalent in kind, so victory leaves you in a state of febrile tension, jittering between achievement and loss. This is not mere philosophising. World champions often moan about their subsequent unhappiness, their restless sense of the emptiness of ultimate achievement. It is a problem that humans have addressed for millennia. It’s one of the things the Bhagavad Gita was about.
So I wondered about the dark side of being the best. And I thought, in professional cycling (this was in the nineteen nineties), if the marginally second best take drugs to win, and you are by luck and application the best, then what can you do? Use drugs, or fail.
Around that time I was reading a lot of cycling magazines, so I had the patter off by heart. I’d also just read Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript (my first contact with Dedalus) with its legend of the robber brothers of the Sierra Morena. And then one morning I sat down as usual and, virtually unannounced, the text of what became Bad to the Bone wrote itself. As I read it back, now it is long finished, I am fascinated by its archaeology. Bits come from all over the place. The no-nonsense wise woman of Venta Quemada, that’s Dorothy Heathcote, the late doyenne of Theatre in Education. And Fleischman, a physical replica of a housemate of mine at university, with the intellect of a Swedish biologist friend made in Zambia, and a medical expertise gleaned in Seattle, where my brother-in-law Sambasiva Lakshminarayanan is part of a once wild, now eminent and States-wide medical gang of four. But he (Fleischman, not my brother-in-law) had also studied in Bologna, where the medical museum is one of those places that change one’s perception of the world.
Of course that was the first draft. To make a readable novel out of it required the hard work (the writing, or rather recording the words that present themselves in the listening brain, is the easy bit). It also required tactful but tough editing.
Sixteen years later I have no intimate feelings about Bad to the Bone. The median assessment seems to be that it’s the second best novel about bike racing so far written (a friend of mine laughed when he read that. I’ve no idea why). The best is Tim Krabbe’s The Rider, which is a spare but encyclopaedic and absorbing classic in the dead centre of serious cycling culture. Bad to the Bone is nothing like it. It’s a fantasy, a bande desinée in words, the fast-moving and brightly coloured montage of a collision between bike racing at the highest level and Faustian ambition, crime, sex, legend and the vying between hyper-ambitious humans for the unattainable power of immortal gods. If it were a work of high seriousness, like this blog, it would be intolerable. But it’s not. It’s like when you’re at an actual bike race, the electric flash as the peloton whizzes by you, a blur of colour and sound, not reducible to analytic meaning; a speeding hieroglyph.