Where Do I Get My Ideas From?
Inspiration is a tricky, hard-to-pin-down business. It is also, by definition, deeply private and - at times - extraordinarily mysterious.
But with twenty years of writing and thirteen novels under my belt, I am prepared to reveal the following:
- Nothing makes inspiration disappear faster than the sense that it is being actively ‘hunted down’. This is, I am sure, why it always strikes me at the most inopportune moments, like when I’m stuck in a traffic jam, or pinned to the dentist’s chair, or in the small hours too nearly asleep to be bothered to stumble in search of a pen and pad...
- For no matter how fantastic the idea, I have learned that I need to WRITE IT DOWN, or it will be lost under the jumble of shopping lists, decisions about what to eat/wear, latest hot gossip, what to watch on telly and all the other vital things that constitute my action-packed, non-inspirational life.
- Curiosity/Observation about the world…nosiness…?! Whatever you want to call it, I find that the tiniest physical detail – buck-teeth, a head of lustrous hair, bitten nails, a fallen tree, the shape of a cloud – can set in motion the idea for an entire character or scene. It’s like reality is the trigger, but then my imagination barges it out of the way and takes over.
This is a game I play all the time in order to get under the skin of my characters.
For example, in writing my novel The Godmother, I asked myself:
What if I had pursued a career in business and hadn’t had children, or got married? What would I do if I decided that, although single, becoming a mother was important after all?
Or, in writing A Family Man:
What if a decent, hard-working thirtysomething Dad came home one evening to find that his wife had simply disappeared, leaving behind their four year old son?
Or, in writing Relative Love:
What if the worst, most unforeseeable tragedy befell a close family?
Or, in writing Life Begins:
What if the direction of an entire life was based on a single, seismic childhood event?
Or, in writing The Love Child:
What if a 40 year old had sex with his best friend's just-sixteen year old daughter? Could that ever be deemed 'right' or truly 'consensual' ?
More Personal Stuff
My inspiration also appears to be propelled by a combination of the following:
- Terror (of failure, of missing a deadline, of an empty day, of losing my touch... of pretty much anything, in fact).
- The right coffee mug, the right pen... superstition rules.
- The weird, wonderful, occasional sense of the story pre-existing, of it needing, simply, to be told, with me in the happy position of being the one to tell it.
My twin brother and I were born in 1960 to Foreign Office parents having a spell in England between postings. I would have liked a more exotic place of birth, (like my two elder sisters, born in Saigon and Singapore respectively), but had to settle instead for St George’s hospital, in Hyde Park, where it then was. With four kids under the age of four and no disposable nappies or washing machines, my Mum was pretty pleased when they headed off to man the British Consulate in Shanghai for a couple of years, a job that involved living in a grand house in a compound with hot and cold running servants. We even had a governess – a lovely person who is still a family friend – as there was no school for us to attend. So protected was our world, that we only really left the compound for ballet and piano lessons, or tea parties with the children of other diplomats. I can remember still the sea of faces that would press up against the car as our driver edged through the crowded streets, the bafflement of being stared at.
I was six when we left Shanghai, rushed out – as I learnt later - because of the Cultural Revolution, which was just starting and which saw many dear friends of my parents tortured or imprisoned. After that we lived in Germany for three years where I had my first experience of ‘proper’ education at an international preparatory school - a melting-pot of cultures and creeds that gave me my first inkling of how tough and complicated the world could be. But it wasn’t until returning to London, aged 9, that I had my first brush with real unhappiness, feeling like an outsider at my starchy girls day school and missing my brother and sisters who had been despatched to boarding school ahead of me in preparation for the next posting abroad. When that posting came – to Stockholm – I too was sent away – to Godolphin School in Salisbury - but settled quickly and happily, secure in the knowledge that I was making friends to whom I wouldn’t have to say an eventual goodbye. The relief remains vivid – several of them are close to me still.
I would recommend Stockholm to any teenager interested in parties, skiing, boating and ice hockey…every holiday was an adventure and left me and my siblings with a bond that remains to this day. Returning to England at the end of the seventies, things got a little more serious with A levels and university applications. To everyone’s intense surprise (especially my own) I was offered a place at Oxford to study English, a subject chosen mostly because I could think of nothing more pleasurable than a licence to read books for three years! In fact, there was so much reading – the course was a chronological jaunt from Anglo Saxon to modern literature – that it was a long while after my finals before I even considered picking up a novel for relaxation ie simply to enjoy the story rather than trying to think of something clever to say about it.
After such a peripatetic childhood, I had no intention of working anywhere but England. I joined a London advertising agency as an account manager, where I spent a lot of time envying the ‘creatives’ – paid to write words and draw pictures - but still had a lot of fun. A good salary, a company car - I was doing okay, when the academic with whom I had cosily set up house, joined the Foreign Office, accepted a posting to Buenos Aires and asked me to marry him….Reader, I did. There followed four incredible years in South America, during the course of which I worked – with mixed results – as a freelance journalist and wrote (with rather more success) my first two novels. Oh yes, and that’s where I had the first of my two wonderful sons.
A career path, like a life, is a zigzagging, mercurial thing, much easier to make sense of in retrospect than at the time. Mine has had so many ups and downs it would take a memoirs to do justice to them. Suffice it to say that I started writing partly out of a sort of curiosity, just to see if I could, and partly to keep myself sane – in those days diplomatic wives abroad were still not allowed official jobs. Being a novelist dove-tailed well with being a mother, that was another plus.
But the main thing was that I got totally hooked on the power of telling a story, of creating characters and letting them wend their way in and out of the dramas and crises that constitute the business of being human. It helps me make sense of the world; gives some shape to the million fleeting moments that matter to all of us, good and bad. Life whizzes so, don’t you find? Writing gives me the illusion that I’m catching some of it – for me, and for you too, I hope.