I was once asked this in a test that was supposed to identify my ideal occupation. I had been drudging through a list of questions, unable to decide whether I was 60% thinker or 60% dreamer, and increasingly doubting that the exercise would be any use. Then there it was – the one question I was glad to be asked and could answer with certainty. ‘Do you value the strange?’ Yes, I replied. One million per cent.
Then, it said, you should be an author.
(I already knew that, but it was nice to have it confirmed.)
I admit this love of oddness can be unhelpful. Recently we had to replace our kettle, and if this had been left to me we would still be boiling water in pans on the stove while I searched for my kettle, the one that wasn’t like everyone else’s. Because the strange is special. It provokes us to consider what is accepted, what blends into the background or is ignored. Why shouldn’t the simplest household item make you take notice?
In authoring terms, though, the strange is rather more useful. It poses a delicious question, and one worth asking. I love a touch of fable, magic realism or science fiction that illuminates what is all around us, how humanity works and who we are.
My novels start with the strange. What if a character was hypnotised and experienced a different life? And what if, instead of going to the past, as is conventional, she went to the future? This became My Memories of a Future Life. What if, in decades to come, all the countryside had gone and we lived in a cocoon of helpful software and social rules – and somebody started dreaming they were riding horses? This was the germ of Lifeform Three.
These ideas arrive full of freight – although, like dreams, they keep it locked away. My writing process is part research and part search; a labyrinthine route of interpretation and guesswork that sometimes takes years.
I begin by reading. I search on librarything.com for books with similar subjects, the cousins of the book I want to write – reincarnation for novel 1, dystopia for novel 2. I also guess at emotional themes. (This is the only time I browse for fiction by category and search algorithms. Most literary fiction can’t be reduced to issues and tags.)
I write reams of notes; long, secret essays I may never read again. The chances are, I’ll find them absurd, wrong or naive. But as I keep visiting the book and sharing my thoughts with the page, I begin to understand what my gut is telling me. My Memories of a Future Life became an exploration of despair – a person who had lost faith and hope in her own life. Lifeform Three became an elegy to things we have lost from the past: our humanity when we are closer to algorithms than to nature; our memories and individuality when we strive to fit with social pressures. From this, the characters emerge – people who would be most undone or challenged by the situation.
When I’m ready, I plan each scene on index cards, spread them on the dining table, shuffle them about, fill obvious gaps and add more ideas. Then comes the text.
Draft one is the first time I put the characters into the world – an intense and surprising process as they live the novel’s events. The result is a wild mess so before I tackle draft 2 I make another plan to control the structure. I don’t like sprawling narratives that go nowhere. Although I seek depth I like tight stories, full of urgency and momentum. I see myself as a storyteller, not a dawdler in ideas. And then comes more editing, restructuring, refining, understanding.
Music is important to me – as you’ll know if you’ve seen my series The Undercover Soundtrack. I gather pieces as I go along, which become a way to carry around the book’s emotional landscape, the mood of a scene, a character’s state of mind. Many of my breakthroughs come when I’m out running, with the soundtrack ruling my brain, breath and feet.
Right now I’m drafting Ever Rest, whose elegaic mood I’m channelling with repeated doses of Moon Safari by Air, and Living Room Songs by Olafur Arnalds. More tracks are finding me as the novel becomes a preoccupation. I can’t tell you anything about it yet. But I can promise you this: it began when I followed the strange.