Tuesday, 6 July 2010
I had a friend once whom I loved. He was the most generous man I ever knew. One thing about him puzzled me. He never seemed to do anything on purpose. He just found himself doing things. He found himself at university studying science. He found himself working for a large corporation. He found himself getting married to a woman he had known since he was a boy. He found himself having an affair with somebody else. One day other people found him dead.
I used to wonder what was wrong with him until I realised that I am just the same, especially when it comes to my writing. I never decide in advance what I’m going to write about. I just find myself writing a story. It’s only afterwards I work out why I chose that idea, why those characters.
For example, my book Jacob’s Ladder is about a boy who wakes up and finds himself lying face down in the middle of a huge field. He has no idea how he came to be there. In fact he can’t remember anything at all except his name – Jacob.
When the publisher came to design the cover they showed me a handprint. The background for the handprint was a fingerprint.
‘What’s the idea behind this?’ I asked. I couldn’t see what it had to do with the story.
‘Your book is all about identity, right?’ my editor replied.
‘Oh yeah, I suppose it is,’ I replied, lamely. I felt stupid not even understanding what my own book was about.
‘All your books are about identity, really, aren’t they?’ the editor continued.
‘I suppose they are,’ I agreed.
Except that this isn’t how I see them at all. Each one usually revolves around something painful in my life. I only realise what it is afterwards. Even when the books are meant to be light-hearted and funny For example, the next book I have out is called The Magical Detectives. It’s a romp. But it starts with an eleven year old boy coming home one day and finding that his mother has disappeared. I wrote this story not long after my own mother died.
I had a dream about six months after she died that I was in her house in Ireland chatting to her. Then I happened to glance out of the window and saw my cousin coming down the front path. He was wearing a dark suit. I was surprised to see him there because he lived at the other end of the country. Then I noticed that his wife was right behind him. I stood up to look more carefully and saw that she was followed by a line of my relations, all dressed in black. I realised they must be going to a funeral and immediately I was gripped by terror thinking, ‘It‘s not my mother’s funeral. It can’t be. I was just talking to her.’ I turned round but she wasn’t in the room. I ran through the house calling out her name but she had vanished. Then I understood that she was really dead and I had been talking to a ghost.
A few weeks after that dream I began work on The Magical Detectives. That makes it sound like a dark and sombre book but it isn’t at all. It’s the tale of four characters who get whisked off to another world in an adventure that includes a talking cat, flying carpets and houses with attitude. But all the same it started with pain, like a pearl starts as an irritation to the oyster.
One day I would like to be a different person. Someone who takes control of his writing. Maybe I could even sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a best seller.’ After all, other people do it. So why can’t I?