I am sometimes asked where I find ideas for my writing: where do they come from and how are they accessed?I would say that I don’t really have ideas for stories. There isn’t a particular reality which I choose to write about. But I do have feelings, or a sensitivity to suffering; in Instructions for the Working Day, for example, my characters experience the persistent pain of the past and the burden of guilt.
From these feelings, the characters gradually emerge. I may well have a setting in mind by this stage, but the storyline is always rooted in emotions.
So where do these feelings come from? There are two sources for me and the first is memory. I can never be sure how accurate these memories are, but it doesn’t matter. It only matters that they keep surfacing. They don’t need to be recollections of major events. They can be scraps and splinters, residual moments, casualties of a long-forgotten time. Insignificant then, but valuable now. I take notice of them, mulling them over constantly, sometimes for years. There has to be a reason why they stayed.
For this novel, one of the childhood memories was from 1972, on a car trip in Austria, when my father gave a lift to a desperate man in a Tyrolean hat. He said he had left his wife up a mountain. He was loud and constantly gesticulating. My mother squeezed into the back with my brother and me, while he sat in the front and gave frantic directions. His presence filled the car. He suddenly recognised the mountain and my father had to brake hard. We never knew his full story, but what has remained is the sense of our day shifting, our quiet car-world now invaded, our horror at my father’s impulsiveness, the hot squash of our bodies in the sun-baked back seat, the fear of strangers.
The other source is reading: fiction, non-fiction, articles, interviews, messages. I read very closely and carefully. It takes a long time. I re-read anything which particularly holds my attention, whether it’s a phrase, sentence, paragraph or whole page. Sometimes I re-read it multiple times to discover why it appeals to me, why it has captured my attention. Usually, the reason is behind the words. Something isn’t being said. Something is loose and drifting.
Often, it is the final page of a story which inspires me the most. For example, the novel which made me want to become a writer is The Prevailing Wind by Joan Lingard. I borrowed it from the library in 1973 and, shamefully, have never taken it back. At the end, a postcard of Paris is sent from one friend to another with an ambiguous message, a pinprick puncturing the top of the Eiffel Tower and the beautiful line: I am journeying slowly eastwards.
I still wonder whether the ambiguity is there because the character is enigmatic throughout the book and the author is staying faithful to the puzzle of him, or because the author trusts the reader to decide the outcome for themselves. And the great thing is that a decision never has to be made. There is no need for finality. Only possibilities.
And infinite possibilities are where ideas really come from. They come when you loosen your mind from the finite and the expected. This is why reading helps: because of all that is unexplained, all that is drifting, all that is waiting for a writer to catch it.