STOP PRESS: 25th July 2018 - we have a cover! It's by designer Liam Relph, and I'm thrilled to bits with it!
I’m delighted to say that my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, will be published by Holland House Books on Darwin Day - 12th February - 2019.
I'm hugely grateful to my wonderful agent Joanna Swainson, of Hardman and Swainson, and Robert Peett of Holland House Books. But as this is The Itch, I wanted to say a little more, because although the book is rooted in the novelist part of me that wrote The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy, the writer-about-writing, fresh from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is also involved.
But this book has really come out of my failure to write a different book. For years people have asked me when I was going to write a novel about my family, but as well as my own inhibitions about The Ancestor (of which more here on the blog, and here in the Telegraph) I couldn’t see where the story was. Then I was asked to talk about creative thinking in the wider family, and began to wonder if I could, after all, grow a novel out of the science and the art - the creativity - that runs through two and a half centuries of my family like a seam of Potteries clay.
Books about Charles Darwin and his wife and cousin Emma Wedgwood are legion, but I wanted - creatively speaking I needed - to take the road less travelled. There were the fascinating real lives of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society; Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; Julia Wedgwood, who as a writer and intellectual was ranked with George Eliot; Ralph Vaughan Williams and his extraordinary love story; and poet and Communist John Cornford, first Briton to be killed in the Spanish Civil War.
But even when I invented a fictional character and slid her into the creative lives of Charles Darwin’s grandchildren - my grandparents’ generation - I struggled. There were ten biographies and memoirs written by and about my major characters - there are two on Gwen Raverat alone - and that was before I tackled the books about secondary characters such as John Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf.
Nor was it simply a matter of whether I was “allowed” to change my grandmother’s dates, make a villain of a man whose sons, my cousins, are still alive, or write a sex scene involving someone I’d actually met. The real problem was that these people explore their own motives and feelings, and they tell their own stories: where was the space for me to make a story of my own? In trying to do so, I spent three years in a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer - and ultimately the struggle nearly killed me.
When I was better, I gave up the novel. But the desire to write about the family went on gnawing at me, and at last I realised how I might do it. This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin is creative non-fiction, and it takes the reader on a journey through my family, evoking them and their times through the lens of my struggle to grow fiction out of them.
I wanted, too, to evoke what it feels like write creatively: to hunt down something that doesn’t yet exist; to spin invention, memory and research together until you can’t tell the difference; to have mere names grow into real-seeming people who have their own life; to take ruthless technical decisions to make your story seem natural and real: to do what Siri Hustvedt describes as "like remembering something which never happened".
So This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is part memoir, part biography, part book about writing and how stories are told, but at heart it’s the story of how a creative disaster came out of seven generations of creative thinkers. All being well, a year from today it will be on the bookshop shelves. In among business as usual on the Itch - which is mostly about your writing - I’ll be blogging about the process of having my writing published, exploring both the facts and the feelings of having a piece of creative work go out into the world.
And meanwhile, I've dug up an audio diary that I recorded for the Royal Literary Fund when I ran away to the country for a week, to find out if "this peculiar life-writing thingy" could actually be turned into a book.