Stand back and count to Nine
Wives of Tyrants and landing the plane on time: the Harrogate History Festival 2013

So...

... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ...

- and you have an idea - the first idea for months - perhaps a year or two (it's astonishing how teaching and parenting and trying to finish a big project while learning to write new forms suck up your creative brain) ...

- it's not a short story idea - those are two-a-penny - it's not a non-fiction idea - that's on the back of the stove now that the dreaming stage has become the stewing stage - it's big cloud of an idea: as cloudy and vivid and suddenly, oddly specific as a dream - and it's yours ...

- you spend a lunchtime or two in the Goldsmiths library and an evening or three online, while every now and again some bits of ideas float and whirl in on the wind from goodness knows where ...

- you look back at which bits of earlier novels felt almost transcendant as you wrote them, being so right - and which of those also seem to transport readers - you look forward to ...

No, you don't look forward. This is not about what you will produce: this is about something that somehow, already exists, and what you need now is to find the process that will coax it forward, out of the mist, until you can see it properly: the bones and sinew and flesh, the crabbed old scar on one cheek and the driftwood cottage tucked down by the millstream; your job now is make it present to yourself. Later - months from now - your job will be to make it present to others, but for now the bits and pieces are coming in from all round you, like the swirling, messy wind before a storm, and you're catching them and putting them into place - a post-it-note kind of place, infinitely re-moveable ...

- you pack one of the Goldsmiths books in with the notes and clothes and business cards, and climb into the car to head off the Harrogate History Festival, by way of Hull; you start through the Blackwall Tunnel and along the A12 and up the M11 where the names speak of The Mathematics of Love, and you take advantage of a traffic jam to set up your phone so that you can record some notes without technically breaking the law, and the signs start saying THE NORTH as you turn and slip across on the A14 to the A1(M), where placenames from A Secret Alchemy begin to reel past, A1, A1(M) where something about the configuration of the landscape and the lives in your head makes tears start in your throat, M18 where you stop for coffee and can hardly keep your hands off that Goldsmiths book even though the clouds are inky over the Pennines and you need to get going again, M62 ...

And cloud by cloud, clue by clue, clod by clod, a whole new novel drops into your lap.

*****

Whether it will work - whether my sense of this as a whole novel will turn out to be right, once I start counting the bones and fitting them together - whether I shall in the end look at what this process has produced, and find that it that doesn't work for me, doesn't work for others, doesn't work for people who I need to buy it in metaphorical and literal ways ... I don't know. All I can do is trust that my own sense of a story worth finding aligns with readers' instincts for a story worth reading. We shall see.

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