Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Origins of Ideas for Fiction

Readers often ask writers about where the ideas for novels and stories come from. The answer to this question is really never simple. I will be talking about my new novel – Child of the Twilight. And where it fits into my thinking. Once a novel is published, the writer has the luxury of being able to mentally going back over its origins, of seeing how each element somehow developed from events, thoughts, ideas etc.

This kind of thing is deeply personal and is perhaps not often discussed. Readers and reviewers and critics come to the novel from the outside, as it were, but it is the writer who holds the real keys. It is the writer’s business to give the readers enough guidance to take them through the narrative. And it is the reader’s responsibility to take notice along the way. To follow the clues. That makes it sound as if every story is a mystery – and in a way I think that is true.

One of my short stories called The Quince Tree is published in a collection in Norway. It is a tiny little old story and I never think about it much. But recently I had an email from a Norwegian reader who wanted to know about the use of colours in the story. Did they mean what the reader thought they meant? And how had I arrived at the scheme she found operating with the colours in the story. Now when I get a question like this I take it very seriously, and I have to stop and consider my response. Because when I write – and when many fiction writers write – the elements that make up the narrative and that texture the prose arrive freighted with the writer’s own understandings and memories and points of view and prejudices – and so forth. From the writer’s side of things, everything is going forward at once – the nature of the character, the events, the setting, the tone, the language – everything depends on everything else. But readers – such as the reader in Norway – come to things bit by bit, and may be attracted to the flash of the colour yellow, and start to wonder why yellow. Now in the case of the quince story, the colour is the colour of the fruit, and so is unavoidable – so the question that arises is really – why quince? There is truly no simple answer to that question. The subject matter of a story comes from deep within the experience and dare I say the heart of the writer. The writer is in a sense saying to the reader ‘I have a message for you,’ should you want to hear it.

I propose to tell you the story of the writing of my novel Child of the Twilight. Of telling you where I believe it comes from, telling you what possessed me to write this book. Before I do this, let me just outline the plot for you, and tell you a little about the characters.

A miracle working statue of Baby Jesus is stolen from a church in Rome. This fact is the central matter in the novel, and also holds the central image in the novel of the importance of babies and the making of babies, including modern methods such as IVF.

A young Australian priest is there in Rome at the time of the theft. His mother in Melbourne has a keen devotion to the lost statue. The statue is not recovered. The priest – his name is Roland – returns to Australia where he works in Melbourne, part of his duties being as chaplain to a girls’ boarding school. One of the girls at the school gets pregnant to a boy from the brother school, but she loses the baby very early in the pregnancy. She was not actually aware that she was pregnant.
As part of her recovery her aunt takes her overseas for a holiday. They visit the church where the statue went missing, as well as other Catholic shrines. One of the aunt’s great interests is in black statues of the Virgin Mary. These statues are – or used to be – key figures for women’s focus on conception and childbirth. They are associated with the earth itself, with darkness, mystery and miracles.

When in Rome Cora and her aunt meet an old priest at the church from which the statue of the baby disappeared. They discuss the lost statue with him, and talk about the Australian priest Roland who is known to all of them. One of the key ideas in the book is the ease with which international connections are discovered and established – the six degrees of separation idea. There is a sense in which a vast human family is united by the holy family – located here in the lost statue of the baby, and the figure of the black madonna. Cora’s boyfriend (the father of her lost child) follows her to Italy, and a few years later he and Cora marry. The lost statue is never found, however the mystery of its disappearance is revealed at the end of the book.
Reduced to that more or less factual outline, the book could sound rather solemn. However the tone is not at all solemn, owing to the fact that the story is narrated by a nineteen year old girl who is completely unsentimental. So she tells the story, and at some points she enters the story.

I have stopped talking about the plot and am now talking about how the story is told. This girl is called Sydney. Why? People have often been named after places in the world – but in recent years this has become particularly fashionable. Dakota, Paris, India, Cheyenne, Montana, Odessa. I noticed that Australian place names are not popular – so I decided to use one. Sydney. Her surname is also a place name – Kent – and her mother is named after a Spanish town, her father after an English village. The girl Sydney was an IVF baby, and she is very hung up on the fact that all her genetic material came from unknown sources – both of her parents being infertile. Another key fact is that the origins of her egg and sperm are unknown, and there are no records. So – in the context of a world of six degrees of separation, Sydney imagines she could be related to anybody and everybody. She has a very detached and matter of fact way of talking about things. So the chances of becoming sentimental about the religious aspects of the story are avoided.

So that is how the book is. But I said I would talk about where it came from. Telling you what possessed me.
A long time ago when I was studying French in year twelve at high school, we read a story by Prosper Merimee about a black statue of the goddess Venus. These pagan statues were christianised in the middle ages, and so have become the black madonnas in shrines throughout Europe. In fact the statue of Venus in the story fascinated me, and led me to realize the presence of the black madonnas, and also their significance. They are so unlike the pretty statues of Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima – these two being nineteenth century images, whereas the black ones are much more ancient. The black ones are part of the world of medieval knights and troubadours, and interest in all this led me to the secret language of the troubadours – called the Green Language or the Language of the Birds. This is a rhyming, punning way of speaking, and by using it the troubadours could communicate secrets and messages without seeming to do so.

There is a character in my book – Cosimo, the older priest in the Roman church where the statue was – who sometimes speaks like that.

For many years I studied the phenomenon of the black madonna, and I visited a number of shrines, mainly in Spain and France. But the novel that references these images and ideas did not really get going until I saw a news item – a very tiny news item – in the paper in 1994. It was a report on the theft of a miraculous statue – the Bambinello – from the Franciscan church in Rome. For some reason – and these things do remain unclear – this sparked the book. But I still wrote a number of other books before this one was completed.

One thing that kept puzzling me was how I was going to get the tone I wanted – the unsentimental plain narrative that was almost cold. Then I the idea of the character of Sydney Kent came to me, and the rest fell into place. Sydney is an international child, wandering the world with her wealthy professional parents. She tells the story.

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