In a discussion I heard recently – I believe on Radio 4 – an author was asked which writers influenced them and by whom they measured their own work. The response was, yes, that there are those ‘go-to’ authors to whose writing they aspire. That is not to say copy, for, as was said at the time, it is not what you would wish to do, even if you could. Nothing to do with plagiarism. It is having a goal for your own work, a reminder of what is the best. Writers always seek their own original voice.
I have several authors whose work I admire in particular, that give me the push, a buzz to do better. ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift recently came to the fore. It is the way in which one day is the focus from which a whole life is revealed. Nothing is extraneous; the atmosphere created is absorbing, the involvement with the characters and place so real that I felt that I was there, a fly on the wall, at times fearful for the consequences of what was happening. I have read two other books written by Swift which I have kept on my bookshelf for the reason that his style and plots are so convincing.
Donna Tartt, whose three novels I love and possess, also has a powerful effect on the way I wish to write.
I came across ‘The Tobacconist’ by Robert Seethaler last year, a novel or novella which showed that the telling of a story doesn’t have to be long, that characters can be created in few words, as can the plot. A devastating novel which tells of the inequities of the Nazi regime, and yet the main focus is on one man and his strange relationship with Sigmund Freud.
A further point is how much of one’s life authors ransack for the purposes of creating character or plot. Rose Tremain, another author I admire, has recently written an autobiography and, in discussion, dismissed the theory that the mothers she has created in her novels are based on her own mother. Whether that is true or not, most authors, as I discussed in another blog, ‘We Plunder our Lives’, use their experiences of people, places and emotions to inform what they write.
What I’m grappling with at the moment is location, where I set my present opus – working title ‘Scenes in a Greenhouse’. Previously I have placed my protagonists in identifiable places in London, or the city of Cambridge where I was born, and lived for the first nineteen years of my life. I can understand why that place is especially vivid and somewhere I want to go back to, even fictionally. Memories in childhood are enduring, indelible.
There are references in this latest novel to gardens I have known, and the names of characters come from people I knew at that time. Though they bear no resemblance to the real people. There are things too, a coke boiler featured from my childhood, and an Easiwork!
But why can’t I set this new story where I live now and have lived for twice as many years. I cannot name familiar places. The Hayling Billy Line was walked in ‘Incident on the Line’ though never named. The South Downs were described as Greta drove through in her wish to escape, grief her only companion. And I’ve remembered Norfolk which I knew as a child and visited again more recently.
Is it because it’s too mundane? Too dangerously close to normal life to fictionalise? Or am I worried that readers will question certain local accuracies? I’ve certainly used the railway line to London which operated during the 2nd World War; I was able to check the extent of the journey. And I refer to the distance between a town and two cities.
David Almond in an article in The Guardian wrote that his initial concern about writing stories set in his own home town was that they would be to ordinary; he didn’t want to be a Northern writer. The exotic would be more interesting, in some voice totally different to his own. But he was ‘ambushed’ by a story that he read which was set in a place that ‘was very like the real .. but that was also fiction’.
No more worries – the real and imaginary can sit side by side.