I stole the idea for She’s Not There.
It was back in 2012, at a Sunday lunch, and my host, already a published author, announced she’d finally given up on the novel she’d been wrestling with for months. I asked what the novel was about, wondering if I might be able to come up with a way forward. ‘Oh, just, a boy wakes up and his mum’s disappeared,’ she said, with a dismissive gesture. For the rest of the meal I couldn’t concentrate on what anyone was saying. And that night I didn’t sleep a wink, watching the story of nine-year-old Jonah, his mother, Lucy, and his younger brother Raff, spool inside my brain. The next day, in my lunch hour, I started writing it down. By the end of the week I’d produced 10,000 words, and Jonah’s predicament occupied my every waking thought. I was excited, but also deeply uneasy. Would my author friend mind? If I asked her, and she said, ‘Yes!’, what would I do?
I became a writer shortly after I learned to read. When I say I became a writer, it wasn’t just that I started writing things, but that I decided that writing was what my life was for. Four decades later, finally on the verge of being published, I think of my seven-year-old self and how mystified she’d be that it’s taken so long. That self was not only prolific, but an unabashed self-publicist, pressing her oeuvres on whoever was around. Certain that she was a prodigy, she expected to publish her first novel at the age of nine, like Daisy Ashford. That didn’t happen, and in my teenage years my chutzpah collapsed under a tsunami of self-consciousness. I no longer showed my writing to others, but read over it myself, with an uber-critical eye. Aged 18 I reached a pinnacle of self-contempt, and spent an afternoon tearing all my stories, poems and diaries into tiny pieces. At university the only writing I did was in exams. As an adult I found myself scribbling things again, but couldn’t take my creative ambitions seriously. The world was stuffed with works of staggering genius. How could I be so self-indulgent as to attempt my own offerings? How could I be so deluded as to think they wouldn’t bore people to tears?
It took a stolen idea to vanquish my inhibitions. I was so enthused by She’s Not There that I took a break from my job as a civil servant to finish it. When I eventually summoned the courage to come clean with my friend, she was fine about it. But what would have happened if she hadn’t been? Would I have abandoned my already-abandoned boys? Would they have faded away into nothing? Would I have written a different novel? Or would I not have written a novel at all? I’m embarked upon my second novel now, and it’s not based on a stolen idea (well, apart from there’s nothing new under the sun). But I do wonder whether I needed someone else’s idea to get me going; whether I would never have had enough confidence in any of my own.
Out 19th April 2018
The Borough Press