It’s a question people ask …
So… many authors trace being a writer from a young age, hardly remembering when they didn’t scribble down stories that formed in their heads. We learn storytelling as soon as, or even before, we learn to read… I’m not sure why I didn’t scribble mine down, but from the first I can’t remember when I didn’t draw. I remember filling an old autograph book (look that up if you’ve never seen one), belonging to one of my parents, with little stick figures, and I used to draw between the sums in my arithmetic book. Which must’ve annoyed the teacher when I was five or six. By then the stories had become a kind of family saga…
Fast forward to the late1980s, and I was working on my first novel, A Painter’s Eye.
That book became a memorial to a friend who gave enormous encouragement and helped with research. He had partially inspired a character (an artist). But something eerie, powerful, and bizarre happened. One night I wrote about the artist character’s death in an accident. The next night I heard the terrible news that the friend himself had been killed. It was a different kind of accident, but… it was all too close and too real… I completed writing the book, with Faure’s amazing Requiem playing in the background and tears dripping on the keyboard. It still exists in a box in the attic, though the rejection letter was long, encouraging, and (if I’d had the confidence to realise it), probably worth taking as a prompt to re-write and re-submit!
In between being a child and writing that first novel, I had studied in the North East, far from my London roots, met and married my partner in Oxford, settled and had three kids, produced amateur plays, written and published some articles on things like post-natal depression, the nude in art, and even (sounds very outdated now) women and equality. And a scatter of short stories.
Stories have a way of evolving over time… inspirations can lead you through research to a better place… After Painter’s Eye my next completed novel The Chrysalis explores the dilemma of an unhappy father who feels his gender is female, and begins his trans journey. The first agency I sent it to decided that story was a bit ‘before its time’ (the 1990s). Another wanted it, but from a different viewpoint. Instead, I began the first (and totally superseded) draft of what became Baby, Baby, as a sci-fi adventure, set in Cambridge and Cornwall, inspired by the story of Dolly the cloned sheep, born 1996. Researching the background and development of the science behind cloning, and of IVF fertility techniques, captivated my imagination, and inspired a quite different tale: a protagonist whose father is a prominent expert in artificial reproduction, an arty step sister who’s mysteriously pregnant, a romance with a guy from a strict religious family.
Bringing that together with an updated version of the storytelling drawings in my maths books, I was writing about the ethics of real biological science, art, religious faith, and social science, rolled into a Romeo and Juliet family saga.
The Labyrinth Year followed, as I explored what happened next, bringing the characters into the area where I live, giving them the life that busy professional parents lead, contrasting that with the arty stepsister’s search for her real mother… using the life around me as a background.
Way back, at school, the art teacher described my pictures as ‘narrative’… As well as trying to work on the next step for the family (it’s 2017, and we’re looking back at 2007, just before the financial crash…) I am still a painter, and my work is, nearly always, a kind of storytelling.