I can recall exactly when the idea for my first novel, After a Dead Dog, came to me. It was after the funeral of a neighbour. I was struck by the receiving line of relatives at the entrance to the church, which I’d never seen before and which I’ve never seen elsewhere and does seem to be a local custom. It was also a brutal November morning, blowing a gale, and I had my first line and my first scene and I was off and running.
The origin of my second book, No Hearts, No Roses, is not so clear to me. I was halfway through a draft of another novel but, while it was OK, it wasn’t gripping me quite as it ought and, if it wasn’t gripping me, I could think of no reason why it would grip anyone else. Once I recognized that, it was surprisingly easy to abandon fifty thousand words and the best part of a year’s toil. (As someone much pithier than me once said, ‘Writing’s easy. You just stare a blank sheet of paper until blood forms on your forehead.’) Now that I look back on it, it was an astute career move as, in one go, I jumped the notorious ‘second-novel problem’ and moved straight on to number three.
I’ve worked as an editor in publishing and I have, in the past, come up with ideas that other writers have taken on with some success and I did have an idea but I didn’t think it was for me. For a start it, tangentially, involved the film industry and that screamed the west coast of America at me, which I know I could never write about convincingly. It also seemed to me that it would best be set during some of the wilder days of the industry and that meant it would have to be written by someone who knew something about Hollywood in the 1920s.
Oddly enough, I was in America when the answer came to me. I had just arrived in Saratoga Springs after a pleasant and thoughtful train journey alongside the Hudson. (I’d been reflecting on Guys and Dolls and Sweet Adelaide’s lament that the last time she and Nathan Detroit were heading to Niagara and marriage, Nathan had got off at Saratoga ‘for the fourteenth time’.) I must have gone into something very like the detective trance (although I thought I’d been daydreaming) because that answer was very simple: change the period to the 1950s and I could set the story in London. And I knew something about London and something about the 1950s. I’d even daydreamed an agreeably complex protagonist. The fact that I knew nothing about the British film industry at the time I ignored completely.
I also had with me a virgin Moleskine notebook, just bought in New York, and no one can resist a virgin Moleskine.
The next day I wrote the first paragraph.
After that, of course, and returning home, I spent a great deal of time ransacking history books and my own and other people’s memories, and staring at a blank computer screen, hoping that any moisture on my furrowed brow was just perspiration.
No Hearts, No Roses is published by Severn House