It’s a funny thing, I’ve spent my entire professional life working in a creative field yet it’s only since becoming a novelist that people seem interested in where I get my ideas from. No-one cared when I worked in telly. Maybe it’s because TV is a group effort and so there’s no identifiable author; or maybe it’s just because most TV is rubbish and doesn’t contain any ideas worth enquiring about. Not so when you’ve written a book. So now when people find out what I do and ask the inevitable question I’m not used to it. I suppose I should have some witty/erudite/opaque retort at the ready but instead I tend to stare at my shoes, shrug a bit, and say something lame like ‘I get ideas from all sorts of places’; because, truth be told, I don’t really know where they come from.
I know the one that turned into Sanctus formed gradually during a very long drive through France. I was in a transit van that shook alarmingly if it went faster than fifty-five miles an hour and was chock full of various things designed to make a seven month stay in a rented house feel more like home. It was so jam packed that I had a blow out just past Orleans and a nice Portuguese lorry driver called Sergio had to lend me his heavy-duty jack because the van was too heavy for my flimsy one to lift to change the tyre. Basically, it was pretty slow going and, as the radio didn’t work, all I could really do to pass the time was think.
Driving is quite a good environment for thought. You’re often on your own. You have a sense of purpose because you’re heading somewhere. Your mechanical brain is occupied with the whole business of driving so it sort of frees up a bit of space for your creative brain to stretch out in.
I remember reading once that John Irving used to drive to some cabin somewhere to write and he would plan what he was going to work on the way over. From this he managed to produce ‘A Prayer For Owen Meany’ – so you’ve got to tip your hat that. His vehicle was a Saab I think. Mine was a Ford transit. Maybe that’s significant.
Anyway the seed of my idea, the one I kept turning over in my mind like a pebble in my pocket all the way south, had literally come out of nowhere. The purpose of the trip to France was to try and write a novel, something I’d wanted to do for years but found work and small children got in the way. I had a few ideas and fully expected one of them to turn into the book, but a quirk of the journey changed all that and somehow I managed to catch an idea that I may well have missed had I taken another route.
This is what happened.
From Dieppe I drove inland about an hour to Rouen. This reminded me of the Supergrass album ‘The road to Rouen’ a play on ‘Road to Ruin’, which in turn brought to mind one of my favourite all time quotes – ‘A Man is a god in ruins.’
And that’s pretty much it.
May not sound much but those three things, coupled to the image of Rouen cathedral rising up into the sky, clotted together in my head somehow and during my long tedious journey through Chartres – where another cathedral towered into the sky – and past Orleans – where a third did the same -other things stuck to it, until by the time I arrived in the Tarn the idea had some real gravity. It still took me months and months to work it all out properly and then a year to finish writing it, but the raw material was gathered on that journey.
Where did it come from? No idea. Was it latent in my head and just popped out when it was needed? Had I opened my mind to some sort of celestial signal that gives people ideas from a central bank? Or is the mind naturally programmed to make sense of things, so a bunch of seemingly disparate things suddenly take on a meaning that is greater than the sum of the individual parts?
I don’t know – I really don’t.
I’m writing book 2 now and the flukeyness of catching the idea for the first one fills me with no small amount of dread for the second. What if I don’t get a good one this time round. What if I don’t get one at all? In some respects the ride is more comfortable this time: I know it will be published for a start; I have a nice comfy office and a computer with a big screen to stare at and move documents about on – but none of this really helps. Maybe what I really need is a long, long stretch of road and a knackered old van with no radio. Or maybe a Saab; maybe you get better ideas in a Saab. I could certainly go a bit faster. But then I would also get there quicker and I might miss some of the scenery. And I think the scenery is important. After all -just like in a story – it’s the journey that counts: arrival is very overrated.
Sanctus is published by HarperCollins