Where do you get your ideas from?
This is the question most authors claim to dread. It has become almost a cliché; the lone question after a dire literary event where your audience didn’t really get what you or your book were about. I suspect that the reason authors don’t like this question isn’t any of the ones they give: it’s predictable, it’s unimaginative, it’s basic. I suspect the real reason we don’t like it is that it is so damn difficult to answer honestly.
I am pretty sure the answer differs with every author; not only that, I believe it differs with every book. I think the answer usually lies in a combination of: what you have read, what you have written, what you have experienced, what you have seen that day, what you saw ten years ago, what you planned to do and what you never knew you know. And it is the word ‘combination’ that is the key. This combination is not a rational process, and it is only occasionally in the control of the author. It is what emerges from a chaotic collision of conscious and unconscious thoughts; of musings, memories, feelings, yearnings and prejudices. It is stimulated by posing questions and by thinking of something else. It is judged by the fear and hope of writing a great book, occasionally by analysis, more often by a feeling bubbling up from some part of the anatomy below the collarbone and above the navel.
So it’s a fascinating question, and it deserves a proper answer.
My latest book, Amnesia, is about an old man who lives by a loch in Scotland who falls and hits his head. When he wakes up in hospital, he has almost total amnesia. A young student – the great niece of a friend he has forgotten – helps him recover his memory by reading to him the manuscript of a memoir he has written. The first chapter tells her that the old man killed the only woman he ever loved – her French grandmother.
Not a bad idea; plenty to get my teeth into. But where did it come from?
The answer isn’t that it suddenly arrived fully formed from nowhere and that I wrote it down in a notebook. Nor that I undertook some kind of Socratic self analysis of question and answer from which it emerged in a couple of days. It took much longer than that and the process is far more interesting.
The first impetus was commercial. This is rare for me: I usually think if a book excites the writer then it will excite the reader. But in this case I decided I wanted to write a stand-alone thriller that would appeal to people who hadn’t bought one of my two existing series, about an Icelandic detective and about spies in pre-war Europe. I wanted it to appeal to people all over the world, not just in the UK.
What should this thriller be about? The first answer that leapt into my head was ‘an old man’. And then: ‘an old man forgetting something’. Sometimes the first answer that comes to mind is a good one, especially if it feels good, and this one did. It’s pretty clear where this thought had come from: like many people my age (mid-fifties) I had been worrying about old people for years. There was my late father, who suffered a stroke, my late mother-in-law, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and in particular my late uncle, who lived and died in Australia, with no relatives on that continent. Watching these people, and others, I had seen how the old lose their independence, their dignity and their freedom. This had seemed unjust to me. Now, some part of me wanted to write about it. To express what I felt and examine why I felt it. Fine – go with that!
Now, if I was writing about an old man, I could write about his life – all of his life. This is where my reading comes in. There are a small number of books that I have really enjoyed reading and that I wish I had written myself. Fatherland by Robert Harris is one as is A Secret History by Donna Tartt and Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. Another is Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which is a fake autobiography of a fictional small-time author and art dealer named Logan Mountstuart from his time at school at eighteen to when he dies as an old man in his eighties. I love the way it deals with the span of a long life, how Logan changes, how his relationships with other people affect him and he affects them. I have always wanted to write a book like that, but assumed it would be impossible in my own genre, thrillers. Now I saw an opportunity. The old man had written a book about his life. The key to some terrible secret that he had forgotten would be in there, but the memoir would not be reliable.
There was another, much deeper, reason why I latched on to the idea of a memoir, but that only became clear to me when I had finished the first draft of the book. I will come back to that later.
OK, so who was this old man? I wanted him to be alone, in a remote place, with his amnesia and his memoir. Why did he need to be in isolation? I’m not sure. You see, I don’t always know where ideas come from, however hard I try to think it through. It might be because my uncle seemed so alone in a continent by himself without any relatives – although he did have friends.
Anyway, I made him a university professor, and stuck him in some woods in Vermont. I have a growing interest in academics and I like New England. My wife is American and we recently bought a house in Massachusetts. I had also done a couple of college tours with my children around campuses in the States.
However, the real commercial world interlopes in here. When I mentioned my idea to my agent, he said an academic in the Vermont woods was a bit of a cliché. Could I not think of something else? Scotland seemed a good idea; it’s accessible to the British reader, and also everyone likes the highlands: the Americans, the French, the Germans, even the Scots. But where in the Highlands?
I remembered a holiday to the Highlands my family had taken me on when I was ten. We stayed in ‘The Stalker’s Cottage’ by Loch Glass just north of Inverness. The cottage had no electricity and there was no one else in sight. The red deer used to traipse past the window on their way down to the loch to drink every evening. I had my location. I subsequently drove to the gates of the Wyvis Estate, which surrounds Loch Glass, and walked five miles in and five miles out to the Stalker’s Cottage (the ‘right to roam’ allows anyone to walk on private land in Scotland). It was a perfect location.
The retired academic was too much of a cliché, so I needed another profession. Time for some straightforward analysis. I wrote down thirty professions and picked the one that appealed most. Doctor. Simple.
And yet. A number of my relations one or two generations before me were doctors. This book was rapidly becoming all about me. That was fine.
Who was going to be with the old man in his cottage? Almost all books need more than one character. Someone young. A student. A female student.
At the time, my two daughters were in their twenties and making their way through university. Their perspective on life interested me and I wanted to write about it. So a young female student helps the old man recover his memory; perhaps she finds the book or reads it to him.
I write crime novels and thrillers. There are twists, secrets, surprises, danger. Coming up with these often involves notebooks, walks and scribbling. What secret? Why would the girl care? A murder. Someone close to the girl. Her mother? Someone close to the old man as well, so he would be upset. Her grandmother? That would work.
I still needed somewhere to set the memoir. I mentioned I have written two spy stories set at the beginning of the Second World War, Traitor’s Gate and Shadows of War which took place in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris. Writing them, I felt as if I had spent four years in late-thirties Europe. So that was where my old man would spend his youth, and meet his young helper’s grandmother: Paris in 1935.
So, that’s how I thought I came up with the idea for Amnesia. As you can see, my answer to this perennial question wasn’t straightforward: it was a mixture of the commercial and the whimsical, the conscious and the sub-conscious, the calculating and the impulsive.
But it was eighteen months later when I was in a pub talking about my now completed book, that I remembered something. Twelve years ago, when I was going through piles and piles of my father’s papers after he died, I found wedged under a bookcase a yellow manuscript. In an old man’s shaking hand he had written: ‘I couldn’t bear to throw this away.’ The message was for me, his son the writer. The manuscript was about a young sailor, injured in the war, who is sent to a castle in the Highlands to convalesce, and there meets the laird’s daughter.
Was that in the back of my mind all along? When I discovered that manuscript was I destined, ten years on, to write a novel about an old man, a manuscript and the Highlands? It really doesn’t feel like it, but in truth I have absolutely no idea.
Whatever the true answer may be, I know that the process isn’t completely calculating or completely random, but it is completely mine. It is all about me.
Michael Ridpath’s latest novel, Amnesia, is published by Corvus in May