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where did that idea come from ? oct 29th

this is a version of an article written for king's college london's latest festival of arts and humanities.

authors, whenever they emerge from their garrets to appear in public, seem to face one inevitable question: where do you get your ideas from ? something kinder would be welcome. why was your last book so good ? when did you realise you were a genius ? but no – it’s always the one about ideas. a lot of writers roll their eyes at this point, trying to indicate that the great mystery of writing will never be revealed so easily by such a frontal attack. they imply the question is banal. does the questioner think there is a place you can go to collect inspiration, a box somewhere marked ideas. i suspect most writers hate the question because they can’t think of a decent answer. this time every year i have question. usually, authors can fob them off with an answer to a different question: what is your book about? they’ll describe the ideas – a reading perhaps from the book itself, then a discussion of setting, characters, plot. crime writers find this escape route leads directly to a cliff. the point is that the plot is so important in crime and mystery – and so linear – that you can’t read anything out loud but for the opening passages, and you can’t discuss the content of the book without triggering several spoiler alerts. what i try to do is talk about something bigger than the plot – the roots of the story – what john fowles liked to call ‘the deep pattern and mood’. it’s not what it is about, but where it came from.

this year’s new book is called nightrise. its central landscape image – which is what my books tend to be constructed around – is a half-flooded church. it’s a striking picture: a wide watery fen, an unbroken inland sea, with just the spire and nave roof above the waterline. the west window has gone, so that it is possible to row a boat in under the gothic pointed arch and find oneself in the building, on a watery floor, painted with reflected light through the half-drowned windows. below you can glimpse the font, full of black entwined, eels. in my notebooks there are little sketches of this scene: the spire is joined by a few other remnants of the lost village below: a chimney pot, a rusted skeleton of a silo, a few trees – dead now, but still standing less than a decade after the flood which overtook the land. question is: where did this image come from? or more accurately – what is the seed from which it grew? (i like to think of a single ‘story crystal’ containing the genetic information from which others will multiply).

by the time i give the talk i should have a few answers. but what is thrilling for me is that there are. titus, our hero and lord groan, is in pursuit of steerpike, the murderous servant bent on taking away his stone kingdom. i was delighted to discover that towards the finale a great rain begins to fall, two weeks of a biblical deluge. the waters rise around castle gormenghast and titus is forced to climb upwards into the uninhabited floors of his sprawling stone world. eventually, he is presented with a gilded wooden canoe by the ‘bright carvers’ – a group of villagers who have taken refuge from the flood.

and then, suddenly, there it was – the few paragraphs which had planted that image in my 12-year-old brain. peake’s masterstroke is to describe the moment titus gets into the canoe – not outside the castle, but inside. one of gormenghast’s vast halls is requisitioned as boathouse. he steps off a half-flooded table into the boat and then paddles off alone down a great corridor towards a distant window. when he gets there he realises he has misjudged its height so, building up speed, and lying flat at the last moment, he slips under the lintel and bursts out into a strange world: an inland sea, surrounded by the gothic towers and stone cliffs of the great castle. “great islands of sheer rock weather-pocked, with countless windows and caves or the eyries of sea-eagles.” it was a magical rediscovery of one of those moments of reading which seem to burn their way into a child’s psyche. 

the other discovery was entirely visual. i have always been fascinated by the work of the dutch artist m.c.escher – he of the magic mirrors, the impossible realities, the hyper-realistic portrayal of legend and fantasy. escher was a failed architect and a very serious mathematician. his most famous works incorporate buildings in which staircases – impossibly – seem to travel ever upwards in stone spirals, the steps climbed – wearily – by small plodding figures, doomed to never escape this strange mobius-strip-like world. i had it in mind that somewhere he’d drawn a half-flooded gothic building – a cathedral perhaps? i have a volume of his work – a present from friends when i was a student,  which indicates some kind of early obsession. but no sign of the cathedral. i gave up and went off down other alleyways for a few weeks. then one day – in that same armchair – i was treating myself to flicking through the escher images again before i put the book away. there is a picture in the book of escher at an exhibition of his work in switzerland in the 1930s. he is sat looking at a book with a fellow artist. on the wall behind him are prints – mostly his colleagues’, which is why i’d missed that just above escher’s right shoulder is a picture of a half-flooded cathedral. i set off on a more determined internet hunt and tracked it down: the drowned cathedral – woodcut. 1929<span normal;\"="">. the crucial elements for me here are that the waterline cuts the great rose window of the cathedral’s west front, and, approaching from the southwest, is a sailboat.</span></p> <p class="\"msonormal\"">the process of writing for me is one of leverage: small details elevated, developed into full-blown stories. the scene in nightrise involving the half-flooded church, and the arrival of my protagonist by boat through the west window, isn’t a serial scene in the narrative, it is the heart of it – the book works towards it, and then is unable to escape it, returning for the finale. why have these details proved so tenacious? i think part of the reason lies in the ability of water to transform the world as we see it into something else. to inject into the everyday a hint of magic, or drama, or just the idea that the world holds different possibilities. snow has the same magic. it is a topic i hope to return to in the lecture on islands.</p> <p class="\"msonormal\""> islands & transformed landscapes: october 24. 7.30-8.30.</p> <p class="\"msonormal\""> </p> <p class="\"msonormal\""> </p> <p class="\"msonormal\""> </p> <p> </p><p></p>