I’ve been to a couple of new writer events at Foyles now and they’re always a really wonderful night. This time I hadn’t had a chance to read up on who the authors were or even their genre. All three books were connected by the research and soul that went into the books, it seemed to me. The three books were:
- Beside Myself by Ann Morgan—a psychological story where two twins swap places as children, and one refuses to swap back. I like the basic premise there as it immediately spawns a number of intriguing questions: why wouldn’t they swap back? What did the swap do to each of them as children? As adults? I love the title too, a clever play on words that hints that the swap had far reaching effects. Ann was so lovely, she read the first pages of the book with so much enthusiasm, you could hear the different characters in her voice.
- River of Ink by Paul Cooper—set in 13th century Sri Lanka at a time of upheaval, a ruthless prince arrives to depose the old king. It was a love story between a court poet and a palace maid, and the poet becomes swept up in the rebellion against the new king. ‘The poet will discover that true power lies not at the point of a sword, but in the tip of a pen.’ This sounds so intriguing, powerful and beautiful. I love the title and the beautiful cover, both of which would have drawn me to it had I seen it in the bookshop.
- My Own Dear Brother by Holly Muller—set in Austria during and after the second world war, where the narrative descends subtley into cruelties. This too sounded extremely personal and relatable, throwing up those questions familiar to us, of why people do awful things to others, even people they know, their own family, in a political climate such as that. It sounded both dark and personal—what I loved most about the sound of this story was how something so huge, dramatic and well-known to us as World War Two, can be made intimate and honest. That is what made me want to read this.
It’s so hard not to buy each of the books you hear about at these evenings. Hearing the authors talk about the different threads of their story, the research they did, the ideas they had, it makes you fall in love with their novels. As it happens, I bought my boyfriend and my dad along with me, and we each went home with a book…
Research was a strong theme of the evening. For Ann, the story came first and then she did her research, on twins, on psychology. Paul spent time in Sri Lanka, spending time at a ruin that became the set for his novel. For him, the story came first, then the research. For Holly, her approach sounded the opposite, the story formed out of the research she did. She has a family history relevant to the story and wanted to discover more of this. She conducted personal, intense interviews with people she met in Austria. Some had been Nazis, some felt ready to tell their story, as if, nearing the end of their life, they wanted to let it out. Each author felt some responsibility. Holly in particular, because she was entering into an existing conversation, there is a lot written about the time in history her story was set. Paul too felt as if he had a pedantic historical scholar on his shoulder. What impressed me about each of them was how invested they became in their stories. Paul had once said at a previous interview that ‘telling people you’re writing a novel is second only to saying you hear voices.’ And to hear them talk about their work, it is as if we are talking about real people, real lives lived. But isn’t that what is wonderful about fiction? The chance to live another life within the pages?
At another event I went to someone was aghast at the idea of writing fantasy (which is what I write) because they assumed there was nothing to research, nothing to hang the story on, you have to make it all up! I responded by saying, I love making it all up! It seems nerve-wracking to have to be true to a real time, place or person. I imagine it’s easy for your story to become bogged down in the facts, the fiction starting to drown under the weight of it all. Fantasy gives me freedom. That’s not to say I don’t research though, why do you think I love visiting castles so much, why I studied psychology, why I read about swordplay, magic and superstition, dragons, why my job as an ecologist filters into the landscapes and fantasy worlds I write about, why I love visiting new cities, climbing mountains, and come to think of it, aren’t all those fiction books I read also a sort of research?