Writing is a funny business (when it isn’t a miserable one….). What sets me off on writing a book can be something apparently quite insignificant but that hooks into my skin in some way and I find I can’t quite shake it off. Sometimes, it’s a single image: with my second novel, ‘Lessons for a Sunday Father’, I kept imagining this man sitting surrounded by a sea of broken glass (the working title was ‘Shattered’ because of this). My parents split up when I was little and I suddenly found myself imagining what it must be like to be the dad rather than the child in that scenario. My own father was dead by then, and in any case completely different from the dad in that book, but I wanted to make that imaginative leap – what does it feel like to be a weekend dad? To see your kids then have to hand them back and be without them, as if you’d just borrowed them for a bit?
I also took the image literally and made him a glazier – the fragility of glass made it a good fit, and I wanted him to have a normal, everyday sort of job, nothing posh or well paid.
I keep multiple notebooks but when I hear or see something that resonates with me, it will stay in my head for ever, and then I can dart down like a magpie and scoop it up to use when I want it. Sometimes, those are things I just happen to spot – a woman wearing a peculiar skirt in a supermarket (which became Cecilia’s skirt in the new book), a friend bringing her own pillow on holiday – and other times intensely personal: a jug of sweet peas fluttering in the summer breeze on the day of my step-dad’s funeral when I was eight (seen in the funeral scene in my third novel, ‘I Like it Like That’).
For my new book, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, the image that kept resurfacing was one of a plait of coloured ribbons. I couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with it…..but then it clicked: it was to be the structure of the book. These characters’ lives were intertwined. I must admit it was fiendishly difficult to write, and took me an embarrassingly long time, and multiple drafts to get something that I feel is at least close to what I was attempting to achieve. As I spent so long with my characters, I feel ridiculously protective of them. When someone in my writing group said she didn’t like Conrad, I felt as if she were having a go at my child! You don’t understand, I wanted to say, he’s had a really difficult time: his father died when he was little and he had to be brave about it. He’s suppressed all his feelings of fear and grief and anger. Can’t you see he’s a darling little boy in a crusty academic’s exterior? I even feel defensive about Andrew’s awful mum, Mrs Tyler – I write pages and pages of notes about each character so I know that she’s had a really difficult time and can’t help the way she is….