Writing, when it works properly, draws on all the age-old sources of story-telling: enchantment, the magic of spells, and that mysterious process that can bust you out of the cage of being you, and extend an irresistible invitation to become someone else. We’ve all felt it: that touch of the narrator’s extended hand when you settle into a book’s opening paragraph, that beckoning finger, that slow nod of the head in a particular direction. You read on, you get to the end of the first chapter, you’re starting to collude in the writer’s bid to kidnap just a little of your inner self. In short, you’re hooked—and why? Because you want to know what happens next.
That surrender to the sorcery of story-telling depends, says me, on a single word. That word is curiosity. Yours as the willing—aka curious—reader. And mine as the puppetmaster behind each turn of the page, responsible for character, plot, intrigue, tension, and the thousand other narrative tricks to rope your body and soul and deliver you to the book’s final page. None of that stuff happens by accident. It happens because you, the reader, buy into my fiction, believe the characters who carry the plot and care enough about them to pledge your attention—and support—to wherever their journey takes them.
That, believe me, isn’t an easy spell to cast. Like many writers, I caught the virus young. By the time I made it to university I’d written five novels. They were all, to one degree or another, about me. And they were all, mercifully, unpublished. I still have a drawerful of publishers’ letters to mark that apprenticeship, and I can still taste the bitterness of serial rejection, but after university, I had the good fortune of going into television, and within a year or so, I was researching documentaries, which turned out to be the perfect training for something I’d so far been getting so, so wrong.
Why? Because every working day in TV I was out there looking for stories. Stories mean people: old, young, difficult, beguiling, shy, noisy, or just plain odd. Without them, the stories would never make it anywhere near a screen and so it was my job to get alongside them, to make them like me, to clamber into their heads and their hearts, in short, to win their trust and try and figure out what it was like to be them. Not me, them.
This challenge was rewarding from the start, every next conversation so very different to the last. Just the act of listening taught me an enormous amount, not simply about individual stories, but about the sheer variety of surprises and heartaches, any life has in store. I’m patient by nature but I’m also nosey (aka curious) and after not very long, I realised I had the dream job. Every working day held the promise of someone new to talk to, and befriend, and to do each conversation full justice I had somehow to imagine myself into the very middle of this person’s head.
That, dear reader, is an enormous privilege but it also—I was beginning to understand—is the proper business of the working novelist. Surrender to curiosity, and every next book becomes an act of trespass. Someone else’s world. Someone else’s secrets. Someone else’s darkest fears. It’s not about you at all. It’s about the faces you see around you, about the muttered conversations in the backs of buses, about that harassed-looking woman at the supermarket check-out with her vocal daughter, about the circumstances that pile up around life after life, about what makes you sink or swim. The latter, of course, we novelists call plot but everything—says me—begins with listening, and watching.
Do I lift characters wholesale from real-life and wrestle them onto the page? Never. Do I feel the grain of other peoples’ lives and start imagining where that might lead me? Yes. More than forty books, in their very different ways, thus become a testament to curiosity.
My father always taught me that trespass was a mortal sin. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Getting out of yourself opens every door.