By Alan Glynn
Origins? It seems to me that that’s just a fancy way of asking the dreaded question: where do you get your ideas from? (A question second only in dread to: what’s your book about?). Whenever I’m asked the first question I try hard to answer it, but I generally end up feeling like a bit of a fraud, as though I’ve made an answer up on the spot just to keep things moving. Because the thing is, by the time I arrive at the end of a book I usually find I’ve forgotten how it got started, its origins obscured somewhere in memory and almost inaccessible now through thickets of notes, outlines, obsessive but often unnecessary research and a seemingly endless process of re-writing.
Thinking back on answers I’ve given, though, a pattern emerges. The account I offer will either be fine-sounding and rational or slightly random and mechanistic – left brain, right brain stuff. Both do the job, and neither, I suspect, is actually untrue. It’s just that I can never be sure which came first . . .
For example, when asked about my first novel, The Dark Fields, I would say either one of two things. I would say that it arose from an interest in the scandals of the late 90s regarding performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and that it was a sort of ‘what if . . .’ story – what if there existed a performance-enhancing drug for lawyers or businessmen or politicians? Out of which came questions about that very American theme of the perfectibility of man and the notion of a latter-day Gatsby whose impulse for self-improvement has been reduced to a pharmaceutical commodity.
Or I would say that it arose from . . . not much at all, from a desperate scrambling around inside my own brain for SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT. So . . . a situation. Maybe two guys who bump into each other on the street. One is a bit desperate (like I am at the time) and he meets . . . who? His ex-brother-in-law? Someone he hasn’t seen in nearly ten years? Yeah, that’s the ticket. But now that I have them together what are they going to talk about? What have you been up to? Still dealing? Not exactly. How about you? Still a loser? One thing leads to another and before you know it they’re having a conversation. Possibilities are opening up. And – quite literally – the whole book comes out of that.
With Winterland I would say that I was fascinated by the idea of a skyscraper that had an in-built structural flaw and of having that represent the greedy aspirations of a society spinning out of all moral control. Or . . . I’d say that the book started with the disconnected image of some people sitting in a beer garden having to listen to a car alarm outside, and slowly realizing that the car belongs to a young gangland thug sitting in their midst who refuses to go out and switch it off.
With my new novel, Bloodland, was it reading Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz and wanting to explore the direct line from ivory and rubber extraction in the Congo over a hundred years ago to the extraction of coltan today? Or was it simply wanting to kickstart a whole novel with just these two words:
Well? Was it?
As Rocky Balboa once said, ‘I don’t know, you know, who knows?’
It’s a weird process and Edgar Allen Poe describes it best in an essay called ‘The Philosophy of Composition’. He suggests going behind the scenes of a work-in-progress and taking a peep, ‘at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought – at the true purposes seized only at the last moment – at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view – at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable . . .’
Ouch. But it sounds about right.
Having finished Bloodland, it won’t be long before I’m heading back once more into the thickets. But every time I do this, I try to convince myself that there must be a form of insurance policy you can take out to guarantee safe passage to the other side, that there must be some help available – a GPS system for novelists, say, or at the very least a how-to manual that actually works . . .
It’s amazing how much time you can devote to this sort of stuff – and for devote, of course, read waste. I think what happens is that one day you realize you have started, you’re somewhere, and the only way to go is forward. By the time you’re secure enough to look back the starting point will invariably seem distant and fuzzy.
But then, when you get asked about it later on, you can always come up with something – a handy retrofit based on what eventually emerges . . . either that or a half-remembered fragment, a shard, dreamlike but telling, that might very well be the actual starting point, that might very well be the truth. But hey, one way or the other, who’s going to contradict you, right?