Below are answers to questions that I am frequently asked:
Quite honestly it’s hard to say where the idea for The Thirteenth Tale came from. The book took three years to write and its real genesis was longer still. There was no single moment when I thought, Aha! What a great idea! Rather there was a gradual and slow accumulation of numerous small ideas.
Miss Winter’s voice was the first element that came to me. It grew out of my thinking about Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley character. On the surface of things, Ripley appears to be a quiet living, affable business man. Only he knows the truth about himself: that he is a psychopathic assassin. I had been considering what it must be like to know oneself to be one kind of person whilst giving in public the impression of being another kind of person altogether. I was moved by the loneliness such a person might feel, and in an exhilarating rush of inspiration (of which I wish there were more) I dashed down a piece that was later to become Miss Winter’s letter to Margaret.
Fairly soon after that, the idea that the book would be about twins came very firmly into my mind.
Then during the writing of the book other half-forgotten things came to mind. I had once had a dream about a house on fire. An ordinary enough dream, but it had haunted me with unusual persistence and it surfaced again now, seeming to want a role in the book.
Similarly I remembered that many years previously I met a man who told me he was a twin, bereaved at birth. He described to me how he felt before his parents told him the truth – for years he had the feeling of knowing something without knowing it. This too found its way into the tangle of the story.
It was like working out a very slow and complicated puzzle. How could all these pieces – and a thousand others – come together? What linked them? The main secret of the mystery came to me when I was walking home to the supermarket. I must admit, it took me by surprise and I was initially inclined to disregard it – Surely not? I remember thinking – but it imposed itself in a determined fashion.
But I mustn’t forget the rooks! I moved house and now live near the Thames. Not far from me is a place where in winter you can see rook nests from the previous nesting season. To my mind the maze of leafless branches ressembled a brain, and the clots of nests got me thinking about brain events. I found my way to thinking about rooks and madness, rooks and fear, rooks and death… And then in summer there are the rooks themselves, laughing and dancing around the trees and they are so magnificently full of life! I was fascinated.
Things came together. I remembered a story my uncle told me from his boyhood about having killed a jackdaw without meaning to, and a friend told me about her ten-year old son’s sudden fear of death.
There were hundreds of small memories and details that combined to feed the book as it grew, but at its heart, most likely, is simply my own curiosity. I’m reluctant to accept that death is a mystery I cannot know the answer to. (At least, not yet. And I’m not in a rush to find out.) So I keep asking, knowing I can’t know, and my imagination keeps coming up with partial answers, half-answers, unanswers, anti-answers.
- Before writing, spend several decades reading. (If this seems like a hardship then you may not have it in you to be a writer.)
- Forget advances, bestseller lists, publishing trends. Just write the book you most want to read, whatever it is.
- Find a handful of honest people who know what they are talking about and who are not afraid of hurting your feelings. Show them your work and listen to what they say.
- When you have written the best book you possibly can, edit, edit and edit to make it even better.
- Beg, scrimp and borrow to take your work on one of Arvon’s week-long writing courses taught by established writers. An early draft of The Thirteenth Tale caught the eye of Jim Crace at one of these courses, and the advice he gave me about getting an agent was pure gold.
Creative writing courses are not the only way of getting a valuable apprenticeship. I have never regretted studying French at university. The practice of weekly translation into and out of French was brilliant for getting to grips with the divinely elusive and precise nature of language, for instance. And of course, doing my PhD I benefited hugely from reading and rereading the same few books over and over again (in my case it was André Gide), learning what happens deep in the engine of a novel.
Rose Tremain (Music and Silence is one of those novels I still keep thinking about even though I read it twenty years ago.)
Rohinton Mistry (everything by him! I was reading RH when I got the news that The Thirteenth Tale was to be published and thank goodness I had something this strongly engaging to plunge into. Reading gave me an opportunity to forget the drama going on in my real life.)
Philippe Claudel (Grey Souls is among the best crime novels I’ve ever read – and Claudel is not even a crime writer!)
Jim Crace (Quite simply this man is a genius. Should one person be allowed to be so gifted in his style and so intelligent in his thinking? Not only that, but he talks the best sense about writing I have ever heard.)
Hilary Mantel (You don’t need me to tell you about Hilary Mantel. But when you’ve read all about Cromwell, go back and read Fludd. Or her memoir, Giving up the Ghost.)
Carson McCullers (Sometimes when I’m reading my fingertips go numb. I think it’s because I’m so intent on reading that all the blood is going to my brain. The Ballad of the Sad Café did this. And The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made me gasp aloud. There aren’t many to match Carson.)
Wilkie Collins (I won’t hear a bad word spoken about melodrama. My sister got hold of The Woman in White somewhere when she was about thirteen. I had stand by patiently watching her read, so engrossed, so intent… I couldn’t wait for her to reach the final page so I could grab it off her and have loved Wilkie Collins ever since.)
Beverley Nichols (1950’s Noël Coward-esque writer about village gardens and gardeners. When I’m ill or suffering from overwork, his Merry Hall books are the ones I reach for. They are not for everyone, but if you like gardens, cats, and have a strong stomach for whimsy, Beverley is your man. Otherwise, steer clear.)
Andrew Miller (Last year I read Pure. I just kept smiling all the time. It wasn’t the subject matter that made me do it, just the joy of knowing that a human being had written something this wonderful.)
I’ve so enjoyed writing this list. I wish I could go on for longer. I would mention Erik Fosnes Hansen, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet quartet, Fred Vargas. And Colette. Not forgetting the pleasures of the books published by Persephone… And I haven’t even started on non-fiction…
(Sometimes I read when I should be working. Not often. But the temptation is always there.)
As for the literature, how could it not affect my writing? For reading is without doubt the single most important factor affecting my work. When I was writing my PhD (very slowly, over seven years more or less) I read and reread half a dozen works by Gide. This kind of reading – intense, obsessive, constant – lays down rhythms in your mind that cannot easily be eradicated, and frequently when writing I am struck by phrases that have a distinctly Gidean cadence.
The most visible instance of Gide’s literary influence on me is perhaps in the title of The Thirteenth Tale. Gide liked what you could call the Chinese box effect (he wrote stories about authors who wrote stories about authors…) though he called it ‘mise en abyme’. I was fascinated by this structural device, but wanted to use it in a more traditional mystery novel, hence the missing thirteenth tale which gives my book its title and is a recurring device within it.