Before I was in my teens I was already sure I wanted to write, though I didn’t know exactly what. Our English teacher was always telling us we weren’t poets, so sadly poetry didn’t seem an option. I had always loved stories and longed to write fiction, but there was a problem here too: I thought I didn’t have enough imagination. To me then the ideal writer was someone who could make things up indefinitely, with scarcely any reference to the life they knew or the books they had read. The fact that this was well-nigh impossible and many of the books I loved were clearly based on either personal experience or wide reading, or both, didn’t stop me feeling inadequate.
When I wrote stories, I could see afterwards that without knowing it I had borrowed ideas from books or the television or things that had happened in my life. I thought this meant I had no originality and could only copy, whereas I now realise it’s simply what most writers do, consciously or not. The good ones do it with more subtlety and invention – the difference between Philip Pullman and J K Rowling, for instance – but I would find it hard to think of any writer, even someone as brilliantly imaginative as Mervyn Peake, who didn’t in some way use their own experience as a starting point. Iris Murdoch famously claimed that there was nothing of her personal life in her novels, but to me this speaks of denial rather than unbounded creativity. Her novels may not be autobiographical in any simple sense, but the person she was and the life she led – including her sexual adventures – undoubtedly found their way into them.
As I moved into my mid-teens I became preoccupied – as teenagers often are – with questions about myself. From historical fiction, travel books and the odd fantasy novel I turned towards novels that had a more psychological bent – the kind of books that adults mostly seemed to read. At that age I wanted important issues and deep emotion: I would happily accept Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights but had little time for Jane Austen. It had soon become obvious to me that writers did draw on their own experience and – in some ways at least – wrote about what they knew. My own difficulty was twofold: what I knew didn’t seem interesting enough to write about, and in any case I doubted I could turn it into viable fiction. Even at that time I could see the difference between novels that didn’t quite make the leap – those of Aldous Huxley, say – and novels that somehow performed the miracle and created an imaginative world that the reader could live in. And obviously there was a difference between autobiography and fiction, between relating things as they were (by no means a simple task) and turning them into something that, although not wholly invented, was no longer simply factual.
As soon as I tried to write fiction I discovered that the process seemed to happen naturally. My first attempt at a novel had characters and situations taken from my own life, but altered, transposed, melded together to create a story that was not wholly the same as mine. When I told someone that the main character was ‘like me but not me’ he thought I was being disingenuous, but it was absolutely true: I had taken certain aspects of myself and exaggerated them in a way that could be more comic as well as (I hoped) more engaging than I was. I did worry that some of the characters in the novel were too close to their originals, but I could see that in their different ways they were all a blend of the real and the imagined. X in the book and Y in real life may have been closely related, but as a fictional character X had become different from Y. In fact I ended up with the opposite difficulty: having created the fictional character X, I then had to remind myself that the Y I had once known hadn’t said and done the things I attributed to him.
In the novel I’m now revising there are some scenes and characters that derive fairly closely from my own life – mutatis mutandis – and others that are invented, though based on people and settings I know. I started out wanting to make it more autobiographical than the previous one, but much of the real-life recollection has now been cut out in the interests of the book as a whole. Surprisingly or not, the more autobiographical parts have been much harder to write than the more ‘fictional’ pieces. There is an unhelpful literalness that can creep in when writing directly from life: trying to describe it all as it was, even the parts that don’t matter and aren’t relevant to the story. Even when I’ve based a part of the novel on a real event – for instance my mother’s death – I’ve found myself adapting, omitting, reordering events, introducing characters who weren’t there or taking out ones who were. It seems that to a large extent this is an instinctive process: novelists are forever cobbling together pieces of their own experience and invented characters and scenes. I’ve been surprised that I can do it, but I’m not surprised that this is what happens.
The other thing that seems to happen when you are immersed in writing a novel is that ‘real life’ starts to imitate fiction. At one point in my book someone brings the main character a bunch of yellow lilies wrapped in cellophane. For various reasons, which I won’t explain here, she ends up throwing them at him. All of this is invented. Not long after I had written the scene, and when I was still very much immersed in the novel, a friend of mine arrived bearing – yes, that’s right – a bunch of yellow lilies wrapped in cellophane. I didn’t throw them at him, but I did have a very strange moment when the fictional world and my own life seemed to collide. Earlier on, when I had just moved into my house, I was trying to write the novel and unpack my boxes at the same time. At one point I came across a tiny crab shell that I had found in the Scilly Isles many years before. In the novel one of the characters finds a crab shell like this on the beach in Sidmouth and shows it to his wife. When I opened the box that the shell was in, my first reaction was not: “That’s the shell I found on Tresco” but: “Oh, that’s the shell Gerald found in Sidmouth” – as though the fictional world had for that instant become more real than ‘real life’.
All of which goes to show that the writing of fiction is a very strange business. Like dreams, the stories we make up have the power to transmute reality for their own ends and evoke heightened responses in us. When I was writing about the fictional mother’s death I went round for several days feeling as though my own mother had just died, even though that had happened twenty years ago. While I was describing a character’s holiday, I said to someone who asked me about something in the ‘real world’, “Sorry, I’m in Spain just now,” and was only half joking. Both of those scenes were taken from experiences in my own life, but there were other parts of the novel which, although ‘made up’, were just as intensely lived.
Perhaps a novel can’t grab the reader in that way unless it has also grabbed the writer, and maybe a writer of fiction has to have the willingness to be grabbed. All I know is that I find trying to write fiction – and what an effort it is sometimes – fascinating and compelling in a unique way. When it’s going well there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing – even though I’m never sure what’s made up and what isn’t.