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All My Best Work Happens When I Sleep #1

If I don’t dream I cannot write. All that is me, from page to skin, that is the best, the worst, the ludicrous and irrational, the patient and accepting, the being that has the ability to form her own creative truth, lives inside dreams. I have known this from an early age and I simply accepted that was where all stories, the entire self, were stored: we just have to be vulnerable in sleep to find it all. We have to be open to what could happen.

But as I got older I realised not everyone thinks this way and often when I would talk about my dreams, some so real and alive I knew they must exist in a future day, I’d watch the other person’s reaction, watch them process thoughts from ‘You’re crazy’ to ‘Blah blah blah blah.’ So you learn to keep these things to yourself, secretly search for others like you (and no I am not declaring myself as psychic. Go away)

See What I Have Done came to me in a dream. My novel-in-progress, Blue Mountain, came to me in a dream. I have caught glimpses of future books (though still unformed – they require more life experience and further sleep) and more recently I have dreamt other creative projects that wake me up at night, haunt me all day until I write something – anything – down. As I get further into a project I will dream scenes, characters, possibilities, textures of narrative, themes. It all feels so clear in those moments but when I wake it often feels like I’m chasing it all, can only catch the tail end of the perfect thing I had created in sleep.

Of course another explanation as to why I struggle on the page is that I have no idea what I’m doing (which is most times) and my skill set is not yet developed enough for the ambition of the book that wants to be written. But this thing – creative self doubt or genuinely striving to better your work and skill – is for another post.

But I have also learnt to distinguish between mundane, processing thought dreams from the guttural, intuitive dreams. The differences are enormous, especially if they’re recurring dreams.

I have many thoughts on dreaming and creativity, on sleeping (and what happens when you can’t sleep and how that effects creativity), on the wonders and benefits of physically walking and running through a novel, on collecting and accepting patterns but I need to give these ideas actual considered time (I know, it’s going to be amazing the day I churn those posts out) and moreover, there are other, better practiced people to steer you towards when it comes to ideas on creativity and dreaming and, and, and…

So here you go, here are a few people. I may or may not agree with them in totality but interesting nonetheless. I’ll have more for you later:

Some Kind of Influence #1

From 1990 to early 1997 I lived in a house that came alive at night, shadowed throughout the day.  It was a nightmare and dream made of brick and concrete surrounded by humanoid-trees and a long stretch of road that would whisper your name. There was always something happening in that house: strange sounds, possum scratching inner roof and walls, figures out the corner of your eye, odd men knocking at the front door, tall Eucalpyts that would catch fire, my parent’s symphonic arguing, my brother teaching himself how to play guitar and fall in love with science, he and I hand holding down the hallway because we were too afraid of what was hidden in the dark. And there was always me in my room: writing, inventing characters, talking to myself. Me reading late into night hours, me wondering what type of adult I would become, if there was anything I’d be able to offer the world once I got there. 

From time to time I’m asked who or what has influenced me and my writing. The answer is that house. This was the place I learnt to observe one adult after the other as they came to visit the family, the place that taught me to listen to physicality, to listen to gut instinct. This was the place I spent hours collecting the minds of others: I watched film and t.v as if they were breath, read books like scripture, listened to music until it became muscle memory. I learnt what I liked, what I didn’t. I learnt that you should be curious.

Here is the first part of some of the things I learnt about in that house, the things that helped me become a writer: 



Lost Pages: The Book See What I Have Done Might’ve Been

In the beginning naivety was the greatest gift. I had no idea how long writing a book would take me, how many drafts I’d complete, how many false starts would become false ideas of failure. 

I went along, wrote the words, went along, and then after a time I began to feel the enormity of it all, what it takes to write a book. Sometimes I couldn’t breathe. Many writers will tell you that to write a book is to run  a quiet marathon, others a test of character. The only thing I know about writing books is this:  you need to be able to sit within yourself day in day out, be able to block out the inevitable hate-noise that will thunder for you, be able to recognise the gold days when they arrive. To write a book you need to accept the repetition of it all and still be able to make something new.

Your book is never going to be the work you have planned in your head. You’ll start writing those first words and from that moment the book adapts to the environment it’s in, adapts to the molecular changes in your own bone structure, muscle fibre. Adapts to your growth as a writer and human.

Since publication I constantly rewrite the novel in my mind, fantasise about new chapters, new plot points, new characters. I rewrite what already exists. A few weeks ago I caught myself digging out an old, half-used notebook from 2015, ready to begin writing a new section for Benjamin, this character I seemingly can’t get enough of. But I stopped myself. The past is the past. I can’t unwrite See What I Have Done. It’s the best book I could write with my abilities at that given time. 

The only thing  I can do now is write another book, a better book, one that matches the writer I am today, tomorrow, next week, the years until it’s done. 

Is See What I Have Done the book I imagined it would be? There is yes, there is no. But it’s as close to the original idea I had…which is something because for a long time it veered in directions I never knew it could go. I mourn the book I lost, the one that came to me in a dream all those years ago. If I’d been able to work faster, would I have saved that version? Instead I took the slow route and created a ‘thing’ I never thought I could or would. It exists, flaws and all. And it’s the version that has allowed me to begin my second novel. 

So what might a different version of See What I Have Done look like? Easy. It was once called FALL RIVER and I have a selection of old sections here:
In the beginning Benjamin had the ability to change into other people. I was playing around with identity and duality, inner and outer lives, the ways in which we can fabricate our own stories to suit a narrative. He was many people living inside one body. Does this mean he had multiple personalities? No. For many reasons (perhaps I’ll share them with you at a later time) this version of Benjamin wasn’t working the way I wanted him too and it didn’t fit the story I was building. But the original idea of him appeals to me so much and I hope I can use him again one day, somehow.

Below, Benjamin is in his form as ‘James’ circa 2012. Reading this again for today’s post I can see that quite a bit of this was used in some form in the final version of the book. But it’s also lazy writing.

In the same year I was getting to know Emma, who at the time was a relatively new narrator. I had no idea what to do with her in some parts and so I often wrote her in quick points, just to get something down on the page. Almost a sketch:

 
And now structure. I found a contents page from the time I submitted to the woman who is now my agent. I’ll let you figure out what changed:

  

See What I Have Done Interview: Indies Introduce Q & A 

I swear one of these days I’ll do an actual post. Until then: welcome to my laziness.

In the lead up to the US release of See What I Have Done I was lucky enough to chat with Carolyn Hutton as part of the Indies Introduce Q & A series. 

Every time I do one of these  I find I struggle to truly explain my approach to the book in a way that is ‘satisfying’ mainly because the act of analysing what was once intuition feels too much like questioning magic. Some thing’s can’t be explained. But that’s the deal you make when you create something and it’s born. And so I will talk and talk. Happily.
Here’s an extract from the interview. READ MORE HERE
CH: You move the story forward with four very distinct voices, all in first-person, each one unique and very well-developed. How did you manage to inhabit and write from such different perspectives?

SS: The short answer is a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learned fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that I couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.

The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House, and again I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might have been operating against each other, they were essentially connected and without one we couldn’t have a whole. But it was also my inability to be with one character for any sustained period; I would be OK for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realized each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, I also got to know them as people, which helped build their voice and perspective.
CH: The Bordens’ house is a character in your book—the creaking floors, the ticking clock, the different bedrooms with their own hidden secrets. Did you visit the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, as part of your research for the book?

SS: As I mentioned earlier, the house was a narrator in the novel right up until the final year before publication, and, in the end, I swapped it out for Bridget’s narrative. But the house had made its presence felt throughout the other narratives as well and was more effective that way. I really liked the idea of a house knowing far more than anyone else and having the ability to make its occupants feel a particular way. I can become a little fixated on setting!

Because the house was a narrator I wanted to know its history, when it was “born,” who lived in it before the Bordens moved in. So I did a quick Google search and that’s how I discovered that not only does the original house still stand, but it is actually a fully functioning bed and breakfast. I knew then that I had to visit.

I slept a couple of nights in Lizzie’s bedroom and it was one of the best/worst writing experiences of my life. The house was everything and nothing like I thought it would be. Being in that house allowed me to think of the Bordens in a different context. You stay in that house long enough, you start to feel like you live there, start to let it dominate you. It was exactly what I needed to write this book.

CH: With such an intense subject matter and characters, was it difficult to separate yourself from the story and the personalities and be present in your “real” life?
SS: I’ll be honest: Sometimes it was almost impossible to separate myself. This novel took 11 years to write, and I thought about it every single day. The characters consumed me; they constantly visited me in dreams. If I was in the middle of a particularly intense writing period, I’d find it really difficult to step out of it and talk to people around me. But this is natural when you spend hours inside your own head. Eventually you have to return to the real world and be a productive citizen. You can’t keep serving your book whenever it wants you to, but it’s hard to say no.

At work I’d be planning a program and all of sudden I’d think about rotting fruit or something Lizzie had said and I’d just stop what I was doing and begin to jot down novel notes. I shouldn’t admit this publicly but every now and then I’d schedule a work meeting—with the manuscript—and I’d go write for 40 minutes to an hour just so I could get it out onto the page and actually concentrate on my job.
Sometimes the subject matter was too much, and many times I thought about chucking it all and beginning work on something else. But the alternative wasn’t any better. I don’t write happy stories; so I figured I might as well stick with the Bordens. Besides, other writers deal with far heavier stuff than I do and they don’t quit.
But I’m making it sound like it was hard going all the time and that I was a complete and utter obsessive. It wasn’t, and I wasn’t. I was aware that writing is a choice; no one forces you to do it.

READ THE REST HERE

Drafting Through The Natural World 

First drafts terrify me. I’m currently in the middle (at least I think it’s the middle!) of a very strange, half-dreamed, ill formed, urgent, naturish first draft of a new novel. And it’s coming along very slowly.

And it’s too ambitious for me and I don’t think I’m the right writer for this idea or story or characters. And yet. I know I should write it because it is actually too ambitious and is more than I bargained for. So here I am.

I’m prepared to share two things about the book with you:

1. that it’s a dual narrative family portrait spanning 30-40 ish years. 

2. It is about a woman who takes a car trip with her child. Nothing is what it seems.

The working title is Blue Mountain. (You got 3. I’m generous like that!)

So back to this first draft. This week I’m currently researching and developing the first draft part by taking a writing residency. I’ve had many revelations about the novel and as terrible as the writing has been, ive made so much progress. I can’t wait to get into the meat of all the drafts that await me. 

And the reason I’ve made so much progress is due to the walks I’ve been taking every day. I’m one of ‘those’ writers. You know the kind: fidgety, annoying, needs to walk out their thoughts, sees something along the way and thinks, ‘now that’s interesting. I wonder if…’ takes photos of it and then just stares at said photo for hours. I’m also desperately, heavily reliant on nature to help me write. And maybe not necessarily for all the reasons you might guess. Being on the residency reinforced a need for change of scenery to help recharge the creativity, let it make patterns and connections in a different environment. You don’t necessarily have to go far from home to do this but I think it’s a good idea to generally take yourself away from the usual park or street you walk down and try somewhere new. Your writing will thank you for it. 

Here are some things I’ve seen this week which have given me a deeper understanding of what this book is actually about. I’m not ready to share the context just yet. 

And bonus photo of a line or two from a bigger section I wrote after one of the walks 


One final thing: I’m in the mountains and I feel ridiculously peaceful because of them.

See What I Have Done Q & A: Foyles Edition

I’ve had the good fortune of being asked many questions about See What I Have Done lately so I thought I would share some of them with you in the next few posts. 

Critical reflection can be a tricky thing. When I was writing the book I wasn’t always aware of what I was doing and often felt I was writing through intuition alone. It was foolish to think this but there you have it. If you’d asked me why I had made some of the narrative choices I had I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell you.

 But distance is the thing that affords hindsight. Since the book has come out I’ve been forced to reflect on process on a different level and as difficult as it has been (I still don’t know why I did particular things) it’s had a surprising flow on effect on my current novel in progress: I write with that same intuition but question myself more regularly, seem to have developed a better bullshit detector with things like character development, plot, and prose. And that’s the point, right? That one project helps develop the next and the next, that you learn more about the process of writing. This is not to say I know how to write a novel. I only know how I wrote See What I Have Done after the fact. I’m not entirely  sure I know how to write my new novel but I’m slowly figuring it out, slowly implementing lessons learned.

Anyway. Back to the Q & A. The following first appeared on the Foyles website and I invite you to go there and read the rest of the interview there.

 

See What I Have Done delves into the shocking double murder of Abby and Andrew Borden that took place in Massachusetts in the 1890s. What drew you to write about this story?

I would say pure luck was the initial aspect that drew me to this story. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. My gut instinct was that this story was about a family who no longer loved each other rather than the actual crime and trial itself.
 The Borden murders are most often thought of as Lizzie Borden’s story, younger daughter of Andrew and prime suspect in the case. See What I Have Done, however, is told through multiple voices: both Borden sisters, the family maid and an outsider. How did you approach creating distinct voices and stitching their stories together?
The short answer is: a lot of false starts and an inability to focus! I began with Lizzie and learnt fairly quickly that she was incapable of telling her story in a way that would be satisfying or complete. I became so frustrated and infuriated with Lizzie when I wrote her that even I couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. I needed an out.
The next two narrators I came up with were Benjamin and The House and again, I found these narrators were just as selective as Lizzie. The more frustrated I became, the more narrators I dragged into the whole debacle, so that’s how we get to hear from Emma and Bridget. Initially I wanted the feeling that although they might’ve been operating against each other, they were essentially connected, that without one we couldn’t have a whole. But it was also me unable to be with one character for any sustained period: I would be ok for a few weeks or months but then I needed a break and to go and be with one of the others for a while. In the first few years it was hard to remember where I was in the story at any given time, and I realised each narrator needed to concentrate on telling just a few parts of the story. By doing this, you also get to know them as people and this helped build voice and their perspective.  
Benjamin, the outsider in the book, brings a completely different perspective. I thought of him as a wildcard, able to disrupt the stories the insiders told. Where did he come from, and was that your intention when writing him?

Benjamin was a character that came to me fairly early on in the initial writing. A few things happened at once: I had read some wild theories that suggested Andrew Borden may have had an illegitimate son who committed the murders and that Lizzie let him in the house. Then there was a theory that a man was hired by Lizzie and uncle John to carry out the crime. While none of these can be substantiated, the idea of an outsider appealed to me, someone who might be able to either tell us ‘observed secrets’ about the Bordens or be a possible murderer.
However, when I started writing this character, what came out was someone completely unexpected. He was someone who although very violent, also had a traumatising childhood. I began to think of Benjamin as a parallel character to Lizzie, almost mirroring each other when it came to the idea of justice and retribution, the idea that people are products of their environment and act accordingly. I was interested in the ways people can distance themselves from their actions and felt that maybe Lizzie did this (she is someone who is different on the inside and outside). What if Benjamin did this too? So for many years, Benjamin was someone who could literally become other people throughout the novel. Obviously that particular character trait and sub plot isn’t in the book but you never know: that version of Benjamin might pop up in a different novel!
The book is incredibly gripping and hugely atmospheric, claustrophobic and intense. A large part of this was the visceral world you created within the house, its smells and tastes. How conscious were you of expressing the intimate nature of life in the very late nineteenth century?
I have always been drawn to scent and the peculiarities of houses since I was a child. It’s not unusual for me to describe things in that way when I’m writing or even when I’m speaking to someone, so it felt very natural to add those types of details to this book. Having said that, I wasn’t fully aware of the extent I was doing it until I’d written a draft or two. Once I realised the effect it was having on the narrative, I saw an opportunity to heighten it all and exploit it for all it was worth.
Specifically with regard to Lizzie, with her impulsive need to touch, taste and smell things, do you think she craved sensation?
What a great question! My version of Lizzie most definitely craved sensation, craved experience of any kind. For me, she just needed to feel something was real during a very bizarre time in her life. I was always fascinated that real-life-Lizzie could give quite specific details about what she did that day but couldn’t recall other, ‘bigger’, things. This was most evident in her claims she was eating pears or that she’d been looking for a lead sinker that day to go fishing with her uncle. She’d also asked her neighbour, Mrs Churchill, who she should engage to do the funeral. This was literally straight after she’d discovered her father’s body. But when asked if she’d seen Abby, she was sketchy, gave multiple answers. All of this encouraged me to think of Lizzie as someone who existed on her own time, someone who perhaps might have really only considered herself and her experiences..
I enjoyed your portrayal of Lizzie Borden very much, her ability to be callous, demanding, self-centred, but also gentle and loving. Her affection for her pigeons seems genuine and heartfelt, for example. What do you make of her, after researching and living with her for this time?
Lizzie struck me as a woman very capable of playing a role, particularly when it came to ‘daughter’. Even Emma, her sister, has said that Lizzie was ‘peculiar’. All of us have different sides to our personality and we can be slightly different versions of ourselves depending who we’re spending time with. Humans are complex. I wanted this for Lizzie. I wanted her to be chaos wrapped in skin.
While I was researching I heard a rumour that Lizzie killed a cat belonging to Abby. It’s true Abby and Lizzie did not get along and I wouldn’t put it past Lizzie to have gone out of her way to ‘ruin’ something for Abby. However, we know Lizzie was very fond of animals, especially cats, and left a sum of money in her will for animal welfare groups. All this to say, Lizzie is a contradictory woman.
As for me, I have some affection for Lizzie as a character but I don’t particularly like her. I’d never want to be her friend.    
As part of your research you spent time staying at the Borden house, which has become quite a tourist attraction. What was it like, and would you want to do it again?
It was one of the greatest, creepiest and most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. It was probably also one of the stupidest things I’ve done but it was amazing research for the novel. The house is modelled on the crime scene photos so it’s like walking back in time. I met some amazingly generous people there who were only too happy to talk about the case with me and share their theories of events. If it weren’t for this book I probably would never have voluntarily stayed there but saying this now, I think I would like to go back one last time and say goodbye to the house and my created Bordens. We’ve been together for so long that it seems fitting that we part on relatively good terms. Perhaps we could have a nice cup of tea together in the dining room.

Could you tell us about some more of the types of research you did into the case?
Aside from reading the trial transcripts, looking at the autopsies and going through newspaper articles from the time, I also spoke to people about the case while I was at the house. Because this novel is primarily about a family, and knowing what it’s like to belong to one, I realised I could use parts of my own experiences, no matter how small and insignificant, to help build a believable world. For example, when the Bordens go to Boston or when Lizzie was in Rome or Paris, some of those details came from me when I visited those cities. The fictional Borden house is based on my experiences there but also based on houses I’ve lived in. Details like this just help set the scene and make it feel real.
Similarly I used my experiences of being an older sibling as a way to unlock the relationship between Emma and Lizzie (and no, my brother and I are nothing like those two). Even Benjamin and Bridget have some of me in them. I never intended to inject myself into this novel but occasionally something would slip out and if it seemed to fit, I’d run with it, change it up. I think when we’re trying to find people’s humanity in fiction we borrow from our own experiences because we want to see the best in people even if they are, in the end, the worst.

Read the rest of this interview here

Above: UK edition of See What I Have Done