Where dreams & reality meet, imagination is born ~ what inspires a writer?
(This article originally appeared at http://www.osierpublishing.co.uk/ and I reiterate the trigger warning put there. The following article contains brief but potentially upsetting references to neo-natal death, still-birth and maternal death)
“Where do you get your ideas?”
It’s a question most writers get asked, and if they’re anything like me, the usual result is a shuffling of feet and a slight awkwardness. The chances are, if you can explain where a certain idea came from, it’s not going to be easy to get from that kernel of inspiration to the finished product without a great deal of narrative.
But often that narrative can be as extraordinary as the story it inspired. One review of my latest novel The Bet expressed some concern about where certain parts of the storyline came from, and the reviewer was worried for my well being if any part of it was from life experience. She’s someone I’ve known only through the internet, but for quite a considerable time, and she’d seen no traces in my publicly expressed self of some of the traumas depicted in the novel.
The Bet opens with snow, and a numb, traumatised young man making a journey to hospital to visit his wife and newborn son. For reasons that become clear by the end of the chapter, he chooses to bypass protocol and smuggle the baby out of hospital to take him home. His guilty flight through snowbound, frozen countryside on foot is obviously not something I ever did myself but it has a strange, rather powerful story behind it.
It comes partially from a dream, but that dream was probably the product of experiences my mind never got a proper chance to process at the time.
When my only child was born in the late 80s, I was living in the north east of England, a long way from my own family. The birth was a rather tough one, and I only found out later by a chance conversation with a midwife that it was only because of their skills I had a live baby to take home. The cord was wrapped twice round the baby’s neck; without expert assistance my child would have died during birth. I was quite ill following the delivery, with a severe kidney infection that left me unable to do anything much other than breastfeed (I’m a cussed, determined sort) and sleep. Much of the care for the newborn was done by either staff or by my husband when he visited, or the occasional friend who came. As my health improved I slept a little less and watched and listened a little more.
In British hospitals giving birth is seen as a pretty safe thing, or at least that’s the perception that was around at the time. However, the week that I spent on the maternity ward was a remarkable one. In those seven days there was one still birth, one maternal death and one neonatal death. The effect on the marvellous staff, from doctors, midwives and nursing staff was profound. On a maternity ward, tears and emotional storms are seen as normal, but that week, staff were seen weeping in each other’s arms, drying their eyes and moving on. As a longer stay patient, I got to know some well, and they told me things. Like their outrage that about twenty people had come to view the still-born babe, even though they were only remotely connected. “Ghouls,” said one midwife to me. “But if the parents have said yes…how can we stop them?”.
On my fourth day, I was woken in the middle of the night by the arrival of a girl who’d gone into premature labour. At a more civilised hour, we met properly and talked. Her baby, born at just 27 weeks was in the Special Care Unit. She showed me photos. I held her hand, feeling guilty for my healthy newborn. She was moved later than day to be downstairs in the SCU, and came back up a few times to talk to me. Then the next day, the chaplain came round the wards. He’d been called for an emergency baptism. The baby died shortly afterwards.
Spin forwards about 18 months. Snow on the ground, a house without heating and a hyperactive toddler worn out by playing in the snow with a friend’s kids, I got a chance for a daytime nap. Under duvet and blankets, I slipped into deep, disturbed sleep, and into dreams that felt too real, too uncomfortable. I was not me; I was young and male and very confused and numb with emotion and cold. I was hiking through deep snow, with a baby in a papoose against my chest; I was desperate to get home before the baby awoke and needed feeding. Scared and in frozen distress, my mind was playing horrible tricks on me, and I wanted skis so I could go faster (I didn’t ski for the first time until more than twenty years after this dream) and make sure I wasn’t caught. I woke, with the dream blazing in my head and the certainty I had to write a story out of it.
The dream became a short story, which months later started to develop into a novel. That novel was my first foray into the publishing world but though it got a long way, it never made it to publication and never will. A long hiatus from writing followed, after a second novel almost made it but caused me a near-fatal illness. But the seed of that story lay dormant, and when circumstances changed, it began to grow. It grew in a very different direction, and it grew very fast. Before I realised it, disturbing but compelling scenes started to fill my mind when it idled when walking or running or washing the dishes. It became more and more clear that I simply had to write this story, or go mad trying to repress it. Since chasing a publishing deal had nearly killed me once, I chose not to think about that. I chose to sit down and write like a woman possessed, until the story was OUT.
It had taken years to fully gestate and now it was not willing for me to take a long time over bringing it to birth. Showing my ‘offspring’ to a wider world would take a good deal more time, but now it’s out there.
I’m aware this novel deals with painful, difficult themes. I can’t pretend it doesn’t. I’ve done my best in my life not to shy away from the less than sunny side of living but what I believe I have done with this novel is to leave the reader with more than a sense of hope. This is a novel that is ultimately about redemption and understanding, of integrating the inevitable tragedies that happen (undeservedly or otherwise) into a greater pattern. The main character’s father tells him a quote from the German philosopher Goethe: “That which we understand, we do not blame.” The Bet is a journey towards that depth of understanding that leads to forgiveness and wholeness.