The grit at the heart of the pearl ~ or the point from which stories grow
Writers are often asked a question that can be virtually impossible to answer: “Where do you get your ideas?” as if there’s a kind of
supermarket you can shop at. It’s hard to answer because in some ways ideas come from everywhere; too often writers become blocked not because of a lack of inspiration but a surfeit of it and indecision
about how to bind them together cohesively.
For me ideas are the grit that sneaks into an oyster and causes so much irritation that the poor oyster does its best to cushion and coat the sharp grit so it stops hurting. I’ll come back to the pain of the
Strangers and Pilgrims was an odd book for me because some of the grit has been lurking in my personal oyster for a very long time. It’s an odd book for me for other reasons; I’ve never written a novel that had six powerful protagonists whose stories drove me quite so hard. Each of those characters was a lump of grit in my system that had each sneaked in from elsewhere, and stayed, bugging the hell out of me for years because I simply didn’t know what to do with them. They had a story, certainly, but only one that maybe comprised a short story or a novella at best.
One of the oldest pieces of grit was the origin of Sara, the character
whose story starts the novel. I’d long loved Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott and especially the song version by Loreena McKennitt. I’d got this image in my head of a woman staring at a computer screen, rather than a mirror, and being cut off from the world by something and only able to see the world from that “mirror” of a computer. Then I had a hideous nightmare about how she came to be imprisoned and woke shaking, because in these dreams, I am the person being tormented. Of course, I could do nothing with it, so it got noted down and left for later.
A little later came Gareth’s story, again through a nightmare. I found myself in police uniform, male and quite self-assured, smiling at people as I walked through a crowded shopping centre. I was totally unprepared for being shot, or lying in the arms of one of the
bystanders while she pleaded with me to stay awake, to live. I woke
from that dream, certain there was a story, but not sure what to do.
Ginny’s story is older yet, mixed in with real experiences of sleeping at the foot of Glastonbury Tor and finding myself lost in an eerie mist that swept in and divided me from my tent, and of uneasy dreams of being thought mad and kept locked up against my will. It’s a real fear, if you’ve ever suffered from mental illness.
Elizabeth came out of a long train of thought, based on the fact that at nineteen, I almost became a nun. Needless to say, I didn’t, but I
often have speculated what my life might have been had I taken those steps back then. Her faith, shattered but not destroyed mirrors my own.
A long and complex dream of archaeology began Alex’s story. As him, I crawled down the long stone tunnel to a horde of treasures left from when the dark ages began with the departure of the Romans from Britain. My heart pounded as his as I saw the possible fruition of my own dreams that Arthur had been real and that I had found conclusive proof of it. The later discrediting of this discovery was another nightmare. I had a very distinct mental picture of Alex, sandy haired and slightly fussy fledgling academic at the start of a promising career, older than his years but still somehow a dreamy boy at heart, believing in chivalry and honour.
The character whose story ends the first section of the novel is probably inspired by a famous faith healer in Britain, Matthew Manning, but only by a very dim thread. Mark’s story for me began with a curious dream of being a healer who has lost his gift and who is found out as a fake. It was a very strange dream indeed.
The unifying thread (apart from a river they all live somewhere near
to)for all six characters was the focus upon typing a phrase into a
search engine while at the peak of despair: my heart is broken and I
am dying inside. Each character does this and finds the same answer.
Another piece of grit was the title. I stumbled upon the phrase strangers and pilgrims many years ago, embedded in the post-communion sentence for All Saints in the Church of England liturgy “may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims-” and I had an image of people sitting quietly round a table after a meal, and reflecting on their journey to this point.
So I had all these people who wanted me to tell their story and yet, I couldn’t begin. There was something missing. Several things missing in fact, the largest of which was an actual story.
It bothered me for years, as this crew of diverse and damaged people rooted around in my unconscious mind and niggled at me constantly to somehow or other bind them together. Then I had another series of dreams, that had me and a companion searching for something that changed when we found it. These were numinous dreams, full of symbolism and gradually, I found myself aware that what I was seeking in these dreams was a spring. More: a Wellspring. And then it started to fall into place.
The concept of a spring that heals is an ancient one and one I’d long been fascinated by. The Wellspring in Strangers and Pilgrims is real, and not a fantasy. It’s somewhere I’ve visited. Wellsprings exist,
hidden and secret throughout the whole world and the whole of
history. Their waters heal.
Which brings me back to the pearl. For writers like me, writing is about a form of exploration and of seeking to understand both the inner and the outer worlds. But more than that, writing is a means of coming to terms with conflicts and pain and of finding healing. Each of the characters in Strangers and Pilgrims is in some strange way a
fragment of my own psyche, each screaming a very different pain and demanding relief from the agony. While each of those fragments was grit in my soul and in my consciousness, it was hard to rest. In
allowing those stories to bloom and become luminescent, I allowed
some of my own pain to flow and be healed by the process of creating a story around it. Coated in shining words, it became something beautiful and oddly transparent: those who had experienced similar pain were soothed by those stories. Each of my readers who has commented, either in a review or privately has identified with certain characters more than others: some have identified with all of them. I’ve had requests for a sequel and people have very different ideas of whose story they wish to follow next. Not sure yet if I can provide this but I can work on it.
In the end, writing a novel like this one took a great deal of emotional energy that left me drained and empty but with a feeling of having accomplished something: a story that healed in both the writing of it and in the reading of it. Anyway, I hope I have given some insight into how one book came into being and how both writing and reading can heal and comfort the soul of the troubled, which is pretty much most people!
The future? Well, there is plenty more grit within me, to be worked with. Each of my novels comes to me in this uncomfortable way. I chose to publish Strangers and Pilgrims first for a host of reasons but I have a back catalogue of novels to be released. The next novel to come out will probably be Fish Out of Water (which title may well be changed to Away With The Faeries; still thinking about that), but I’m planning a collection of short stories in the meantime, which is to contain a teaser or two about Fish. Fish Out of Water is about Isobel, artist, mother of two small children and wife to a minister, who starts to lose both her sense of identity and her grip on what she thinks of as reality after the double suicide of her parents. Dividing her life between the humdrum grind of being a mum and the visionary life of an artist is tearing her psyche apart, and the weird and unexplained activity in the family’s isolated holiday cottage makes her question her own sanity. As events unfold with increasing speed and strangeness, Isobel struggles to stay her usual sensible and cheerful self, being dragged rapidly to breaking point. Look out for news of Isobel here or on Facebook or Twitter.
(This article first appeared at Thea Atkinson’s blog)