The Spark of Life: Where Novels Come From
For every writer the idea for a novel starts in a different place. Some writers like to begin with a concept, a conundrum or a situation, a what if? Some with a story or plot line. Yet others begin with a character. When people who want to write ask me, as they often do, where my ideas come from I generally say that I start with a character, because I see myself as a character-led writer. That remains largely true, but then you might equally ask where does that character come from? Where does it all begin? From sitting in front of audiences and answering their questions, I have been able to see that every book I have written has started with a spark of life - a moment I can trace my way back to, when an idea that might smoulder for years before catching fire first arrived.
Take my first novel Ancestor Stones. The idea, when it first came to me, started with a voice. The voice was that of an elderly aunt I was listening to as she told a story about my family’s past for a memoir I was working on. I listened to her, the distinctive patterns and rhythm of her speech, and I thought: I have never heard a voice like that in literature. My aunt’s description of what it had been like to be a young woman in Sierra Leone in the 1920’s, captivated me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the world she described and the fact that nobody else, to my knowledge anyway, had written about it. That was in the year 2000. I published the memoir I was writing in 2002 and talked to my agent about what to do next. Over lunch I gave him several ideas for other non-fiction books - at the time I’d never published any fiction - but he wasn’t very taken with any of them. He’s a good sounding board and I trust his judgement, but I didn’t have anything else to offer. Then he said: “You’ve given me lots of ideas for books and I could go out an sell any of them, but what do you really want to write?” He’d once told me that there were writers who wrote from the head and those who wrote from the heart and that I was the latter. I started to tell him about my aunt, of the idea she had given me. He said simply: “Then that’s what you must write.” Out of my aunt’s voice I created Asana, Hawa, Mariama and Serah.
The Memory of Love was ten years in gestation, from the first spark of life to the moment of publication. I wrote for just three of those years, the rest was, well, waiting for the spark to catch, to see if there was enough there to start a fire. Mostly it’s a subconscious process, chewing the cud of ideas and random thoughts, seeing connections. A lot of it happens in cars, in the passenger seat staring out of the window. The spark of life for The Memory of Love was a conversation with a friend from Argentina whose father had been a university professor during the years of the Dirty War, when thousands of people were killed or disappeared. She told me that she had long suspected her father was, if not actually complicit, then favoured by the regime, because he had become a celebrated historian where so many other intellectuals lost their lives and their freedom. Certainly he never protested the horrors taking place. As a child she’d been too young to understand, but as an adult she hadn’t been able to stop herself reflecting on her father’s success and asking the question: “How can it be?” In a restaurant called The Orangery in Kensington Elias Cole was born. Of course, he wasn’t then Elias Cole but an embryonic clump of cells. His first name was Hector Gonzalez or something like that, because my initial plan was to set the book in Argentina - something that never ceases to surprise audiences at literary events. But then I went back to Sierra Leone after the civil war and I talked to people of a certain generation, I met Elias Cole after Elias Cole, bystanders exculpating themselves of past sins of commission and omission. I saw the story’s universal truth and that I didn’t have to travel to Argentina to write it. The character of Adrian, a British psychologist working in Sierra Leone who just doesn’t ‘get it’ I took from Ancestor Stones, I thought “I’m not finished with you yet.” I made him sit down and listen to Elias Cole.
Often I try ideas out as a short story first. Adrian appeared in a story called ‘Butterscotch’ which I wrote for BBC Radio. Ever since writing The Memory of Love, I haven’t stopped thinking about Attila, the book’s obese and obtuse Sierra Leonian psychiatrist. A while back an audience member at a literary event commented that they didn’t like him much. I was taken aback, because personally I had become very fond of Attila. “That’s because you don’t know him,” I protested. I felt I must have done him a disservice. Each character in a novel, however minor, comes with an entire history, one which may never be explored on the page, but exists in the writers mind. I have since written two short stories in which the bad-tempered Attila is the central character. I like him more and more; ideas have begun to coalesce around him, a visit to Britain and a former love called Rosie. But it may be another ten years before I know if I have a novel.
Aminatta Forna is the award-winning author of two novels: The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and a memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water. Her most recent novel The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, April 2010) is a story about friendship, war and obsessive love. The novel was winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize Best Book Award 2011, short-listed for both the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 and the Warwick Prize 2011 and nominated for the IMPAC Award 2012.
This article was first published in The Star.