I sometimes wonder what it must be like to live only one life – very relaxing I suspect. I, however, find that I’m often existing in at least two, switching between them like Mr Ben in his magic changing room, though not always as good-naturedly.
When I spent a lot of time writing short stories I could have any number of characters, settings and scenarios scrabbling around in my head, desperate to get out onto paper. That was strange enough but now that I’m getting deep into my second novel it’s almost as if I genuinely have two worlds – my ‘real’ life with my lovely family and friends, with supermarkets and bills, parties and homework, and my sometimes almost-as-real life with my heroine. And given that she – Elizaveta – lives in Kiev in the 1030s it’s quite a different existence!
I was lucky enough to be working on Elizaveta’s story, dreaming it into being, on my summer holidays this year. We were camping, as we always do, in a pre-erected tent on a fantastic beachside campsite in Spain. The sun shone for hours and obligingly left its warmth behind even when it had dropped below the palm-tree-lined horizon so that none of us – kids included – were ever in bed before midnight.
It was fantastic fun but, as an added bonus, it meant that my little sweethearts slept in until nearly ten most mornings. As I usually woke at 8ish, that gave me two blissful hours to lie, warm and comfy, whilst mentally exploring the furthest reaches of the Viking empire. When they would finally emerge from their bedroom compartment, I’d almost as blurrily surface from a century back and send them for fresh bread whilst my husband, bless him, made coffee and I made hasty notes in case my other reality slipped back into the more obscure reaches of my aging mind before I had captured it on paper.
‘It must be weird,’ I said to my husband one morning as I closed my notebook, ‘only being here, in Spain.’
He looked at me.
‘I don’t think that’s the weird bit,’ he said.
He’s probably right. I know more about Grand Prince Yaroslav’s battle with the Pecheneg tribe in 1036 than I do about Gaza and sometimes I worry that’s not socially responsible of me but, really, there are lots of people way better qualified to worry – and hopefully even do something - about that than me and in the end don’t we all have to stick to what we’re best at? If, for me, that’s worming my way into the long dead minds of obscure medieval royals then so be it. I love it. I love them. And I especially love the frisson that they did actually exist in their own right way back when. I’m not so much creating my characters as – at the risk of sounding weirdly megalomaniac about it - resurrecting them.
What’s so truly lovely about it, though, is that I am not alone in doing this – no writer is. For the other crucial part of the fiction jigsaw is the reader’s imagination; every bit as powerful as the writer’s. It’s only together that the casts of novels, be they historical, contemporary, futuristic, or something in between, get to actually live.
Last summer on another campsite, in France this time, I saw a woman by the pool reading Tracy’s Bloom’s newly self-published (and now hugely bestselling) book ‘No one Ever has Sex on a Tuesday’. The poor creature had to suffer me bouncing up to her in my bikini saying, ‘my friend wrote that’. She smiled very politely, bless her, and agreed it was all ‘very exciting’ and then went gratefully back to the book as I scuttled off with the kids doing their usual ‘oh mum!’
But it was exciting. What had started in Tracy’s head had made it, via the wonders of computers and printers and the internet and a plane or two, into that other lady’s head and I’m so grateful MacMillan are publishing my trilogy so that my characters will have a chance to make that journey too. I may be a bit weird – most writers probably are – but I hope that next year, when my first novel hits the shelves, people enjoy my alternate reality every bit as much as I can honestly say that I do.
Medieval Kiev on a Spanish beach - I think we did a good job!
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Hope to see you soon - Joanna