Ali Shaw is the author of The Girl With The Glass Feet, winner of the 2010 Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel The Man Who Rained is due out this winter. His blog is, amongst other things, full of weird and wonderful illustrations of creatures, real and imagined.
We are thrilled that he has written this piece for us on writing and place…
Writing a novel is like writing a travel journal. Places are visited, sights and sounds savoured, bits of conversation jotted down. The only difference is that the places visited are imaginary, and this is just as true for novelists who write about their home towns and familiar landscapes as it is for those who invent entire countries and worlds. Either way, a place must be conjured from nothing but neurons, and only afterwards can the correct language be found to convey a sense of it to the reader. Even if the place described exists in reality, even if an author writes about Oxford Street or Wembley Arena, an imaginary replica must first be built inside the mind of the author and this creation, for all its seeming familiarity, is just as fictional as the planet Tatooine. Part of the joy of writing is the freedom to explore such an imagined place, to poke through its secrets or wander its vistas. Part of the joy of reading is the guided tour, the highlights package culled from the writer’s sometimes laborious travels.
For the author, a strange side effect of all this is the way an imagined place and the place in which it was imagined begin to seep into one another. It would be called madness if it wasn’t already called fiction-writing. For example, I wrote the final chapter of my novel The Girl with Glass Feet while sitting in one of the stony alcoves of Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera, and now whenever I go near it I picture the ocean, which is where that final chapter takes place. Another example: I used to work in Blackwell’s Broad Street while writing my book, and I sometimes tried to scribble passages of it during my lunch breaks. Recently, a visit to the shop saw me drop by the staff room, whereupon I was immediately returned to my main character’s kitchen on a snowy day. I can assure you there is nothing particularly wintry or culinary about Blackwell’s staff room, but trying to invoke one place in the other has left them muddled together in my mind.
This effect has made me wary of writing about anything gruesome or disturbing in places I am fond of. I expect it is in part responsible for novelists wishing to remain in their writing rooms to work, so that crime writers, for instance, can walk in their favourite park without curling up into a ball at the sight of a particular flower bed beside which they once penned the details of a gory killing. On the other hand, such crossover can provide incredible satisfaction. The day The Girl with Glass Feet was published, I stopped into Blackwell’s and saw the book on display. It was both surreal and spine-tingling, not least because I knew that some of the places described within had been imagined in that very building. I expect that as novelists complete further books, their lives and their prose become such a jumble that, looking back, they picture past characters and settings alongside the real people they have met and places they have known, making the fiction a part of the truth and the truth, no doubt, a part of the fiction.