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How The Idea Became The Book - Part Two

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

I was sitting having dinner with a friend of mine the other evening, discussing yet another rumour that the writer Elena Ferrante is a man. (She is not.) We were complaining at length at the assumption that any anonymous female writer must perforce be male (in fact the opposite is more likely: George Eliot, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, George Sand, Robert Galbraith...) And I suddenly remembered --

[ -- that I am a man? No, but it did feel like this post was headed that way, and now I am sad to disappoint you --]

-- that at one point, the story of this novel was that my Shakespeare character was going to have written the complete oeuvre of Elena Ferrante.

It was a bit of an untruth, in my last post, when I said that I didn't know how my original idea for an epic life story of a Shakespeare clone became a day-in-the-life romp. I think what I mean is that though I have a paper trail of false starts and half drafts, I can no longer remember all the mental leaps and shifts that come with every decision that I make through the creative process. What makes an idea good? What makes it work? I only ever find out when I put that idea under pressure - follow it to its logical (or illogical conclusion) - try to write it - see where it breaks.

I begin with a premise and then ask myself questions. So, he's a Shakespeare clone. Who made him? Why? Does he know he's a clone? When does he find out? What effect does that knowledge have on him? What kind of a kid was he? What does he grow up to do?

But beneath that I am asking myself another set of questions, and these questions aren't quite as conscious: what would it be like to be a genius? What is a genius? What would it be like to be a normal person who knows he's supposed to be a genius? If you created someone as a science experiment but raised him as your child, would you love him?

Every creative decision that I make is an answer to two questions - one from the first group and one from the second. So, to have my Shakespeare write the works of Elena Ferrante is a nice answer to the question "what does he grow up to do" but doesn't really address anything on my second list, and so it falls by the wayside.

Then there is another matter, which is that of style. I like my writing to be as light as possible, to whip up my ideas so that they go down sweet and easy as a meringue. I want my stories to read as simply and straightforwardly as if I were sitting down to tell them to you myself. But I also like twists and turns of plot, surprise and coincidence, intricate interweaving. I like complex ideas, but I don't want you to notice that they are there until it's too late and you've already thought them. And I like jokes. All my first attempts at this book were heavy cakes, trying to put too much into the mix and leaving with you with something very chewy and hard to swallow. He's a playwright, and on opening night of his new hit play he meets a homeless alcoholic who looks just like him... He's a successful soap writer whose mother dies leaving behind a diary revealing the shocking secret of his birth... He's a precocious child raised by two strange aunts who finds a volume of Shakespeare in the school library and feels an affinity he can't explain.

None of it worked. In despair I went to the place I always go when a book isn't working out: back to bed. OK that's true, but not how I actually intended to end tha sentence. Where I really went was back to the source. I started again with The Complete Works of Shakespeare (and no, I have NOT read it twice, because I expect to die one day) and there it was, staring me in the face: The Comedy of Errors. Two pairs of identical twins, separated in childhood by shipwreck, are reunited in a seaside town, but not before they've shared a long and hilarious day of confusion and mistaken identities. As ever, with everything: Shakespeare has already done it, and he's done it better.

So I wrote my own comedy of errors. And I have never written so fast, or had so much fun. All of the answers from the first list of questions, all of the answers from the second list of questions, and LOADS of jokes. There is also a pleather chair. But, alas, no Elena Ferrante.

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