I’ve been thinking recently about a question that’s often intrigued me, both as a writer and reader: where do ideas for novels come from?
According to Colm Tóibín, ‘the first sentence of the book comes to you unbidden, unexpectedly, as rhythm and rarely changes.’ After that, comes ‘the work.’
Ian McEwan’s ideas, ‘pop out of nowhere really.’ He tries to make himself available to inspiration by maintaining a state of ‘useful passivity.’
Rose Tremain similarly advises writers to ‘follow the Yogi Masters’ philosophy of Alert Passivity – staying quietly tuned to how everything unfolds day by day and where the truth of things resides.’
Elena Ferrante says, ‘One never knows where a story comes from; it’s the product of a variety of suggestions that, together with others that you are not aware of and never will be, excite your mind (from the Los Angeles Times 2018).
Anna Burns knew what she was going to write after ‘Milkman’ because, she says, the book ‘gave itself to me, like almost all of it, and then it kind of said, “Back later.”’ (New York Times 2019).
Bernardine Evaristo talks of ‘an ever-growing morass of ideas’ which she has to ‘write down as notes, knowing I will return to explore them further.’ (the stories we tell, Arvon Oct 2019)
It appears, then, that writers, at least at the literary end of fiction, often struggle to define exactly how ideas come to them. They seem to form in a nebulous way, through an infusion of conscious and subconscious thought, experience and memory, with some trigger in the present. It’s a strange alchemy.
Right now, events across the world have taken over and, to me at least, waiting for random inspiration to descend seems largely inadequate and irrelevant. I hope that, whatever I write in the future, these events will have some impact on the novel to come, for those ideas that pop out of nowhere, also pop out of the world around us.