Monday, February 20, 2012

The pull of the story

A few weeks ago I went to London to film the pitch for my novel, A Box of Birds. This will be my first novel for some time (my debut, The Auctioneer, was published way back in 1999), and so it was a big moment for me. I was meeting John Mitchinson, the publisher of Unbound, to talk to him about the themes of the book. We met at Paramount, the restaurant at the top of Centre Point in Soho. The pitch was filmed (by the wonderful and multitalented Laura Kidd) against the extraordinary backdrop of London viewed from 33 floors up. You can see the results here.

It was a wide-ranging, enlivening conversation, as all my chats with John are. I got the chance to explain how A Box of Birds is my way of taking on a fundamental question: how we should live our lives, if we accept (as modern neuroscience asks us to) that we are no more than complex systems of connections. With Yvonne, I wanted to write the story of the first materialist in fiction. That statement probably seems over-bold and certainly needs some qualification, as there are plenty of other novels that touch on themes of neuroscientific materialism. But I don’t think novelists have gone far enough in exploring the implications of this philosophy for their fictional characters. I’ve written more about this debate here, and there’ll be lots more in the weeks to come. If the book is funded, it will be published in the autumn.

In a way, the most difficult question was the last one. ‘What makes you keep doing it?’ John asked me. At an emotional level, I have no doubt about the answer, but it’s hard to put it into words. I have always written fiction—I had a complete draft of a novel at the age of nine—and it’s not too melodramatic to say that I have dedicated my life to it. In one sense it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I suspect that what John was really asking was: What makes you keep doing it, when you could be doing other things? I have a part-time career as an academic, after all: why isn’t that enough?

If I knew the answer to that, I would have solved a basic riddle about human creativity. What makes us want to tell stories? What do the counterfactuals of fiction give us that the realities of science don’t?

There is much to say on this topic, but here's one idea to start with. Looking for the commonalities between science and writing is not a new endeavour, and people before me have considered this relationship very fruitfully. (Here's one great example, and an equally interesting response.) When I'm doing science, I'm trying to go from the specificities of data to theories and principles that can apply more generally. Writers do that too. They look for the particular that can speak to the universal, the part that can stand for the whole.

In some ways, though, fiction has more to do with engineering. When you write a novel, you are building a model and then putting it in a wind tunnel. You're looking to see how the stresses of events impact upon your characters: how they deform them, and draw out their resiliences. You always start with a character, I think, a character in a situation... and then you put your model down on the bench and see how it runs. For me, with this book, that was about saying 'What if you put a materialist into a story? How would she behave when stuff started to happen? How would her view of the world, and of herself, change?' I honestly don't think we can understand the true meaning of neuroscience from within the discipline. We have to look at how it functions in the real world, how it changes our understanding.

So that's one reason why I do fiction alongside science. In the end, I'm not going to be able to give a definitive answer to the question that John asked me, except to the extent of knowing what these things mean to me personally. That’s the bit that’s hard to put into words, and it’s what I tried to explain to John. I’m less of a person when I’m not writing fiction. Without it, I just don't understand things so well.