For as long as I can remember I’ve loved fiction. I can plot the course of my childhood by the books I was obsessing about at any one time – Blyton as a I was about to start school, Tolkien and Agatha Christie once I was there, 1984 and Brave New World as I contemplated adulthood. By the age of twelve I had decided that I wanted to write novels myself, and since then I’ve written more or less constantly.
Some time in my mid-thirties, though, writing started to assume a larger role in my life. It stopped feeling like a hobby, a distraction, and started to feel like something that was in some way intrinsic to the person that I am. I started to spend more and more time on my fiction, and towards the end of 2008 I made the decision that the stresses and complications of my full-time job in the NHS were no longer compatible with my ambitions for writing. I moved to a more junior, part time position, and within a week of handing in my notice I saw an advert for the first Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ course and decided to apply. I began the course a few weeks later.
Not really. I’d recently abandoned a completely different novel. For a while I considered going back to that, but in the end I decided I would learn more from the course if I was working on a brand new project. The only problem was I didn’t know what! I spent a couple of months casting about for ideas.
That’s such a difficult question to answer! Sometimes I have no clue! I think the key is just to be open to possibility, really. To daydream. To follow thoughts through, no matter how absurd they become. When I was wondering what to work on during the Faber course I wrote about 40 potential first lines, just to see if any of them led me into a story. My favourite was “When I think back now, the thing that got me through those months was the shoes.” I still wonder what kind of novel that might have led me into!
No. In fact Before I Go to Sleep has its origins in an obituary I read, of a man called Henry Gustav Molaison, who until his death in 2008 had been known only as “patient H.M.” He was 82 when he died, but since undergoing surgery for epilepsy in 1953 he had been unable to form new memories and so lived constantly in the past. His obituary described how Molaison, despite having a longstanding relationship and regular meetings with his doctor, would have to be reintroduced to her every time they met.
I wondered how it must feel to wake up every day thinking it was 1953, and was struck immediately by a mental image of a woman looking in a bathroom mirror in a strange house to find that, instead of a teenager reflected there, she had become a middle-aged woman, and the house was her home.
I’m not entirely sure! I wanted the book to be about love, to examine domesticity and issues such as power within relationships, not to mention ageing and the body. All of those things would have been possible with a male narrator, of course, but I think it would have been a very different book had it been narrated by a man. Also I didn’t really want to write Henry Molaison’s story, and I think having a female character helped to distance the story from his.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t really feel like a conscious decision. The character of Christine came to me almost immediately, fully formed, and I couldn’t help but write her story. I also felt strongly that, in order to achieve the emotional intensity that such a subject deserves, the book needed to be written in the first person, despite the technical challenges of writing an entire novel from the point of view of a person who remembers nothing from one day to the next!
I felt that the novel should explore more than just memory. I wanted to write about identity, and our sense of selves, of what makes us who we are. I also wanted to explore marriage and domesticity, and so decided that Christine should be living with a husband, in a home they shared. I realised that one of the themes of the book would be love, and one of the central questions I wanted to ask is whether love can be intrinsic and instinctual, whether it is possible to love someone about whom we have no memory. It was important that Christine not be reduced to victimhood – I wanted her to be a complex, rich character, and for the reader to be discovering her past and her personality almost as she does – and so I decided that she would also be leaving the house to see a doctor, and that furthermore these expeditions would happen without her husband’s knowledge.
Once I’d made those decisions it was time to start writing! I began the opening chapter two days before the first night of the Faber Academy course, so the timing was perfect. A couple of weeks later I took my opening chapter to the group and they were enthusiastic about the ideas behind the novel and the directions in which I could take it.
Yes. In particular I wanted Christine’s condition to feel real. I began to research memory and amnesia, and was particularly struck by the story of Clive Wearing, a British conductor and musician who has suffered severe amnesia since contracting a virus in 1985. I read books and watched films about his case, and others and again and again I was struck by how disabling a lack of memory is, how fundamental to our sense of self is the ability to recall our experiences, how bewildering it must be to be stranded in time, with no knowledge of one’s past. I also realized how common this type of condition really is – many who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias also experience a devastating loss of memory.
I realised that I had not chosen an easy subject to write about, and felt that I owed it to these people – real people who were suffering terribly through their inability to remember – to tell this story as well as I possibly could.
Again, it didn’t really feel like a conscious decision! A few weeks into the writing I realised that the book should not merely be a meditation on memory, that it also needed the engine of plot to drive it forward. Almost straight away – and to my very great surprise – I saw the final scene of the book, and it was then that I sat down and mapped out how my characters would evolve. There were still some unexpected events along the way, some odd twists and turns which my characters seemed determined to take, and following them proved to be one of the most enjoyable things about writing the novel.
I think ultimately, though, the books I love most have intricate plots and are full of mystery and intrigue – so it’s really no surprise they’re the kind of books I like to write!
Very much so. I benefitted enormously from the help and insight of my colleagues on the Faber course, who read and commented on some long sections and helped me to keep a firm hand on the tiller when the complexity of the plot threatened to prove overwhelming. By the time the six-month course finished I had built up enough momentum and belief in the book to finish the first draft quite quickly.
The characters have remained with me, however – Christine in particular – and the recent story in the UK news of a woman with a very similar condition has been a startling reminder that although I was writing fiction there are many people who suffer amnesia and for whom the issues I touch upon in the novel are very real and very frightening.
I’m working on my second book. I can’t say too much about it at the moment. It’s not a sequel, but I think people who like Before I Go to Sleep won’t be disappointed!