We return in this post to one of the questions writers can count on being asked at public readings: Where do you get your ideas from?
Answer: we steal them. Oho yes! Never approach a novelist and say you have a brilliant idea for a novel. Either you haven't, and they will get bored and testy; or you have, and they will pinch it. Usually our thievery is opportunistic. Like magpies we pounce on any nice sparkly bit of wit we spot. We snap up shiny new anecdotes. There's an example in Chapter 4 of Acts and Omissions. When I am describing the cathedral chapter clergy I say that the 'the charism of grumpiness has been bestowed on the canon chancellor.' A line I stole with subtle daring, from Wing Commander Maurice Baring! Or rather, from Rev Canon Wealands Bell, precentor at Lichfield cathedral. I rebuked him on Twitter for being grumpy, and he replied that 'grumpiness isn't a sin, it's a charism'. That's brilliant: I'll have that, I thought. If Mr Bell wishes to write his own novel and pinch things I've tweeted, I would be honoured.
Keep the gems of your life story out of sight when there's a novelist in the room. Novelists vary in rapacity and heartlessness. I am at the tender end of the spectrum. I don't want to hurt people's feelings. I have scruples about ransacking other people's biography to furnish my fiction. So if I am basing my story on something I know to be real, I try to spare people's feelings (or cover my tracks) by changing things like age, gender, hair colour, setting, and so on. Even so, I am occasionally terrified I have stayed too close to the source of my inspiration and people will spot themselves. They never do. They spot other people, and they are always wrong.
I feel entirely free to ransack my own experience, of course. If you're reading Acts & Omissions you will have spotted that my character Jane has a son who has just gone off to New Zealand on his Gap Year. If you follow me on Twitter (@FictionFox) you'll know my younger son has just gone to Australia. Jane is not me, but I am using some of my own feelings and giving them to her, having herded them through the sheepdip of the fictionalising process.
The other thing I'm doing in Acts & Omissions is weaving into my fictional world some of the events currently unfolding in the real world. Obviously, I'm editing them to fit. I have opted for a parallel universe in which Justin Welby was not chosen as the next archbishop of Canterbury. Instead I've imagined that the selection panel did what the media were speculating they might do: cautiously choose a long-serving bishop with many years of experience. And because I don't want John Sentamu to come over to Liverpool and shout at me, I've invented a wholly imaginary archbishop of York.
But there are other ideas, ones we have little control over. We cannot invent them. They come up from the subconscious and they are the real MacCoy. All writers can do is patiently put themselves in the way of receiving them, and wait. Annie Dillard puts it better than I ever could:
At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you. From the corner of your eye you see motion. Something is moving through the air and headed your way. It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings. It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. [Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p75]