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April 8, 2009

A book derailed.. what real life does to authors

So, as I related yesterday, there I was about to write a book called Dante’s Numbers, set entirely in Rome around a movie based upon Dante’ Inferno. Easy peasy. Or as easy peasy as it ever gets.

Then, out of the blue, I find myself invited to ‘teach’ at a famous writing school in America, the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference which happens once a year at the famous Corte Madera store just north of San Francisco.

Why me? Apparently the people of Marin County discovered my books early. Prescient folk, I thought, and immediately said yes, not knowing for one moment what I was letting myself in for. I left school when I was seventeen. I’ve never sat in the audience at a writing school event in my life. Me? Teach?

Oh well. I love California so I duly set off and found myself sitting on a stage with none other than Martin Cruz Smith, talking about literature. I’m still amazed I managed to say a word. Martin is one of my all-time heroes. If he’d never written Gorky Park I doubt I’d be here because in that book Martin established that it was possible to write about people who come from foreign lands and speak strange (to us) tongues, and not treat them as aliens from outer space.

I spent a wonderful four days at Book Passage, talking and, more importantly, listening to people discussing books and storytelling. Then I settled down in a little rented house in San Francisco to finish The Garden of Evil.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite authors, Jorge Luis Borges…

A writer - and, I believe, generally all persons - must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.

I love that because it so mirrors the way I feel about my work. I don’t get these books out of thin air, staring at the ceiling for inspiration. I drag them out of the stones of Rome by force, walking every inch of the cobbled streets I write about, dreaming of what might be, talking to people about what has been. Quite deliberately I allow the real world to influence my works of fiction, and on occasion take them places they would never have gone if I’d stayed at home staring at the computer.

Sitting in my little house in that quiet San Francisco neighbourhood known as Cow Hollow, I discovered a number of things. One was that the place resembled, in many ways, a Roman rione. Rome is a city made up of many different and contrasting villages, not a single homogenous metropolis. This part of San Francisco felt that way too, and I found myself wondering what my characters would make of somewhere that was both foreign and familiar at the same time.

Then, as I finally got to grips with the ending of The Garden of Evil, I found myself wandering around the streets more, into the area known as the Marina. The more I walked, the more I found myself haunted by the ghost of a memory, one much more recent than anything I encountered in Italy. A memory, it occurred to me, that meshed in with my attempt to write about Dante with an unexpected and quite shocking accuracy.

After a week in San Francisco my well-laid plans to write a book called Dante’s Numbers were in tatters. I’d been ambushed, kidnapped, hoodwinked, and by one of the most cunning artistic minds in recent cultural history. Who?

Come back Thursday, dears. I am a thriller writer, you know. You can’t expect it all at once.

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