Rebecca Stott describes the origins of GhostwalkJune 18, 2008
The Beginnings of Ghostwalk
In November 2003, while I was doing readings and publicity for my book on Darwin’s early years (Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber, 2003) I bought a copy of a new biography of Newton in order to compare Newton’s formative years with Darwin’s.
The book left me with a series of questions about Newton’s fellowship at Trinity, which he was awarded in 1667, five years after arriving at Cambridge as a young student: How had he been given a fellowship without particularly impressing himself on the college authorities? Had someone acted as a kind of patron? Unlike Darwin, who readily acknowledged his dependency on networks of fellow scientists in his early years, Newton appeared to be a legendary recluse. I found this difficult to believe – surely it was impossible for any scientist, then or now, not to be dependent on, and entangled in, networks of knowledge and power?
I checked a second biography for further information about the award of the fellowship which told me that Newton was “lucky” because there were extra vacancies that year in the fellowships, brought about by two deaths of fellows falling down stairs apparently drunk, the expulsion of another fellow for insanity, and the death of a fourth fellow from pneumonia caught from a night spent in a field apparently drunk. Was Newton really that lucky, I wondered. I marked the deaths with asterisks and a question mark in the book.
Then came the “what if.” What if Newton had been involved in some way in those deaths? What would that mean? It was an idle and speculative question at this stage. I also wondered what it might be like to be a historian who found evidence about those deaths and a possible link to Newton – what if you had a lead like that and reached the end of what was known, reached the end of the archives? What if you were really obsessed with knowing something but it was unknowable by conventional means? What would you do next?
A few days later I was supposed to fly to Spain to join a friend there for a few days. At 5 a.m. I cycled to Cambridge station only to be told that there would be no trains to Stansted airport for several hours. Just as I was about to go home, a mysterious man in a dark coat suggested that we share a taxi to the airport – a 45-minute ride. I agreed. As the taxi drove away I mentioned to him that I had read that there was a meteor storm going on up in the sky, which we unfortunately could not see because of thick fog. He was, he said, a meteorologist who was returning to Germany after a conference in Cambridge and yes, meteor showers were common in November, but meteor storms were rare and often extraordinary, even life-changing, to watch. He described the meteor storm as a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head. Then he fell silent.
The image he described of the complex movements of the meteor storm worked as a kind of catalyst for all the ideas germinating in my mind over the previous couple of weeks: entanglement, love, the limits of knowledge, the tensions between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, obsession, the dangers of certain kinds of knowledge…
Between that conversation and arriving in Stansted I conceived the plan for the entire novel – or rather it came to me complete as if out of the meteor storm: a woman in red drowned in a river, the psychic, the neuroscientist, the double murder plot, the love story, the fatal entanglements.
When I arrived at the airport I wrote it all down on a scrap of paper which I later glued into a bigger notebook. The finished novel, which took two years to complete, is almost exactly as it was conceived in that taxi ride during that invisible meteor storm.