Why leaving a place is good for your writing

‘My dad says that being a Londoner has nothing to do with where you’re born. He says that there are people who get off a jumbo jet at Heathrow, go through Immigration waving any kind of passport, hop on the tube and by the time the train’s pulled into Piccadilly Circus they’ve become a Londoner.’

I have always loved this quote from writer David Aaronvitch, although I didn’t feel at home in London straight away – I arrived in high summer, when the city is garish with cheap cotton fashion and hoards of tourists and plastic cups of warm beer and thought, euggh and took the first National Bus service to Edinburgh. But then I returned in October,  when the shadows lengthen and the light turns purple-grey and Londoners are wrapped up in coats and sturdy boots and scarves, and I fell in love with the city and have remained so ever since. Sometimes I’d come across a like-minded soul, like a Portuguese man I met at a viewing for a room in a houseshare, who told me London had ‘given him his life.’ While we didn’t quite weep in each others arms and light a small candlelit shrine to the city as we talked, it was close.

One of the things I loved most was the feeling of safety. I could find my own way home late at night on tubes and night buses, whatever the hour, on buses filled with people, including lots of young women. Of course London isn’t safe, either, but compared to standing on a deserted street in Perth at midnight, waiting for a Swan Taxi and wondering where the Claremont Serial Killer was, it felt like The Truman Show with dirty pigeons.

Eventually, after a decade there, I found myself with a baby who needed sunshine and beaches and cousins and grandparents more than I needed urban grit, so we packed up and moved back to Perth. Once I could bear to think about the city again (after about five years of deep mourning) I abandoned by my first novel manuscript, and started writing one set in London.  

No one need to see this, I thought. I’ll just do it for me, it’s far too personal to share. Suddenly, I was back there in my head whenever I opened my word document or notebook. Back on the buses, on the Tube, wandering through east London, revisiting my favourite streets and buildings and street snacks. Characters turned up, too, and I somehow found a happy midpoint between letting them surprise me but also making a few key decisions about them myself that turned them into real people, at least to me.

After a few drafts I found myself imposing a little more of a plot onto it, and found it turning into a thriller, and somehow I was able to keep what was real and blend it with fiction until I came up with something that feels like some strange mix of both, a more dramatic, unsettling version of my life there.

It’s actually far easier to write about a place you aren’t seeing on a daily basis. It becomes sharper and more focussed in your memory, with all the extraneous details snuffed out to leave room for your imagination to get to work. It was also surprisingly easy to go back there – writing felt like a more intense version of reading about the city, my imagination fully engaged. I wasn’t trying to make everything up, which is too nebulous, but nor was I trying to be true to the original version, which was far sunnier. There’s a huge relief in letting go of your need to be faithful to real-life events and seeing what emerges if you stay alert to possibilities. There were times when my characters surprised me, and other times when I stepped back and made a few cold-hearted decisions about the narrative and forced the characters to obey them.  

What I learned from this is that there’s a lot to be said for writing about places and times that are removed in some way – time or space – from the present. As I wrote, I re-read all the novels I’ve bought over the years that were set in London, to sink back into the city in my head and to see how writers I admired had incorporated place into their storytelling. Here, in no particular order, are some of the London novels that inspired me to try creating my own.

Amaryllis Night and Day by Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban is best known for his cult novel Kleinzeit, but Amaryllis Night and Day was the first novel of his I read. It’s about a man who runs into a young woman in London. They don’t know each other, but vaguely recognise each other from their dreams. It’s bizarre and showed me that travelling around London – simply navigating the city and stepping in and out of its cultural institutions, pubs, museums – can drive a story forward.

26A by Diana Evans

This extraordinary, heartbreaking debut novel is based on the author’s experience of growing up a twin, and veers between North London in the 1980s and a shared childhood in Nigeria. It’s about the unique twin relationship, and what happens when one sister becomes an artist while the other slips away into depression.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Newly arrived in England, the narrator starts out in a boarding house in West London somewhere, and ends up living with a sculptor in Hackney. Through the course of the novel she learns to speak English, so the language changes from a broken English where the meaning is there, but hidden, and finishes when her narration has become far more expressive. As a reader you register this, but it happens so fluidly that you experience what it’s like to master English yourself. Looking at some of the reviews, not everyone got it. But I adored it.

Sleep with Me by Joanna Briscoe

A classic stranger comes to stay novel – young, in-love Londoners Richard and Lelia are living the urban dream with busy, creative careers, friends, romance and a flat in Bloomsbury when into their world comes Sophie, whose motives and background are murky and seductive.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo is the co-founder of Spread the Word, a writers’ development organisation that aims to address the lack of diversity in UK publishing. She also won the Booker prize with this novel, her eighth, written in her distinctive prose poetry.

Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of 12 London women, with the stories divided neatly into four sections with three characters each, creating four triangular relationships that relate to the others in all kinds of unexpected, often hidden ways, as you would expect in a city like London. As a writer, she is fabulous company – constantly letting you in on secrets, making you laugh, giving you the backstory and the endearing quirks of characters so you feel you know them.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

This novel opens with a familiar London scene, a hectic, crowded supermarket, and descends into horror as the main character’s daughter is kidnapped at the busy checkout. McEwan is one of those rare novelists with a strong scientific bent and here he looks at physics and the laws of time, as well as childhood and marriage. It’s a mindbender of a novel but somehow it works.

 An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

Based loosely on Mantel’s own experience of studying at the School of Economics at University College London, this story takes the familiar, jolly setting of a girl’s boarding school but makes it far more unsettling, sad but also at times funny. The three main characters, Carmel, Julianne and the mysterious Karina, arrive in London from an unnamed northern town to embark on their lives. Everything is ahead of them and nothing is certain, least of all the young women they are sharing their living quarters with, as the novel’s horrifying climax brings home.

Any other London books I need to read? Feel free to share.

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