Paperback Writer

Before writing a word, Sally Beauman must feel a mystical connection to her characters

Spell it out

In Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, there is a scene in which two ill-assorted men, the vainglorious Glendower and Henry Percy, aka Hotspur, meet in Bangor. They are there to form a military alliance - and it will prove an ill-fated one. The scene is haunting (Hotspur has not long to live), yet it is wonderfully funny. During the course of it, Glendower, who has a reputation as a wizard, boasts of his magical powers to a sceptical Hotspur. The exchange is one of my favourites, and I often think of it before I begin and while I am writing a novel. "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," Glendower declares. "Why, so can I, or so can any man," Hotspur dryly replies, "But will they come when you do call for them?"

Will they indeed? In Shakespeare, there is a frequent association between the sea, magic, spells, incantations and the imagination - Prospero's last action, before he relinquishes his island and his powers, is to drown his books. And through years of reading and rereading those plays, that association has lodged itself in my mind - I cannot free myself from it. So when I write, no matter how hard I try to make the process a rational, cerebral one, I know that will not suffice. There is always a moment (if there isn't, I'm in trouble) when some vasty deep has to be approached, and the spirits that dwell in it summoned.

I'm very superstitious about this (I'm sure most writers are). Those spirits can be kindly or capricious, and they're never less than dangerous, so it's as well to placate them first. I make them offerings. I give them silence, isolation, patience and slog. I give them anonymity - all writers should "walk invisible", as Charlotte Brontë once wrote. I provide the desirable flat-calm of a dull and regular routine. I never nudge, nag, prod, plead, or pray - that would be counterproductive, and hubristic, I think.

There are other prerequisites. My characters require names - if they don't fit, they'll be struck dumb and refuse to speak. I have to hear their accents, know their gestures, and feel I see the place they inhabit as intimately as they might. All this comes first - novels always begin for me with voices, scraps of dialogue, glimpses of rooms, sounds and sweet airs. It is a strange moment, akin to dreaming. It's a phantom period, tantalising, troublesome, and sometimes malign - a hint of what's to come, perhaps.

There is a sterner aspect to the Janus face of writing, of course. I wouldn't expect, dare or attempt to write a word, let alone summon spirits, until I'd made them other offerings first. The house of fiction has many windows, Henry James wrote; and it must be planned before it can be built. That involves architecture, engineering and a certain amount of drudgery - drudgery of the kind I most like. I have to dig foundations, lay footings, erect load-bearing walls, and insert RSJs in the narrative construct. I have to see a detailed plan, with the windows, rooms, doorways, corridors, staircases and power sources clearly visible. But I like that architectural layout to be deceptive. In my house of fiction I want hidden rooms, mirrors, priest-holes and squints. The façade may be baroque, classical or gothic, but whatever the conventions of its outward form, I want it to conceal an older building, one with attics, cellars, echoes and ghosts - a house without ghosts would not interest me in the least. Finally - and ideally - there will be a graveyard nearby. Narrative houses should have a good view of tombstones; it encourages the dead to speak.

Once those preliminary elements are in place, I'll begin. Then I follow my plan, step by step, room by room - until the moment when I suddenly understand its mistakes. It's then, when the unconscious mind can see more truly than the rational conscious mind ever could, that the spirits respond at last to the call. There's a strange surfacing, and out they step from their vasty deep. Then comes the best part, when you demolish, realign, rebuild - and rewrite.

Sally Beauman

The Guardian, 13.7.02.


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Fuseli's 'Dispute' from 'Henry IV', Part I Henry Fuseli's painting of Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester arguing over the future division of the kingdom at Bangor, in 'Henry IV' Part I. The actor, John Philip Kemble sat for Hotspur and Glendower. The picture has a very long title but is generally known as 'The Dispute'.