Only six sleeps to go until I head off to Menton in the south of France, for six months research for my next book project, thanks to the generous Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. It feels like it’s been a long time coming – having been told back in October last year.
Plans have been made, and changed — the news that I’m to be a grandmother at the start of October both delighted and panicked me as I had to rebook tickets to arrive home in time for this exciting development. The thought of missing out on such an extraordinary experience (and not being here to help support my son and daughter-in-law) made the decision to shave two months of the trip easy in the end!
I’m chomping at the bit to start my research. I’ve been nosing around this project for the past five years and the thought that I’ll be able to have dedicated time to dive into it is incredibly exciting. Not that I’ve been slacking: in October, when I first heard the news, I was only 20,000 words into a new novel, so I’ve spent the intervening months writing every day, sometimes up to 9 hours a day. I’m pleased with it – and it’s now in the hands of an excellent editor, which can only further lift it.
Singing Home The Whale is a strange book – like nothing I’ve written before. It ambushed me late one night, flooding me with fully formed sentences in a voice that was clearly not human, so what was it? Over the following weeks the story (and the story-teller) slowly revealed itself to me, and through a series of remarkable ‘coincidences’ (that I prefer to think of as ‘signs’!) it became evident that this creature was, in fact, a whale, and he was tasking me with writing his memoir, focussing on his extraordinary relationship with a boy called Will.
It’s a story with a mythic scope, the whale (an orca) reflecting back across his fifty-three years in order to teach others the strengths and weaknesses of human behaviour, and the path we must take in order to find a better balance for the world.
And it’s a story about the gradual healing of a young man who has been brutally battered by the dark side of human behaviour and who, in confronting his own fears, helps others to do so as well.
I’m proud of it. I know there will be some who won’t be able to enter into this world wholeheartedly but it’s my hope that the magical element that first delivered me the story will sprinkle fairy-dust into the eyes of the reader to allow them to suspend disbelief just long enough to fall in love with this most gracious of ambassadors from the deep.
His sections are told in prose poetry, the words sourced solely from Old English (except for the odd lapse when nothing else would do!), it has been a lesson for me in etymology and I have spent a great deal of time trolling through an online etymology dictionary and thesaurus to translate exactly what this wise old fellow is trying to say. Coupled with his predilection for assonance, it has made for slow, but very fulfilling, writing (sometimes only achieving 300 words a day) – but, as a result, the care taken over each word seems to have impacted on the ‘real world’ telling of Will’s story as well. I’ve always had a problem with over-writing – not trusting that I’ve made my point. I think, thanks to this gruelling process, I might finally have got it sussed. Fingers crossed! I’ve certainly never pored over a piece of writing with such rigour before.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of the whole process is that my daughter, Rose Lawson, has done the most intricate black and white ink drawings, which will sit between each changing chapter (and voice) like the woodcuts of old, with the chapter titles in the box at its centre. They are beautiful – and I’m so proud to know they’ll be in the book (and can’t wait to see the finished product!)
Her participation has not been without its strange otherworldly influences either: in the week before I first spoke to her of the idea, she dreamed (two nights in a row) of a pod of orcas swimming in through her bedroom window! The whole project has been riddled with these kinds of strange linkages and occurrences – spooky possums!
Perhaps the lesson from this, in terms of writing, is the need to keep our eyes and ears and minds open – that there are stories out there banging on the doors of our souls, so long as we are alert to listening for their call.
I’ll blog again from England, and tell you what it’s like to be thrust straight off an aeroplane into the London Book Fair! À bientōt!