I was born into a family of novel characters, so I really had no choice but to become an author.
When I was five, my grandfather returned from a visit to his childhood home, the Amazon jungle, with suitcases illegally stuffed with seedlings and handed me a frail, fern-like thing in a tiny pot.
“This plant can sense good or evil,” he said with his usual seriousness and I nodded silently as I took it from him, marvelling afterwards how the dark finger-leaves would curl or point whenever certain people entered my room.
And then there was my English maternal grandmother – drawling stories in her buttery West Country voice, she said she’d discussed my school grades with my long-dead grandfather as if that was utterly normal, my mother backing her up by telling of the nocturnal visits when he stood by her bedroom door. Even my very rational German engineer father got in on the act, speaking shyly about the Victorian cook who appeared and passed through him each time he went to a certain restaurant, or how he and his fellow apprentices had once seen an upside-down silver flying saucer hovering above their factory.
With the world so obviously marvellous and frayed at the edges, there was no surprise that I wrote from the first moment I could hold a pencil. I needed to get it all down – but I also needed to get this fantastic chaos into some kind of order.
Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” For me, for as far back as I can remember, fiction has been the container in which I pour life’s pain and joy, the wonder of plants capable of better value judgements than most humans, aliens on a day trip to Gloucester Cathedral and dead people who refused to believe life should be any different beyond their funeral. In stories, the little me found I could gain some degree of control by twisting these weird events to my own liking, giving them my own logical explanation. In stories, I could pretend that the crazy stuff was imaginary and let others laugh or wonder at my creations, even though the basic, everyday stuff which my friends took for granted was way more puzzling and elusive where I came from.
Magic realism was just realism in my family and now I realise that was a gift. Unlike others, I never struggled with what was possible, never faced the same limits in terms of what I could dream for my life or feel comfortable writing about. We were working class, our halls weren’t lined with books or crusted with arias, but we were people who loved spinning a yarn over the ketchup bottle on the table, boxes of old photographs and glasses of sherry, brown-red as blood. A miraculous pregnancy after seven years of prayer, a beauty queen with a wooden leg and an almost-marriage to a millionaire were amongst my grandmother’s favourite tales, made new with each rendition, but still holding the story’s essence and excitement intact.
These were my grandmother’s edits, her new drafts, though she would have laughed at such pretentiousness, being a woman who’d left school to work at a toy factory at fourteen and didn’t learn to read until she was in her sixties due to being bullied at school. She was proud of my college achievements though, of how I became an English Literature academic and used to compare her youthful Sunday school teaching with my own in a way which made me smile. I hope now she would be proud of my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, which is rich with so many of her stories – perhaps not taking the shape she might’ve given them (a girl must always protect her grandmother’s honour, after all), but with, I hope, some of her energy still inside.
The truth is, memories and stories are the flesh and blood of those who have gone – we are their voices, their silver dancing shoes. To write, then, is a role of great importance, but also one of insignificance as we are often merely the vessels of time and others who knew a lot better than we ever will. When we tell stories, the dead live again though – I’m sure my grandmother was doing the Charleston she taught me right next to my desk when I wrote Welcome to Sharonville, even if she was wearing invisible silk and her steps were silent as moonlight – and it is for this reason, writing remains something to love and fear in equal measure for those of us who undertake its dark arts. In many ways, writers are not much different from mediums who sing with the vibrations from the other side, and so my family did me a great favour in terms of normalising the blurring between metaphysical worlds in a way which was more Japanese or Latin American than they ever knew.
It’s easy when you’re small to want to be the same as everyone else – to want an unhaunted house or a surname which doesn’t sound like a Star Trek planet – but now I know that, as a writer, weirdness is a positive advantage. My mentor, the novelist, Jacqui Lofthouse, recently said at my book launch that, because of my childhood, I have enough material for many novels and it’s true – I feel so grateful now for my family’s strangeness which is also my own.
I still remember the night when I realised I belonged with them – inside the spooky fairy tale, not just as the teller of it. I was thirteen and walking my dog on a quiet suburban spring night, clear-skied and black, when a white light flashed into the distance, followed by an orange one, slow as a bowling ball, not twenty feet above my head. I fled home, hurtling past parked cars and the petroleum-swirly blue reflection of television shows in living room windows, smashing my treasured yellow Walkman on the pavement and dragging my dog on his lead. Breathless with horror, I arrived home, where I gabbled in tears to my mother about what had happened – she just told me off for breaking my stereo and sent me to bed where I sat saying to myself, not without a small smile, “Me too, me too, me too.”
[This essay originally appeared on Bridget Whelan’s blog in the summer of 2014.]