The Magical Journey of an Idea
Every book begins with an initial seed of an idea – a whisper in the writer’s mind, that won’t go away.
The first seed of an idea that ended up becoming my novel Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, happened when I was in Sharjah in the UAE. I was there to give some talks as part of a literary festival, and let me make it clear right now, that getting the opportunity to go and speak in a magical desert world so far away from home was beyond all of my wildest dreams.
One balmy afternoon I was sitting on the beach, gazing in wonder at the Persian Gulf, and I got talking to a woman who was also there to give some talks. She was an expert on storytelling, as in, that was her actual job. She’d spent most of her working life travelling the world in search of stories, living with tribes, tracing the world’s myths, legends and fairytales back to their roots. During the course of our conversation she told me about the Berber tribe, who believed that we are all born with a story inside of us, a story that will help us navigate our lives, and it’s our job to find it. I was intrigued. ‘How do we find our story?’ I asked. At that point she got all mysterious – ‘You’ll know it when you hear it,’ she said. I still wasn’t any clearer but I loved the concept.
Later that evening I sat on the terrace as the call to prayer drifted over the rooftops and I thought again about the notion that we all had a story inside of us. Although I still didn’t know exactly what it meant, I felt certain that I had the beginnings of a story right there.
When I got back to the UK I decided that I wanted to write a novel about the refugee crisis and more specifically, about a Syrian refugee who ends up finding refuge in the UK. I’d read about parents spending their life savings on sending their children on the refugee trail, in the hopes that they would be safer. I tried to imagine what that would feel like, how I as a mother would find the courage to do that. How I would bear being parted from my son. How I would bear the thought of sending him off on his own. How I would prepare him for what was bound to be a perilous journey, without the protection of his family?
Memories from the UAE came back to me. But this time I saw a teenage boy on a rooftop terrace with his father. And his father imparting a nugget of wisdom to see him on his journey. ‘We are all born with a story inside of us,’ I imagined the father telling his son. ‘A story that helps us navigate our lives.’ ‘But how will I find my story?’ I imagined the son responding. ‘You’ll know it when you hear it,’ I heard his dad reply. And there it was, the starting point for the novel – a father trying to turn the refugee trail into an adventure for his son, to try and protect him in some way from the harsh realities he was bound to encounter.
Fast forward several years, to last Friday. The seed of the idea has grown into a published book, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, which has been shortlisted for an award.
I arrive at the award ceremony to be told that each of the shortlisted authors will be giving a short talk about our book and a reading from the book. I knew about the talk but I’d forgotten we were meant to be doing a reading. I hadn’t even brought a copy of my book with me!
In the spirit of fun / insanity (you choose) I decided to make a feature of my absent-mindedness and own up to the audience, and ask them to call out a random number, and I would read that page.
Then I was told that the highly acclaimed and hugely talented illustrator, Chris Riddell would be drawing pictures based on our readings as we were reading, and these pictures would be projected on to a huge screen behind us.
We were each introduced to Chris Riddell prior to the start of the event and he asked us for a brief summary of what we would be reading. I told him about my hair-brained scheme, worried that he might not like having no preparation whatsoever, but thankfully he was totally up for the challenge!
It was only when I was sitting on the stage in front of an audience of hundreds that I started to see the folly of my ‘fun’ idea. What if the number that got chosen turned out to be the worst page in the book? What if it didn’t make any sense taken out of context? What if it was just a bit dull and gave Chris Riddell zero inspiration? What if his page, and the giant screen behind me, remained blank?? On and on my fear thoughts escalated.
But it was too late to do anything, so I stepped up to the mic, told the audience what had happened, and asked if they would call out a number.
‘SEVENTEEN!’ A girl’s voice rang out from somewhere at the back of the hall.
Nervously, I turned to page 17, having no clue what it would be.
In a twist that I can only describe as magical, it turned out to be the page containing the very first seed of the idea – in which the father tells his son about us all having a story inside of us, buried within our heart.
I got so lost in the reading – and my relief! – that I forgot all about the giant screen behind me. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I was sitting down at a table to do the book signing, that one of the organisers brought a piece of paper over to me.
On it was the drawing Chris Riddell had done, inspired by my reading of page 17. So now, as well as being contained within a book, the seed of the idea that first came to life during a chance conversation in Sharjah, has been captured by one of the UK’s greatest illustrators. I’m getting choked up again, just typing these words. And I don’t really know how to finish this, other than to say, always keep believing and trusting in the magic of your ideas.
(Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow also won the Highly Commended Award at the Southern Schools Book Award Ceremony, so it’s safe to say it was a very good night!)