This summer I drafted my 3rd novel in my mother’s house in Portugal. I was exiled to the cellar-like bedroom downstairs as cicadas chirruped outside. At the same time I was preparing writing exercises for my ‘teaching tour’ later this summer, in Singapore and Australia. I was also answering interview questions. My 2nd novel Diamond StarHalo was out in Holland and Germany and the publicity machine was thankfully grinding. It was a writer’s summer, I suppose, but what I found –in all three endeavors- was a return to memory, or at least a return to the same questions about memory.
Journalists ask me, ‘What do you remember about your childhood?’ ‘What do you remember about where you grew up?’ It’s all leading to ‘Is your novel based on What Really Happened?’ I’ve had these responses for both Happy Accidents, and Diamond Star Halo. Is it purely to do with writing in the first-person, from the point of view of girls?
It’s a strange thing, being asked if your work of fiction is really a work of What Really Happened. Of course the pedant in me wants to say, ‘It’s a novel, of course not, silly!” but of course, the ‘truth’ is more opaque.
The business of writing, I believe, is about plugging into the space where memory and imagination collide. Your novel, your story, may be set in 17th century Perthshire, and from the point of view of a mongrel, but still, how you interpret the world, how lived experience has shaped you, these will in turn shape the story. I suppose this is called ‘voice’, and it’s your writing DNA, and one to mine and treasure.
My current novel is written in the 3rd person. It’s set in 1955, long before I was born. It’s from the point of view (it’s a slippery 3rd person) of a young boy. Still, I consider this novel as ‘autobiographical’ as my others.
Perhaps it’s as simple as saying ‘stand in your characters shoes’, but it’s an important process. Place becomes hugely important to me as I write. I have to do a little method-style research; I have to stand in the ‘place’ or in what I imagine the ‘place’ to be. I need to have such a firm handle on it that I feel; perhaps I’ve lived there; perhaps I have walked through 1950’s London smog, or played on the wastelands the bombs left. In fact, I have often used pictures, photographs, not simply as writing triggers, but actually in my final texts. This one appears in Happy Accidents :
If I was very grand I might say this is ‘interface’ but as I’m not I’ll say that it’s fun using images in this way. Memory works in images, as fiction does (of course I’m speaking subjectively, it’s different for us all) and what can be fun is the way the image collides with what the reader expects.
This, then, is how I felt this summer as I sat in my mother’s house, writing. This is how I felt as I devised writing exercises based on the big M&I: memory and imagination. This is how I felt as I answered questions about fiction and ‘what really happened’.
Personally, I blame it on my mother, because as I was in exile in that basement room, my mother cooked tomato spare ribs, tandoori chicken, and paella in the kitchen above. My mother is a cook, so this was fun for her. And it was as those smells, those tastes wafted down to me, my senses triggered memory because these are my favourite childhood dishes. These are my favourite childhood smells.
And so, in that basement I also ended up writing a piece for Granta called Music and Memory, and it was all down to my mother’s spare ribs.
Read poet Pooja Nansi’s thoughts on memories and identity here.
Poet Yong Shu Hoong writes about place and identity here.
Playwright Ng Yi-Sheng explores his family’s connections with Tiong Bahru here.
About Tiffany Murray:
Tiffany’s novels, Diamond Star Halo (2010) and Happy Accidents (2005) were short-listed for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Diamond Star Halo is published as Bidden voor Bowie in Dutch, and Lieber Gott und Otis Redding in German. Tiffany’s writing has appeared in The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent and The Guardian. She is a Senior Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at The University of Glamorgan. Visit her website here.