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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Beating Heart of a Book

Since writing about the Bishop family in Tying Down The Lion, I would like to reply to some interesting questions people have asked about how I constructed it. Which came first: the backdrop of Berlin or the notion of a road trip? Did it set out to be a novel about war or about living with the after-effects? Was my intention to concentrate on their journey or their destination?

One thread links these questions: where is the beating heart of a book?

Is it in the surroundings or the travelling - both the physical and emotional journey? Is the pulse of it in the historical research or the period detail?

My answer is straightforward. None of these. With both short stories and novels, I begin in the same place every single time - with the characters.

The story emerges from the people in my imagination. I don't feel in a position to slide them up and down the peaks and troughs of their narrative arc until I know who they are.

Yes, unavoidable factors, such as surviving the war - and which 'side' they were on - have influenced the Bishop family's choices and actions, their mental health and their relationships. But I slotted those 'exterior' elements in place (if only it were as easy as 'slotted' implies) after I had understood their strengths and their spirit, their flaws and failings, their uniqueness as individuals.

"I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven." (Stephen King: On Writing)

In order to know the Bishops, I thought about them all the time and dreamed about them at night, often waking up with deeper insight as a result. They held conversations with each other in their living-room, or inside their car, or on the streets and squares of Berlin. Never in my home or my car or on the streets where I live. I closed my eyes and 'saw' them where they fitted, in their spaces rather than mine. That way, they could always be themselves.

There were arguments and blistering atmospheres, brightened by rare moments of harmony. Sometimes they fell silent and I observed the way they sat, or how they looked away from each other's faces, or noticed whether they lit a cigarette and how they lit them. (If you have ever watched the amazing AMC series, Mad Men, you will know the many different ways people can smoke.) I thought about what scared my characters, and also what brought them comfort. I wondered how they suffered in private and how they might show love.

Imagination shapes the souls of book-people. Their essence fills the pages. However, there is no clear idea of their physical appearance in my mind. The imagination of each reader supplies his or her own exclusive pictures. I hope I can show my readers enough, rather then tell them everything.

Tying Down The Lion has a huge framework - the ruptured city of Berlin - and deals with complex feelings and personal issues: depression, mood swings, alcoholism, gambling, loss of identity, persecution, prejudice and fear. But both the massive setting and the wide range of emotions exist because of the Bishop family. Without them there would be no Berlin, no bad moods, no bigotry. The Bishops are the beating heart of the book.

The East German Ampelmann has such style, he became a small character too. But he was taken from real life. More about that in the next post.


  1. I definitely prefer starting with characters, Joanna - and I'm sure that's what makes your stories so powerful.

    1. Thank you, Rosemary. Yes, it's always the best way to go, I think. When I'm reading, my emotional responses are always a result of rooting for the character. x