Continuing my little flurry of guest posts… I am really pleased to welcome Toby Stone to the blog. As you may already know, I am Toby’s editor (and, while we’re at it, publisher) in my other guise as editor-in-chief at Hic Dragones. Earlier this year, we published Toby’s amazing debut novel, Aimee and the Bear, which is a unique, dark, twisted tale of a girl’s escape from an abusive home (with the help of an unforgettable teddy bear).
Aimee and the Bear is not an easy book to describe. I’m regularly frustrated by (some) people’s initial reaction – they see a book with an eight-year-old protagonist and assume it is a children’s book. A couple of months ago, for instance, I submitted the book to a review site with a full description of the plot, a warning about the levels of violence, implied sexual content and bad language (which covers the complete spectrum of profanity, in case you’re interested). The reviewer’s response? ‘Well it sure sounds like a children’s book to me…’ Erm… okay…
Readers’ responses have been more reassuring. The book has recently been described ‘as unique and astonishing as it is chilling’, and one Amazon reviewer called it ‘intelligent, stylish and quirky’. At least some adult readers can deal with a child protagonist! (I’m also yet to find a reader who didn’t cry when they reached the end of the book… but I’m not going to give any spoilers here…)
Anyway, I thought Toby and I could use this blog post to give readers a taste of what to expect from Aimee and the Bear. I asked Toby to talk about his writing process, but also to film an exclusive reading of an extract. Enjoy the video, and then the little glimpse into the mind of the unique Mr Stone. If you’d like another taste of his writing, Toby submitted an unpublished story to my other blog a couple of months ago, which available to read for free here.
I see images at the start of writing a book. Metaphorically speaking, I see this process as being shown a map with blobs – glades of clarity – amid swathes of unexplored white. For instance, with Aimee and the Bear, my debut novel, I saw a little girl in a lilac dress dancing through long grass in a glade in a forest. I could tell she was the main character to a story, but for a novel to grow, to reach the golden mean of 75,000 words or more, several of this kind of image have to combine. At which point my metaphor breaks down.
Now, the blobs are the atoms of a molecule I am trying to engineer, and I’m looking for other atoms that will be attracted to and bond with the original image. Many years ago I ‘saw’ four teddy bears in a row, wearing what seemed to be adventurers’ backpacks, and I thought this was the initial idea for a children’s book. Instead, after thinking of the girl in the lilac dress, I realised that the teddies wouldn’t be a number of bears, but one, and that, when it came alive in the world I had part imagined (the glade, the forest) it would be a real bear. It seemed like that kind of world. Now, I had two atoms in the molecule of my narrative, two beads in the rosary. To this I bonded an idea from a short story that hadn’t gone anywhere, from several years previously. On my depressed way to work (then, I was a mortgage broker), I would pass a run-down tower block and stare at it from the metro, between shoulders and the hair of whoever I happened to be pinioned against. It had become, in my writing, the Dark Tower Block, a kind of late 20th-century Sauron’s tower, haunted, with floor tiles that changed position with the flickering electrical lights. As the blobs of clarity emerged for Aimee and the Bear, I saw the tower fall, exploding. Later, I would add the idea that it fell from the ceiling of a hollow, inverted hill. The Underhill.
In this way, the stringed molecule of the story is – for me – formed.
Around the atoms, I layer fields of emotion. For instance, in Aimee and the Bear, I have a character who is unemployed and weighed down by functioning alcoholism, shame, and by the denigration of his girlfriend. Most writers know the feeling of not having achieved to the extent they should have (because most writers are obsessed by writing to the detriment of other fields of endeavour) and I am no exception. When considering the image of my character sitting in the lounge, drinking Stella and listening to the insinuations on his failure, I thought I could get to that emotion, excavate it from myself and my past. I wrap my images in these feelings (they keep it warm). Sometimes, quite often I think, the feelings are stolen from others.
If I now unfurl the map I have been working on, there will still be tracts of blank, but also explored territories close enough to each other for me to set out across the narrative. This is exciting, for me. And scary. I have to back myself, to know that I can invent the scenes that get me from one image to the next, from the frontispiece to the end of the book… to have faith. But I’m reasonably (unreasonably?) arrogant, and I back myself every time. Completing novels helps with this. I’ve got across the spectrum of the story before, travelled from one edge of the book to the other, and I know I can do it. Partly because of this, I don’t really get writer’s block.
There are other reasons. Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced pop-science writer, got at least two things right in his study on creativity. It helps to have a bath or take a walk. These are two places, as long as the walk is long enough (if it is – I guess that’s a lot of places in a row) in which I will invent scenes and, usefully for me, the first lines of scenes. Later in the process I will do this, but with editing, running up and down the narrative like a monkey on tower-block-sized monkey-bars, finding the places where it doesn’t really fit together properly. The weak points, the creaking joints, the unhinged joists. If you ever see me walking along Bury Old Road and I seem to be surreptitiously swearing, this is what I’m doing: counting ideas on my fingers, assigning an idea to each digit… by the way, I have a kind of natural selection viewpoint on ideas. A lot of writers like to write them in notebooks. For me, if an idea disappears back into the primordial soup which is my brain (it really is) then it deserves to be forgotten. Only the strongest, most vivid ideas survive/grow/evolve.
Also, alcohol works. And music, played at high volume while I dance manically and not necessarily to the same tune. In this way, I drunkenly jig my way through the novel, to its (usually bitter) end.
For more information about Aimee and the Bear, please check out the publishers’ website.