Extract from a talk at Heffers at the launch of Ghostwalk
Writers are magpies: they steal – or should I say, acquire? – glittery things. Ghostwalk is something of a magpie’s nest.
Around three years ago in 2003, I bought a biography of Newton in Toppings in Ely. The book described how Newton was given a fellowship at Trinity in a year when several fellows had died from unexplained deaths. I was intrigued. I became more intrigued when I stumbled, almost by chance, on a rare diary by a seventeenth-century Alderman, town councillor, a few days later, which also described some of these strange deaths, deaths from which Newton had indirectly benefited. The Alderman’s tone was interesting: he clearly regarded these deaths to be suspicious.
A few days later, whilst I was still day-dreaming about the diary and the deaths, mulling things over, with no plans to do anything at all with the material, I was sent a ticket by a close friend to go and join him in Spain for a few days. I wasn’t sure whether or not to go. I decided only at midnight before the day I was due to fly. I cycled to the station at 5am in the morning. The trains to Stansted were – surprise, surprise – not running. I was just thinking this might be a sign I should heed, when a man in a long dark coat approached me and suggested we might share a taxi to Stansted. A few minutes later, as we were pulling over Elizabeth Way Bridge through thick fog, I told him that I had heard on the radio that there was a great meteor storm happening in the sky about Cambridge. Shame, I said, that we can’t see it. ‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘they are beautiful when you get to see them.’
It turned out that he was a meteorologist – German – had been at a conference in Cambridge and was travelling back to Dresden. He described the meteor storm for me, conjured it out of nothing. He described how all the little pin pricks of light would be travelling in different directions, like seeds from a dandelion head. Then we fell silent. I started to think about the meteor storm which he had described as a ‘great entanglement’. In the 45 minutes of the subsequent silence of that taxi drive, the entire plot of Ghostwalk came to me out of nowhere – or rather out of the meteor storm. When I reached Stansted the whole thing was complete – characters, plot, everything. I bought a notebook and wrote it all down on two pages and later stuck those two pages into a bigger notebook as I began to complete the research. Thank you to the meteorologist whose name I never asked and to whom the book is dedicated.
Another piece of magpie – acquisition. My local butcher, Eric Pranklin, is now also one of my neighbours and close friend. Whilst I was writing Ghostwalk he told me a story about how he had worked at an abattoir once out in the Fens in the 1960s and how they ploughed the blood from the abattoir back into the fields. The story is a brilliant one – and involves snow, and his fiancée’s first visit and footprints and blood bleeding through snow. As he was telling me this extraordinary story over lunch, he caught a look in my eye. ‘You’re going to use that in something aren’t you?’ he said. I did. How could I not?
My son Jacob has worked for six long years on the river in Cambridge – a summer job. He is one of those beautiful and charming but very irritating punt chauffeurs and touts that stand on Magdalene Bridge with their boards. For years he and his beautiful and charming punt chauffeur friends have entertained me with stories about the river, about the kinds of stories they make up on the boats when they are bored. Many of these stories have found their way into the book as have their descriptions of the way the sun rises over the river at dawn because sometimes on summer nights they sleep out on the boats.
Another friend brought me quantum theory and entanglement theory as the novel was developing – perhaps one the greatest gifts of all. He explained quantum theory to me carefully – he had come upon it by chance in looking for something on the internet and was so fired up about it he wanted to mull it over. My brain takes a while to process scientific ideas so it took me a few days to take it in. But then suddenly a few days later, I suddenly saw how it fitted in to what I was exploring – it became like a long ribbon which interweaves its way through the book. The answer to something I had been looking for. To a question I hadn’t yet quite formulated.
You will also, I hope, if you are avid readers, spot walk-on parts by several of my great loves: Henry James, Nicolas Roeg, Tennyson, Robert Browning and Leonard Cohen amongst others. Some of you might even spot bits of people who I know or have known – that is all part of the magpie’s art too. Nothing survives of course un-transformed. The magpie’s nest is also a place of alchemy. You put all those objects and stories and lines together and by some strange and magical process, the nest is transformed, the objects mutate, or to use an alchemical term, they transmute. It is one of the great mysteries and pleasures of writing. Something you can never quite explain.
So this is a way of saying thank you to the unknown metereologist in the taxi, and all of the other people, living and dead, who have provided, in known or unknown ways, the material which has transmuted into Ghostwalk. Books are not written in isolation, but in places and amongst people. Over the next few weeks it has further transmutations to undergo – transmutations which will take place inside readers’ heads as they enter its plots and entanglements and love stories over the next few weeks.
Rebecca Stott, March, 2007