21st Jun2013

Melissa Harrison – Something I Wanted, Needed To Say

by Lloyd Paige


There’s a big difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and for a long time I was stuck on the former. I was desperate to be an author; desperate to have written a book.

It was what I was ‘for’. It almost didn’t matter what about.

Yet that kind of hunger leads nowhere – aside from the feeling of frustration I’d experience every time I read something really good (“Why couldn’t I have thought of that?). It wasn’t until I had something I wanted – needed – to say that I was able to harness that hunger and turn it into a book.

What that turned out to be is hard to sum up in fewer words than I expended in Clay, but it’s to do with noticing, and valuing, the natural world, and recognising that we are a part of it – and it of us.

I say ‘book’ because at first I had no idea that Clay would be a novel. It began as a few descriptive passages about the scruffy, lovely streets near my South London flat. I was inspired by the nature writing I was greedily consuming at the time, partly as a remedy for city life and partly because I was avoiding fiction in case other people’s voices influenced my own.

After a while, a couple of characters crept in – people I spotted from the top deck of the bus on the way to work in the morning, or who I saw in the local shops – and I found I had some brief sketches. At that point I thought I might – at a push – be able to create some overlapping short stories set in my local area. The idea that it could become a whole novel seemed inconceivable.

So because I had stopped gazing at the end goal (which meant I was finally trying to write, rather than be a writer) what increasingly drove the creative process were two things: firstly, my growing conviction that life is simply better for nurturing a felt connection to the natural world around you, and secondly the book’s own, fast developing internal logic.

As my manuscript began to develop a moral engine based on what I wanted to say to the world, so it also began to demand things like pace and tension and dialogue to act in service to that message. By a slow, organic process, Clay was coming to life – but if I had sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write an urban pastoral that combines lyrical nature writing with social realism – and then I will be a writer’ it would have been dead in the water.

For me, all art is a process of communication, a way of being in dialogue with the rest of the world. How you choose to speak is important; but the starting point is knowing what it is you want to say.


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