- Jo-Anne Richards
Looking back, I see that I’ve been writing fairly general posts about my book process so far. I suppose I was feeling my way – I did tell you I find this incredibly hard. But I’ve finally reached the point of realising that I can’t go on circling the specifics forever.
Let’s go back to the beginning then and I’ll try my best. Where did the idea come from? How did it start?
Each of my books has started from a different place: for example, the first began from a setting and a fragment of story, my fourth from a character who intrigued me. The Imagined Child began from several ideas at once: a story fragment, a setting and a complex set of emotions that I wished to convey.
Let me first just warn any of you starting to write: a story fragment tends to sound incredibly stupid if you speak it aloud. Don’t judge it too harshly. It can grow into something halfway decent if you work on it enough. It’s a lot harder to execute a (possibly grandiose) plan for conveying a complex idea.
You are always working within your imperfect abilities and you’ll probably never be satisfied. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. That’s all anyone can do – just go on trying to bring it closer to the ideal you carry in your head.
It’s not easy to give you the specifics without revealing too much. I’m sure I’ll reveal more about the book as these posts progress, but at this stage, I’m determined not to give too much away.
The story fragment involved two deaths – both very different. I wanted to play with our preconceived notions around certain kinds of deaths, and who bears responsibility for them. In other words, I hoped readers would take the characters’ preconceived notions for granted, but then I hoped to surprise them.
The setting was a small town in the Free State. I had been spending the odd weekend in a village just like the one I’ve tried to recreate, and had become fascinated by the microcosm it presented of a changing society. Perhaps it isn’t that change happens faster there, but just that the lines are clearer and the changes more obvious.
Now for the grandiose idea – and I feel quite self-conscious trying to set it out.
I have a friend who is a clinical psychologist (and who helped me research this book). She says it’s natural for parents to want to kill their off-spring upon occasion. She gives talks on the subject, entitled: Why some animals eat their young.
Yet, among the general run of parents milling at any school gate, will you ever find one who will admit to such ambivalence? You’ll be lucky. Then I read a book (which I shan’t name, for fear of being thought even more grandiose than my idea), in which a mother/child relationship was expressed in a way that suggested the mother felt utterly detached from her problematic child. She was unable to bond with him until the end of the book, when she finally learnt to love him despite his terrible imperfections.
It was a compelling book, very well executed, but that also never quite rang true for me. In my experience, no matter how monstrous the offspring, there’s always that ambivalence. Sure, you may want to kill him, but let anyone else try and you’ll rip their eyes out.
Our relationships – both as parents and as children – are an ambivalent mix of blame, guilt, responsibility, protectiveness, love, dislike and sometimes even hate. And these are even more extreme when children (or parents) have problems. Then it struck me that we often have a similar intensity of feeling around a birth country.
So there you have it. I wanted to see whether I could actually express that kind of complexity – on different levels. Of course, I’m still not quite satisfied. And I’m still writing and rewriting in an attempt to explore the kind of feelings we are capable of.