It’s a real honour to be writing a guest post for Mr Ripleys Enchanted Books, thanks so much for having me!
I think writing has turned me into a nervous wreck. To be more specific, I think writing horror has turned me into a nervous wreck. I vividly remember the moment I had the first real glimpse of the idea for my new book, The Fury. I was walking through Norwich city centre, where I live, on a busy summer day. There were people everywhere, bustling in and out of the shops, clogging up the pavements, barging past each other and doing their best to knock me out with their bags. I was hot, and stressed, and irritable, and the combination of all those things introduced a notion into my head: what would I do if everyone around me suddenly tried to kill me?
The thought was so vivid that I instantly began to feel uneasy. The more I dwelled on this idea, the more nervous I began to feel. Were people starting to look at me strangely? Did I see lips pulled back over teeth, eyes burning with fury? I started searching for escape routes – which alleys would get me out of the city, where could I barricade myself if I was attacked, what could I use as a weapon? I quickstepped home, constantly looking over my shoulder, and can still recall the relief of walking through my front door and locking it behind me.
I went on to write the book based on this initial idea – what would happen if one day, without warning, the entire world tried to murder you (and only you) – and things only got worse after that. Now I’m always on edge, always waiting for the imminent attack, the screams and the howls and the thunder of charging feet, always working out how to survive. Living this story – and when you write a book you do live it, no question – has made me nervous, cautious, ready to fight or flee at the drop of a hat. Living this story has changed me as a person the same way it would have if the events of The Fury had actually been real.
It isn’t just The Fury, either, it’s every book I write. A while back I was sitting having dinner with some friends and one of them asked me if I was worried somebody was going to steal my food. Sure enough I was hunched over my plate, one arm curled protectively around it, my eyes those of a feral dog, my knife held in a white-knuckled fist. More startling still was the realisation that I was on edge, really on edge. I genuinely was worried that somebody was going to steal my dinner. I was ready to spring into action at any moment, either to defend my plate of pasta from attack or bolt from the room if things got too hot.
I was in the middle of writing the Furnace books, and I was acting like I was one of the prisoners in the story. I walked around the streets permanently aware of what was going on in my peripheral vision, waiting for somebody to ambush me. I eyeballed people, too, letting them know that if they messed with me I wouldn’t go without a fight. I was angry, I was tense, I was afraid for my life, and those emotions had become so natural to me that I didn’t question them any more. It was just who I was, even though I’ve never been to prison in my life. And yet… I had been in prison, I’d been locked up for years. Not in a real place, but inside my head, inside Furnace.
I didn’t just want to write these stories, I wanted to live them. I didn’t plan anything, I just threw myself into those worlds and did my best to keep the characters alive. The writing process was intense, for weeks at a time I spent most of the day immersed in the story, buried beneath the ground in the hellhole of Furnace or in the abandoned theme park that forms the heart of The Fury. I was with the characters every second of their day, the ghost in the corner of the room, witnessing every chase, every confrontation, every fight. I was there.
The strange thing is that when I look back at the time I spent writing those books, I don’t remember a thing from my own life, not a single second. I couldn’t tell you one event or trip or conversation from that time. But I remember everything about the world of the story, every conversation that took place, every decision, every punch and kick and bite, every chase, every ache and pain, every meal, every trip to the toilet, every glance over my shoulder, every sickening moment of terror, everything! These are my memories, as real to me as anything that might have actually happened, certainly no different to any memory I have of real life. I wonder sometimes if I can always tell the difference between them.
Writing is a transformative experience, it changes us in so many different ways. I am not the same person I was before I started writing, because those fictional encounters and activities were so real to me that they now form a part of my psyche, they have helped make me me the same way a genuine experience would. I still find myself on edge in crowds, I still make eye contact with strangers in the street in a confrontational way and plan escape routes wherever I go (it’s the first thing I do when I walk into a room). But it goes deeper than that. I think it has made me braver too, because I’ve seen so much bullying, so much injustice, so much violence and death – all in the books – that I feel more confident about standing up to people. I often find myself thinking that if I could survive inside Furnace and in the world of The Fury, which I did, then nothing can really hurt me.
It sounds like a total fiction, but you hear stories about this sort of thing. There was one recently about an experiment where people made their muscles grow simply by thinking about working out (although this method really hasn’t helped me lose any weight). If what we are is the sum total of all our experiences, then who’s to say fictional experiences count for any less? I spoke to some writer friends about this (mainly to make sure I wasn’t crazy), and a few admitted to feeling the same way. Writing has changed them, because they were so involved in the world of their characters that they feel as though they have lived through those experiences too, not just on the page but in the flesh. It’s a great example of how powerful the mind is, and what an amazing tool for therapy writing can be.
There’s a (as far as I know unattributed) quote that goes, “Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” The same is true of writing, because in creating a character you create a life, one that you cannot help but share. You experience that life alongside your heroes, your villains, you learn with them, fight with them, grow with them, and when all is said and done you carry that life with you as part of your own. For better or worse, at the end of a book you are a different person.
Thanks for reading!!
I've been looking forward to reading this post whilst at work today. Having just got in and read it, I am delighted to have such a personally written blog to share with you all. Thank you to Alexander for giving such a great insight into his life and writing. I'm sure that this post will encourage many more readers to read 'The Fury'.