Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This time, a celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
Since storming home as the bookies’ favourite and eventual winner of this year’s Booker Prize, I have been inundated with requests to share my sources of inspiration. My interrogators — among them fans, journalists and old friends who really should know better — tend to adopt an irritating tentativeness of tone, having heard, I suppose, that successful authors will mythologise the writing process. I find this assumption deeply offensive. Does the public consider its writers to be mere publicity stuntmen? Do we appear riddled with insecurities so grave we must spin obfuscating yarns to prevent others from aping our genius (of course, I use “genius” here in the colloquial sense)?
I am grateful to Londonist for allowing me to address the question publicly and with candour: my inspiration comes almost exclusively from the penny-pinched near-hush of London’s public libraries. Such as the man in Battersea Library who landed at a computer terminal wearing an original World War One gas mask, and proceeded to inform his neighbour that chemical weapons terrorists had tracked him down through Yahoo Mail; he became the central character of my fourth novel, Outbreak. I also recall a Giles Coren lookalike, curled up with a five-pack of Morrisons jam doughnuts on a crumbed sofa in Archway. Since the nearest Morrisons to that library is not within eye-shot, and “Giles” happened to be wearing a pair of mustard-coloured hiking boots, it seemed inevitable that I should produce a short story in the style of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Before I move on to discuss specifically my recent prize-winner, I should mention the commotion caused by the lady with ratty hair who smuggled two pigeons into Westminster Reference under her grey parka. She is the muse behind my fledgling attempts at poetry.
But every artist is plagued by dry patches occasionally — an unhappy mental psoriasis, where the brain scales over and the world seems dead and ugly, each speck of humanity that crawls upon its surface a troublesome flake waiting to be sloughed off. It was in this crusty frame of mind that I sat down in Shoreditch Library to begin the novel that would make me rich.
Disobedient words — they would not come! My block persisted for three and a half testing weeks. Good friends advised a change of scenery, but I could not bear to give up on N1, that notoriously vibrant postcode. Happily I can report that my patience was rewarded in the most unexpected fashion — and I suppose that is the moral of this tale: patience is a virtue, or expect the unexpected. But now I am lecturing when I intended only to record the following event. May the reader decide what lessons are to be drawn from it.
Imagine me, if you will, sitting with my back to the double glass doors. My hand was crabbed around my pen, my back hunched in despondency rather than absorption. Suddenly a blast of late summer air hit the back of my neck; I was distracted by the erratic footfall of children and the rustling of book bags.
“You have 10 minutes,” a woman shouted. Her voice was stern but rich, like good coffee. I craned my neck for a peek. She was dressed entirely in black: a stretchy, low-cut vest and faded jeans with a slouchy cardigan on top. Black boots, in need of reheeling. Her face was short on patience. I counted five boys, each no higher than her bust, and I thought they could not possibly all be hers. Presumably one was her son and the rest were his friends, or else the children of her friends or neighbours. She placed her hands on her hips. “Ten minutes to choose one book. You hear me?” I think the accent was Caribbean, but I am terrible with accents despite being well-travelled.
“Yeahhhh!” the boys chorused, conventionally adorable in their school uniforms. They swarmed around me to the shelf opposite my seat. As they passed, I counted five heads. The shelf was labelled: GRAPHIC NOVELS. I propped my chin on my fist and watched with what I hoped was a fond smile.
Initially the boys seemed bamboozled; so many spindly spines! After frowning at the densely packed shelves for a few seconds, they began pulling books at random, flipping them open, making juvenile sounds such as “worrrr!” and flashing pages at one another. Eventually every boy hugged a book to his chest.
They returned to the woman and jumped around to win back her attention from the new release DVDs. Imperiously she opened a hand, and the boldest boy gave up his book. She fanned the pages with the ball of her thumb, making a zipping noise. I realised that I was holding my breath.
“Are you crazy?” she yelled. “This isn’t a book! I said choose a book!”
“Ohhhhh!” the boys wailed. “But ohhhhh! But whyyyy?”
“Books have words. These books don’t have words.”
“This one does,” said another boy, timidly pointing out a speech bubble.
The lady made a fly-swatting gesture. His face crumpled.
“I said put those back!” she said. “Go find a proper book or I won’t buy you a Hubba Bubba roll.” (I still do not know what this means.) “Go on — six minutes!”
Now I have never been a visual learner, let alone a visual thinker. So imagine my surprise when I tore my eyes from this frankly charming scene to find my crabbed hand scratching across the page like billy-oh, not taking observational notes or styling lines of prose, but actually drawing. Deciphering my own swirls and angles was, I should imagine, an experience not unlike dreaming in a foreign language that one miraculously understands. This strange and nebulous artwork contained within it the entire plot of my prize-winning novel.
The novel then required an incubation period of 14 months. Once I started to write, I completed the whole thing in just eight weeks, almost entirely without sleep.
S. Raskolnikov, November 2014
We’re still after your stories based on London at Night, which you should send to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
We’re also now looking for short stories both for and by children.
Previously in this series
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.