Thievery: Northern Lights/The Year Of The Whale
Thievery is a series of blog posts about story inspirations.
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their stories. Here’s one from novelist and flash-fictioneer Simon Sylvester.
‘Northern Lights/The Year Of The Whale’ was published in Gutter.
It’s always a gull. I look at the ceiling of my bedroom, centuries old. Gulls and the sound of blankets, my missus on the move. Everything is muted blue and darking dull. When she clicks the lamp on, the crooked walls flood with light, shadows in the corners deepen. That beam above me, the backbone of the house, blackened and whorled, is seven hundred years old. It survived the Civil war, the Roses. And all around it, there are cracks and bubbles in plaster barely two years new. Time and tide, Henry.
‘Dreaming of them, lad?’
Lizzie always knows. Yawning wide and fusty, I pass a hand across my eyes to the bridge of my nose, squeeze hard, stupid with sleep, nod. I’ve woken with the gulls every morning of my life.
‘That I did, pet.’
‘You were talking again.’
I nod. Aye, I was talking.
In 2009, I wrote a 100,000 word prose-poem called Meat. It was about dementia and WWII Burma, and it was the first long piece I’d ever attempted. It was dark, unpleasant and a bit pretentious, and writing it took me to some personally unpleasant places, but exorcised a lot of the poison I’d carried through my twenties. The day I finished my final redraft, I opened a new document and started work on another novel. I’d had an idea about what might happen if a whale beached in Morecambe Bay, and wanted to explore the web of characters that spun out from that moment. The whale was a stone in a millpond, and the characters would be ripples. The drowning of the Chinese cocklers in 2003 played a big part – I lived in Lancaster at the time of the tragedy, and I’ve never shaken that abstract sense of void when something so much bigger than me occurs. I wanted the novel to help me explore that idea of loss by association.
I lived in Manchester, back then, and shared a studio with my partner Monica. I’d write, and she’d paint. There was no internet access in the studio, and so I did all my research at home in the evenings. I’d cut articles from papers, print documents, tear pages from magazines. The wall above my desk was a jigsaw of sketches, quotes, calculations, maps and a dozen dead whales, beached and bloodied.
With so many characters, each with disparate stories and interests, I wound up researching a multitude of odd things: falconry, high heeled shoes, sumo and sauces, the Yorkshire Ripper. I read a dictionary of the Saints from cover to cover: Saint Erasmus, patron saint of sailors. Saint Donwenna of Llandwyn, patron saint of lovers, pulsing in the flush. Saint Sezni, patron saint of mad dogs. Saint Margaret of Antioch, patron saint of pregnant women, who whispered in the ear of Joan of Arc. I replayed footage of the Thames Whale. I read dozens of articles about the cocklers, even as more bodies were discovered in the bay, years later, hidden in the shifting muds. I became obsessed with the Queen’s Guide to the Sands. This 16th Century institution holds the duty of steering travellers safely across the bay – the guide knows the rivers and quicksands better than anyone alive.
With my head packed with all this research, I started writing.
The novel started with my own Guide to the Sands, Henry Cowx, leading a walking group across the bay in dense fog. They discover the whale. Cowx is struggling with guilt about the cocklers, and finds confessional in the dying animal. The next chapter was told by a paranoid, hiding in her shorefront house; and then there was the wife of one of the cocklers; and then one of the walkers, back at home in London; then an Italian chef; and then there was a section by Saint Patrick; and Christ knows what else. It was an absolute shambles. I’d bitten off way more than I could chew, emotionally and narratively, and I quickly lost track of all the stories. In that tangle of endless threads, Henry Cowx was my rock. I returned to his story, over and over again, refining and reworking his discovery of the whale. I only occasionally left Henry to make uncertain forays into the other characters. Some evolved, but most of them were jumbles of bones.
In the end, I’d battled through 50,000 words in a couple of months before I became incapable of writing any more. I think the prose was good, but the story had morphed into a sprawling nightmare. The novel never really had a name. Sometimes it was Northern Lights, but more often it was just ‘the novel’. I rescued some of the chapters as abstract short stories, but most of it was junk.
Two positive things came from the failure. The first has guided my writing ever since: I learned that an idea does not a novel make.
The second positive thing was Henry. He’s a good guy. He gives a shit about the world around him, about people, about who they are and what they do. I couldn’t let him go. Years later, I decided to turn the beaching into a novella. It’s called The Year Of The Whale, it’s about 20,000 words in, and one day I will finish it. It’s a very simple story. Henry finds the whale, and then he goes home. That’s it. It tells the only one of those many stories I actually needed to tell: a second-hand guilt at someone else’s needless death; a projection of my own fears of dying alone and cold, dying in the dark, the lights of distant shores swallowed by the rising sea.
Simon’s debut novel ‘The Visitors’ is published by Quercus.