22nd Jan 2015 in Guest Post
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from the enviably badass Sophie Mackintosh.
“Just handling the matches – just the eye-watering thought of the brightness as it fizzes upwards, the smell sharp in my nostrils – makes me hungry for light. And then I am searching wildly for something to create it, my hands running over every surface of the room, hip thudding dully against my chest of drawers – there must be something I think wildly, anything –
My hands fall upon a nail file. I scrape it against the iron bedstead as though whetting a knife, again and again, and see a dull spark. The noise runs through my teeth, but I carry on. Flickers hint through the darkness, tiny scraps, curls of shaved foil –
More. More. My hands search, restlessly, again, find a hairbrush, and I lurch as though drunk over to where I know the mirror is and I put my palms against the metal and brush my hair over and over and over until the fine strands buzz and stand up and threads of electric run up and down the length of it, my hair clinging to the nape of my neck, to my hands – when I lift them up over my head I see the pinpricks of light at the crown of my head, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, but it’s something –
Breathe. Madame’s face swims in front of my eyes, and I picture being chained up outside through the iciness of the Arctic night. Oh, she would be so disappointed in me if she knew, quietly damning. You of all people.”
Telopsis is about a mute woman who lives on an island at the ends of the earth – possibly literally – ruled by the sinister Madame. It takes place during the Festival, a period of several weeks of polar night where light is rationed gradually, until there is a week of perfect dark; all light outside the prescribed hours is illegal.
Writing something quite strange and eerie like Telopsis actually came as a shock, having assumed as a teen living in the dreamy Welsh countryside, raised on long walks and books and weird raves in barns, that I was definitely really well-qualified to write some kind of hard-hitting urban realism, kind of like Skins meets Rules of Attraction-era Bret Easton Ellis. Fortunately one of my tutors at university was the brilliant China Mieville, who helped me towards the dawning epiphany that maybe I didn’t need to write like this to be a Real Writer. My heart was really with the subjects of mermaids, creeping apocalypses, far-off imaginary islands and unexplainable events, and when I realised that I didn’t even need permission to write about that stuff it was the greatest relief.
Telopsis was 10,000 words long at first, an experimental novella for my undergrad dissertation based on word experiments and restrictions, and it wasn’t as completely bad as that suggests. But there was more story under the surface that I hadn’t known how to crack through to, ie I had no idea about how to write an actual fucking book.
Turns out the secret to this was mainly to be sitting in a library with no internet access, and also letting go of any residual undergraduate arrogance that I would probably just gracefully cough up a nicely-formed novel when the muse struck me someday (disgusting). It was time for the real work to be done. But it was a relief. When I felt trapped in my own life, unable to find a job and lonelier than I let on to anyone, I could write my narrator an escape route; she could feel her way out of the pitch dark that makes up most of the book in a way I wasn’t sure I could.
And so piece by piece, it tentatively became an actual book – one about darkness and light and the darknesses and lights inside ourselves, about love and fighting for it, about the small endings happening around us all the time, about the impossibility of ever being completely safe in any sort of world and becoming okay with that. More than anything it became about a woman swimming to the surface and managing to finally take a breath. And when I finished that first draft – still just a paltry 50,000 words, but my 50,000 words – I breathed too.