At the age of twenty I had my life all mapped out.
I would marry my then boyfriend who I thought was a genius and would win the Pulitzer Prize when he was forty-three and I was forty. At the prize-giving ceremony a beautiful young student would give him a little wave and he would be hooked. He would leave me, but I would be happy. I would move on.
From my childhood, I always imagined living in a tower surrounded by books, half written by atheists, the other half by theologians from every religion. The only question worth answering, I have always believed, is whether there is anything that we might call Timelessness. In other words, God. If the universe began with the big bang, and time with it, what might happen beyond the universe, if such a place exists at all?
If the universe was a deliberate creation, and there is a beyond-us, then the universe has meaning and we have meaning. If there is no Timelessness, well, no fear. We all play games and enjoy them, don’t we? It’s only when you pause to reflect that you see that someone else made up the rules, and your role in life is just to obey them and join in.
So, when my marriage broke up I was going to bury myself away quite happily and work this all out. At the most, I was going to plough through dense philosophy books and write them so that everyone could understand them and even talk about them at dinner parties or during long walks in the countryside. This project, of course, has been achieved by many a great philosopher. But my ambition is still, I believe, to get people to think and talk.
Never for a moment, however, had it been my ambition to write a novel. I married into a literary family. Everyone had a book in them, we were told by my father-in-law, presiding over the dining-room table.
‘No, I don’t,’ I said. ‘I have no desire nor talent. I shall never write a book.’
That all changed in the spring of 1988. I was twenty-eight and the mother of three small boys. My husband was away travel-writing. It was three in the morning and I was fast asleep, alone in my bed. Suddenly I noticed a man at my bedroom door. I’d often wondered how I would react in such an eventuality. When I was fourteen and my parents decided I no longer needed a baby-sitter, I was always imagining that I would be burgled. I would practise saying, ‘You look like you could do with a cup of tea!’ That was exactly the first line that came into my head. There was no time to think of a second line as the man had got into bed with me and was already fast asleep.
Sleeping burglars are a lot less threatening than ones creeping around your house, and I have to confess that I enjoyed looking at his face. His features were gentle, handsome, even aristocratic, I mused. His hands were soft and sensitive. I guessed he was about fifty. But who was he? And why was he in my bed?
I remember resting on my elbow at his side, wondering these things for at least an hour, feeling alive and happy and human. Mums of three don’t often get to have real adventures, and yet here was one right here in my own bed.
Then an idea occurred to me. I would write the story of his life. It would be the most extraordinary biography ever written and begin with the line: ‘The first time I met…was in my bed.’ I would invite him to live with me, drink endless cups of tea with him, find out exactly who he was. As far as I was concerned, to enter the house of a stranger (there was no break-in, I’m not a great locker of doors) and have the umph to get into her bed showed a certain je ne sais quoi. I wanted to know where it sprang from.
The man’s name was Peter Zinovieff. He is now in his eighties and still writes music and librettos, collaborating with both Pink Floyd and Harrison Birtwhistle in his heyday. If there hadn’t be a revolution in Russia, he would have indeed been Prince Peter living in a magnificent baroque palace outside Moscow. He was the stuff of War and Peace.
The first thing I told him when he finally woke up was that I was going to write the story of his life. In my mind’s eye, he would then say, ‘But what have I ever done to deserve a book?’ Unfortunately he had done rather a lot. After lunch I realised that the libel bill would run into millions and I’d better jettison the idea. What I wanted in a character, I realised, was a lonely man hungrily and inappropriately looking for love. The protagonist of my first novel, Landing on Clouds, was born.
The following night I didn’t sleep at all. Not only did I imagine every single character and event that first novel, but also God’s Apology and On Loving Josiah. I suddenly realised that I didn’t have to wait till forty to write popular philosophy books. I could write novels now and look at ideas in the framework of a story. I had recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and wanted to do something similar.
The following morning I set to work, and am proud to say that the first paragraph of my first book, my first dabbling with creative writing ever (it was literally forbidden at my traditional girls’ boarding school) made it intact into the final version of the book:
The first time I met Robert Standing was in my bed. A row with his wife, locked doors, a cold night, an address at last with an open back door. Upstairs, there was warmth in the bed. No bright lights, no explanations. He was friendly, innocent. I trusted him. He introduced himself in the morning.
That was more or less how it actually happened in real life.
All my books have been driven by questions. If I had known the answer to these questions before I began I wouldn’t have been bothered to write them. In Landing on Clouds my question is ‘Is integrity a virtue?’ It turns out Robert Standing has absolute integrity. He acts according to his heart, always, thus ruining the lives of those close to him.
In The Glorious Flight of Perdita Tree, I ask the question, ‘What is Freedom?’ Perdita Tree is vain, feisty, self-centred and brave. She has felt trapped in her marriage to a Tory MP who is keen on keeping up appearances. When she finds herself kidnapped in Albania she finds that for the first time in her life she is free: freer, even, than her kidnapper.
In God’s Apology I ask the question, ‘Does God exist?’
I have always been anxious about ‘revelation’. I don’t believe that the Bible is ‘God’s word’, or rather, it’s as much God’s word as any fine literature. Yet intuitively I feel that my being drawn to something ‘other’ is significant. I live in the country and walk for miles each day. I am in awe of what I see and the beauty of it. It’s not just that I ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’ nature: it feels more like astonishment that I as a human being can feel so connected to it. I feel that here is creation, and I am a creature within it – but not just any old creature, but with consciousness, so I can stand above the whole and marvel.
I completed an M.A. in Theology while writing this novel, and wrote a dissertation on the differences between a ‘closed’ religion, with its insistence on rules, rituals and dogma, and an ‘open’ religion, which uses scripture as a springboard to something we do not understand but which we might call ‘mystery’.
I am a lover of mystery, and it’s that instinct above all which I follow in the book to see where it leads me. My vehicle is Joanna, a ten year old girl who has been sent by God, not with texts to decipher but with an instruction merely to look into your heart.
In my fourth book, On Loving Josiah, I look at the problematic connection between love and desire. If you love someone, and are attracted to their beauty, is it always the case that you are ultimately wanting sex, or might it be purer than that?
Thomas Marius is a reclusive Classics don. In the Classical world the love of boys was considered noble and unconditionally good. Nowadays, of course, it is ‘paedophilia’. Josiah is a beautiful and troubled teenager. Thomas and he strike up a friendship. But they also become more than friends – not in a sense of having sex, but in the sense of loving each other, and meeting a need in each other. The relationship is tender, not wicked. Is the guilt Thomas feels, however, at all justified?
My book of essays, The Conversations, is made up almost exclusively of questions: some I ask myself, and others, the reader. They are a frank look at what it means to be human, in the style of Montaigne, crammed with anecdotes from my life which have informed the way I look at things. As with the novels, the book sets out to make people think and talk, and never to say I know. Socrates famously said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing: I have tried to live my life by those wise words.
My fifth novel Possibly a Love Story is being published in January 2017. This is about a conventional Clapham couple who decide to have their lovers come to live with them, Bohemia-style. Then their teenage children fall in love with their lovers, too.
Here I ask the question, ‘What is the role of sex within marriage? What is the difference between love and sex, and do they necessarily go hand in hand?
If I’d known the answer before I wrote the book, I wouldn’t have found the energy to write it.
The answer, I fear, is a rather pessimistic one. There’s a new statistic that’s just been published that sex is now down to three times a month for married couples, owing to their preference to watching boxed sets in bed. My conclusion is that love and sex are in a different ball park: snuggling up and watching TV together might be just the ticket.
Sex is about something else entirely. Get the book and find out what.
Why I write ...