First of all I should probably lay my cards on the table: I don’t believe in inspiration, not the Romantic notion of inspiration anyway. I don’t have a Muse. I do have ideas though. Lots of them. Most of them rubbish. I also believe in cause and effect. I like the whole for-every-action-there-is-an-equal-an-opposite-reaction kind of mentality. I say that in my novella in fact almost word for word. Only when it comes to writing it’s rarely as straightforward as that.
For the last couple of years I’ve been working (i.e. thinking about) writing a novel and getting nowhere. I’m not much of a storyteller so I wasn’t blocked in that respect because I never know where my stories are going. I start off with an idea and explore it. And it just so happens that for the last couple of years I’ve being going round and around in circles in the dark. The problem is
all to do with memory. Without labouring the point I fell ill a few years back. In old-fashioned parlance we’d call it a nervous breakdown. I’m better now but
I’m not the man I was and one of the things that’s suffered is my ability to remember stuff for any length of time and a novel is a lot of stuff to try to hold in one’s head. So I thought I’d try something shorter. But I needed a structure.
I’d recently read two novellas, Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker and The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. These are different from your run-of-the-mill novels in that they’re written entirely in dialogue. Reading them is an interesting experience because there’re no long descriptive passages to slow you down nor do the characters spend half a page thinking about what they’re going to say before they say it. No, it’s just straight, raw ‘action’ although there’s very little action apart from two blokes talking to each other. Very fast reads though. I’d always wanted to write one but what about?
Later on I watched an old recording of Sartre’s No Exit featuring a young Harold Pinter. I’d seen the play before but not that particular version. That got tossed into the mix. Not consciously of course. None of this is happening on a conscious level. But it was in there along with the film A Pure Formality, which is, essentially, a filmed interview between two characters played by Roman Polanski and Gérard Depardieu. I’d forgotten much about it—I saw it last about fifteen years ago—but the gist stuck.
Now here’s the bit I can’t remember. Somewhere along the line I got the idea of a man standing in front of St Peter trying to gain admittance to heaven. The jokes about that are manyfold. But how to turn that into anything more than a piece of flash or a short story at best? Then it came to me: an exit interview. I’ve never had one but I knew of them. Why not have Peter go through a list of set questions? Suddenly I realised I was onto something; I looked up ‘exit interview’ in Google, found a suitable list and began writing. Five weeks and 24,000 words later I’m done. My wife’s read it. She approves. Her notes are minimal and easily incorporated into the text. She did point out that my version of Peter reminded her of Doctor Tom in the TV series Being Erica which, now I think about it, is probably true. Doubtless there’re lots of other things that I’ve drawn on to build this particular little universe.
Seems oh so easy, doesn’t it? The thing is that book's obviously been gestating within me for years. I simply never realised it. I had very little to do with the book’s planning. What I had to do—and this is the important bit—was recognise a good idea when I saw it and run with it. If inspiration is anything that’s probably as close to a definition as I’m going to get.