Where do writers get their ideas from? I wish I knew, I’d be queuing up all night. If my own experience is anything to go by, the trigger or prompt for a story – what Nabokov called the ‘throb’ of an idea – can come from anywhere: something you see, hear, read, think, remember, imagine. It seems beyond conscious control. It simply happens (or, more often, doesn’t).
Take a story of mine, ‘Pasterity’, that’s just been published in a book called Horology, a collection of fiction and poetry on the theme of time. The idea for that story came while watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In the movie the Woody Harrelson character, Gil Pender, finds himself in 1920s Paris, where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali and others. At one point he gives Gertrude Stein the manuscript of his novel-in-progress to read, which she later returns to him with a brief critique.
It was then I had an idea. How much better it would be, I thought, if the roles were reversed, if Fitzgerald, say, gave Gil the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to read and if Gil returned to the present day to find he still had the manuscript with him. More than that, if the manuscript of Gatsby was the only copy that existed and so it had never been published, was lost to posterity. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting plot? How is Gil to restore the manuscript to Fitzgerald? Or perhaps he should publish it himself: Fitzgerald’s vanished masterpiece, miraculously rediscovered. He might even consider passing the novel off as his own.
It wasn’t much but it was enough. Swap 1890s London for 1920s Paris and HG Wells’s The Time Machine for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, add lucid dreams and premonitory dreams to the mix, find a way of bringing in An Experiment With Time by Wells’s wacky friend, the philosopher JW Dunne, and I might have something. By the time the story was finished it bore little resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie. It was a story in its own right.
I suspect this is how a lot of stories are born, by being bounced off other stories (like the Shakespeare re-imaginings mentioned in my last post or like my own ‘The Book of Ands’, which I bounced off Borges’ ‘The Book of Sand’). The universe of storydom resembles a giant extended brain, with trillions of interconnections between its billions of cells and each interconnection unique.