THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE BEAST’S GARDEN
The first flash of inspiration for my new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN came to me while I was drifting in that shadowy place between being asleep and being awake.
There are two such liminal borderlands.
The first is called hypnagogia which means “leading toward sleep”; the second is hypnopompia meaning “leading away from sleep.”
I consciously use both of these twilight zones as a time and a space to daydream about my story. I run my narrative thread through my mind, testing for weaknesses, playing with alternatives, thinking about my characters and their fears and desires, rearranging words and images, allowing my mind to wander and to wonder …
The hypnagogic state (falling asleep) is the best time to ponder problems thrown up by the day’s work and to look over work that has already been written. I like to lie still in the dark silence, and consciously open my mind up to new images or visions.
Sometimes I deliberately set about unlocking my unconscious to see what lurks within. I imagine myself walking down a flight of steps into shadows. There is a door at the end of the steps. It is locked, but I hold the key in my hand. The door is always different – sometimes a gateway through a yew tree, sometimes a great Gothic door with heavy iron hinges and a huge keyhole. The key might be as long as my arm, or so small I can scarcely grasp it with my fingers. I unlock the door and open it … wondering what I will find inside. Often it’s a garden, with a path that leads to a mysterious house. Sometimes, it’s a lake under a starlit sky, surrounded by sharp-etched mountain peaks.
With each novel I write, the scene within will be different … and the more I unlock that door, the more vivid and real the scene within will seem.
Sometimes I choose what I will find; most times, what I find is a surprise.
The hypnopompic state (rising from sleep) is very different. I am closer to the dream world, deeper within the dark vault of the subconscious. I float in darkness as if in a vast subterranean ocean, rising and falling, images and ideas drifting to the surface then falling away again like the undulation of bioluminescent jellyfish in the midnight tide.
Sometimes the visions I have in that hypnopompic phase are extraordinarily vivid, filled with light and sound, like a brief glimpse of a film through the half-open door of a movie theatre. Sometimes they are strange and eerie; sometimes terrifying.
I call it ‘liminal dreaming’, for want of a better term. It’s not quite a dream, not quite a daydream, but something in-between, a rite of passage between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare
It was the 3rd November 2011. I had gone to bed the previous night unhappy and troubled by the novel I was then writing, THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the Grimm brothers’ most famous fairy tales. I did not yet see the shape of my story, my narrative structure, which meant I could not begin writing the novel. I can never begin until I see the story’s whole shape.
I went to sleep repeating to myself: it’s all right, trust the universe, the answer will come, the answer will come …
As I lay in the dim borderland between awake and asleep the next morning, an image came into my mind. A young woman, dressed in a sinuous golden silk dress, leant on a black piano in a dark and smoky nightclub, singing a sexy jazz number, while men in the severe black uniforms of the SS watched her. She had a flower in her hair, which was worn loose in heavy 1940s waves.
As I came closer to being awake, my conscious mind reached for more images, more ideas. I saw her hugging a tattered book of fairy tales to her chest and weeping, I saw her living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out rubble of a city, hiding in a dark forest, being chased … I saw her crouched beneath the weight of a heavy dark fur-coat, cramming food into her mouth … I saw books being burned in a bonfire and the girl, white-faced and desperate, trying to save her book …
I sat up and reached for my diary, and tried to write down all the phantasmagorias that had come so swift and bright into my mind’s eye. I wrote five pages: ‘why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … she has to flee and live wild in the wood – or joins the German Resistance – and she carries with her everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … I have to say this new idea – so fragile and damp still – it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems to have some kind of power to it.’
In my diary, I speculate where this idea came from: I had always wanted to write a book set in the Second World War; I’d always loved stories about resistance to Hitler; I had just read a page-turning World War II thriller about the Danish resistance; and I had been reading about the Grimm brothers and how their fairy tales were ‘used by Nazi Germany in a way they could never have imagined’. By this, I was referring to Hitler recommending all Germans had a copy of the Grimm brothers’ tales in their households, and how, after the war, the Allied had banned the Household and Children’s Tales as part of their denazification program.
At first, I thought this liminal dream was a second narrative thread to be woven into THE WILD GIRL. I was planning to use ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a story about a king who wanted to marry his daughter that Dortchen had told to Wilhelm just days before the fairy tale collection was rushed to the printers in 1812. I wrote in my diary two days later, ‘I’ve been thinking about my WWII idea and have that bright panic in my veins that means it’s a good one. Already I can see a narrative arc.’
On 7th October 2011, I wrote another four pages in my diary, outlining the basic sequence of events. I began a new notebook for it, filling its pages with research about Hitler’s rise to power and circles of German resistance. I began to try and weave my two stories together.
On 22nd February 2012, I wrote in my diary: ‘I’m rethinking the Nazi resistance strand of the story – I’m already at 69,000 words (of THE WILD GIRL) & the novel is growing slowly – I don’t want it to be too long - & I’m wondering if the two strands of my story shouldn’t be Dortchen as a grown woman and Dortchen growing up … I’m going back to my original idea of having my opening scene being Dortchen dancing in a black dress in a winter forest with ravens crying overhead (my dream) … I can write the German resistance idea as a separate novel – rather than trying to weave 2 separate stories together …’
On 1st July, my diary reads ‘I’ve also been thinking a lot ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and what a beautiful YA book it would make. Oh, if only I had more time. All these books I want to write.’
(‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ was an unusual and very beautiful variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale, told by Dortchen to Wilhelm on 7th January 1813).
A few days later (10th July 2013), I wrote: ‘I’ve been thinking about my German resistance story & wondering if I can do it as a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ – German girl married to a ‘beast’ – a German officer – to save her father – she is frightened of him – but really he is working to help people – inadvertently she betrays him and must go on quest to find him again – the celestial gifts – golden gown – what could the chicks be? Saves him from female Gestapo - & so on. I think it could work incredibly well.’
So that was how I got the idea for the story that became THE BEAST’S GARDEN. A liminal dream that was discarded, then transformed into something else through the strange and inexplicable creative process.
It was a harrowing book to write, for many reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine. Researching Hitler and the Holocaust for months on end was enough to give anyone nightmares … particularly someone who is used to consciously unlocking the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious …
So it was that, every night, as I walked down my shadowy steps to a mysterious locked door … it was the iron door to a Gestapo cell … and I would stand, paralysed, too afraid to open the door …
In the end, I gave this particular liminal dream to my heroine, Ava … I gave her the strength and courage to open that cell door and rescue her love, who is imprisoned within … and so I was able to exorcise that waking nightmare …
And now, each night, as I walk down the twilight steps towards the gateway, I wonder … what new story awaits for me beyond the threshold ...