09 May 2017

‘Drawing fiction from life is not merely a preference for me’ – Simon Wroe on inspiration

Simon Wroe, Author
by Jack Hadley Guest Blog

A tutor on our London writing courses, Simon Wroe has followed up his Costa-nominated debut, Chop Chop, with the equally impressive Here Comes Trouble. Set within a struggling newspaper house in Kyrzbekistan (a fictional Eurasian country), Simon talks here about the extraordinary work he did to make the world of the novel vivid and believable.

Sometimes the world of your novel comes to you ready-made. It’s the village you grew up in, it’s your first job, it’s the historical era you’ve been drawn to all your life. It’s a world you know intimately, your Mastermind specialist subject. Often it’s your fascination with that world which led you to write in the first place. But what if the story you wish to tell requires a world beyond your sphere of knowledge?

This is the problem I faced when I came to write my second novel, Here Comes Trouble. I was on firm ground with my debut, Chop Chop, about the seamy lives of chefs in a Camden Town gastropub. I had worked as a chef for several years; I knew Camden well. I had lived in that world and had the (actual) scars to prove it. My fictional account was mined from the bedrock of my experience.

When I sat down to book two the bedrock was gone. Here Comes Trouble wasn’t about chefs or London. It featured journalism, another profession I had worked in and knew, but the story I wished to tell required a country where the pillars of state could be overthrown, where revolution was not just possible but imminent.

Drawing fiction from life is not merely a preference for me – it’s a requirement, a truth I’ve realised about myself as a writer. If I paint a horse without a horse in front of me, it will look like a daschund. So, though I had no wish to set the novel in a real place (it was always intended to be a dark inversion of England), I recognised the need to base it on something real.

At the suggestion of a Russian friend, I contacted a Central Asian correspondent about interning at papers in the region. His list of independent Eurasian news organisations was one name: kloop.kg, based in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgystan.

For the next month I rented a room in the sort of Soviet tenement block where I wanted my main character to live, and I took in everything: the rugs and paintings, the tang of the gas stove, the TV antennas silhouetted on the neighbouring roofs at dusk, the roar of the traffic below, the smell of the city when it rained, the graffiti in the lift. I could have imagined the details and never left England, but I wanted to see around the corner of my imagination, I wanted the unexpected details which come from life.

At the newspaper I spoke to the journalists about their hopes and concerns, I listened to the mordant way they joked about their country to me, I noted carefully the Western representations of their region which they felt were insulting or inaccurate. I didn’t go in with fixed ideas, not even about my fiction. I let the big stories of the day dictate the plot of the novel. When a riot was expected, I went to cover it (and get crushed in it). When nationalist thugs attacked people in the streets, I asked if the reporters could arrange an interview. I got to talk to the prospective villains of my novel to see if they were right for the job.

I was often surprised. By how young the journalists were (few were much older than 20); by how closely monitored they were (the secret police hauled them in regularly for questioning); by how fearless they were (though without any trappings of heroism). I tried to pay attention to everything being presented to me as the way life was. I wrote down all these details around the corner of my imagination and allowed them to inform and weight the fiction I created. The finished novel is richer and stranger – and, I think, better – for it. I’m not saying every novel should be written like this, only that this approach worked for me and might for others too. Whatever world my next novel inhabits, I will be thinking of a way that I can live it, a way to give my fiction the grain and hair of life.

Simon Wroe’s latest novel, Here Comes Trouble (which was recently shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction), is available to order here.

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