How do writers find the inspiration they need to shut themselves away for one year, two, or sometimes more, and immerse themselves in a world of their own fabrication? It is a question I have often asked myself, wondering why I have chosen such a lonely occupation. But in reality, it is not so lonely. The characters writers create take on a life of their own, and the world in which they move becomes, at times, a substitute for the one in which the writer lives.
That feeling of total immersion is one that I have often felt in the past. As a child, coming out of the cinema, I was almost unwilling to return to the real world outside, and that was because the world that had been created for me in the cinema was more intense, more dramatic and at times more beautiful than the one I was returning to. That is the power of fiction; it condenses experience, emotion and time in such a way that it has the power to eclipse the real world — if only for a while.
How do writers create this alternative world? Do they find an alter ego, a character that inspires them? Or is it setting that gives them the germ of their idea? Perhaps both, but in the end it is usually plot, or the beginnings of a plot, that plants the seed of story. And plot, inevitably, means change.
We all aspire to change in our lives. It is how we grow as individuals. Change is brought about by events, both internal and external, which force us to react, and these reactions form the backbone of plot. Character, setting and plot, are woven together in the fabric of our lives, both real and fictional. Heraclitus, a Greek Philosopher living around 500 BC coined the phrase, character is destiny, and they are wise words.
Our character forces us to react, and our reaction pushes us down one path or another, towards a destiny we cannot yet imagine, and occasionally regret. Build your fictional character, and you have taken the first step along that path, whatever it may be. Or, if you are a writer of historical fiction, better do it in reverse, since historical fact cannot be changed. Destiny is set in stone.
Given the slightly Gothic flavour of The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, my account of the inspiration behind the book should kick of, by rights, in a castle of thick walls, suits of armour and cobwebs on a snow filled night in winter.
And yet, the real story of Vlad Dracula’s life contains a mix of the exotic and the gothic, the Ottoman summer and the Carpathian winter, heat and frozen chill.
It was on a hot afternoon in Istanbul that the seeds of The Sultan’s tale took root in my mind and grew into one half of a story. I did not think, then, about one of the Sultan’s most famous hostages, Vlad Dracula, who had spent the best part of his childhood within the walls of the imperial palace. As I wandered through the gardens and the seraglio, with its rabbit warren structure of corridors and courtyards, I thought only of the women, and what their lives had been. I felt sad for them, but I also felt fascinated by the idea of living only in one sheltered place, protected from the world outside. Those women would have made their world within those walls, as a writer builds a story in his or her mind. In the end, the story takes over, to the extent that the world outside can fade away to nothing.
But what about the rest of the story – what about the Dracul family? I have always been fascinated by myths and by those who embody them. Leonardo da Vinci appealed to me because he was a living legend, and the Dracula myth had, in some strange but connected way, a similar effect on me. These people are overtaken by the myths that build around them. The Mona Lisa devours Leonardo, as the legend of the vampire has devoured the Dracul family. We tend to forget that these people were real flesh and blood. They could not choose how they would be remembered, and still less in fiction at the hand of a writer. But because they have become so famous, they have almost become the property of the public, and the public needs myths. Human history is built on them, from the myth of creation to the myth of celebrity in present-day society. It therefore came as a shock to me when, one day in a library in France, as I was browsing through the shelves in search of European folk tales, I came across a book that seemed to want to make a myth a fact.
The book is out of print now; if that book was not the last copy in circulation, it was certainly one of the last. It was a documented exploration of the myth of the Romanian vampire, complete with bibliography. Needless to say, most of the works were hidden away in Romania and were linguistically inaccessible to me. But certain accounts had been translated into French, and I spent the next few weeks reading them, in a heady mixture of fascination and disbelief.
They were first-hand accounts about the so-called vampires of Romania, interspersed with letters sent by members of the clergy to heads of the diocese complaining about the local customs of the region, which were grisly to say the least. The upshot of it was not, of course, that I walked away from the book believing in the existence of the vampire, but I did walk away from it with the conviction that whatever it was that had led these people to believe in what they thought they had witnessed, it was no less real than a vision of faith or the sighting of a ghost. The fact that it led me all the way back to the Ottoman palace was the first step along the path from destiny to character.
BRONZE PRIZEWINNER OF THE 2017 INDEPENDENT PUBLISHER BOOK AWARD FOR BEST FICTION