a box of birds

The pull of the story

A few weeks ago I went to London to film the pitch for my novel, A Box of Birds. This will be my first novel for some time (my debut, The Auctioneer, was published way back in 1999), and so it was a big moment for me. I was meeting John Mitchinson, the publisher of Unbound, to talk to him about the themes of the book. We met at Paramount, the restaurant at the top of Centre Point in Soho. The pitch was filmed (by the wonderful and multitalented Laura Kidd) against the extraordinary backdrop of London viewed from 33 floors up. You can see the results here.

It was a wide-ranging, enlivening conversation, as all my chats with John are. I got the chance to explain how A Box of Birds is my way of taking on a fundamental question: how we should live our lives, if we accept (as modern neuroscience asks us to) that we are no more than complex systems of connections. With Yvonne, I wanted to write the story of the first materialist in fiction. That statement probably seems over-bold and certainly needs some qualification, as there are plenty of other novels that touch on themes of neuroscientific materialism. But I don’t think novelists have gone far enough in exploring the implications of this philosophy for their fictional characters. I’ve written more about this debate here, and there’ll be lots more in the weeks to come. If the book is funded, it will be published in the autumn.
In a way, the most difficult question was the last one. ‘What makes you keep doing it?’ John asked me. At an emotional level, I have no doubt about the answer, but it’s hard to put it into words. I have always written fiction—I had a complete draft of a novel at the age of nine—and it’s not too melodramatic to say that I have dedicated my life to it. In one sense it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I suspect that what John was really asking was: What makes you keep doing it, when you could be doing other things? I have a part-time career as an academic, after all: why isn’t that enough?
If I knew the answer to that, I would have solved a basic riddle about human creativity. What makes us want to tell stories? What do the counterfactuals of fiction give us that the realities of science don’t?

There is much to say on this topic, but here’s one idea to start with. Looking for the commonalities between science and writing is not a new endeavour, and people before me have considered this relationship very fruitfully. (Here’s one great example, and an equally interesting response.) When I’m doing science, I’m trying to go from the specificities of data to theories and principles that can apply more generally. Writers do that too. They look for the particular that can speak to the universal, the part that can stand for the whole.

In some ways, though, fiction has more to do with engineering. When you write a novel, you are building a model and then putting it in a wind tunnel. You’re looking to see how the stresses of events impact upon your characters: how they deform them, and draw out their resiliences. You always start with a character, I think, a character in a situation… and then you put your model down on the bench and see how it runs. For me, with this book, that was about saying ‘What if you put a materialist into a story? How would she behave when stuff started to happen? How would her view of the world, and of herself, change?’ I honestly don’t think we can understand the true meaning of neuroscience from within the discipline. We have to look at how it functions in the real world, how it changes our understanding.

So that’s one reason why I do fiction alongside science. In the end, I’m not going to be able to give a definitive answer to the question that John asked me, except to the extent of knowing what these things mean to me personally. That’s the bit that’s hard to put into words, and it’s what I tried to explain to John. I’m less of a person when I’m not writing fiction. Without it, I just don’t understand things so well.

2 comments on “The pull of the story

  1. Hi Charles. My kids just dragged me out of bed too early, but it's just as well. I have to leave in less than two hours for Amsterdam, then fly to Toronto and then the US for a book tour. I just stumbled on your latest writing project and I'm fascinated. You said on Unbound: \”For example, can you bring the neural level of explanation into the story and still create something that works as a fiction….Does neuroscience really change our understanding of who we are?\” These were very much the questions I was trying to answer in the genre of memoir rather than fiction. In \”Memoirs of an addicted brain\” I wrote about my life as a druggie and full-scale addict, integrating heaps of neuroscience into the actual narrative. I used neuroscience to make sense of what was happening in my experience, and I used the experience of drug states, craving, conflict, loss of control, etc, to bring substance to what was (presumably) happening in my brain. But my key ambition was to integrate an account of neural events with an account of experienced events in a way that flowed and made a good story. Not sure how well I pulled it off.Anyway, it would be great to get in touch, and I need to read more about your present project. Right now I have to play with the kids, finish packing, and leave. More soon. Best, Marc

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  2. Anonymous

    March 17th, 2012I'm not certain how I found this page, but it would be interesting to retrace my 'chain of thoughts'/actions. It began with watching and taking notes on the documentary, Becoming Human, from NOVA. That lead to a bit of surfing through the Max Planc Institute website, trying to do more research on human development of 'cognative complexity'. I suppose somewhere in that region is where I found this.Charles, #1 on my list of hard-backs is, A Box of Birds. I toy and toil with how the human brain absorbs and then reacts to what I want to term emotional experiences — especially the wide range of traumatic ones. I'm hoping to glean some insights from your knowledge in the field, so I can resolve my own conflicts and hopefully be able to present to future readers of my work-in-progress, how to grow through the 5-stages of grieving.I'm condensing my 200K-word novel based on several of my personal experiences: that of having lived 16-years with a paranoid, violent, schizophrenic man; how to recognize and deal with a person/friend who suffers PTSD; and lastly, by integrating the story around a wildlife refuge, I try to incorporate while avoiding an 'information-dump', on how humans should and shouldn't have interacted with wildlife. And, to Marc;I feel your book will be a success, as personal/fictional accounts of trauma seem to be 'good sellers' here in the US of A.That might be indicative to the yearning of self-knowledge, or from a brief conversation during a lucid moment with an alzheimer patient, maybe we're just prone to being nosy. I'm curious as to what genre your books fall. Psychological Thrillers, perhaps? I tend to read or watch movies of that genre as well as Medical Thrillers, such as Richard Preston and Michael Crichton.Well, good writing, reading and publishing to both of you!I'm jac…

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