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.
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.