Sitting at my desk one day, I glanced across at the nearest bookshelf, and realized that in a single snapshot it tells the story of a writer’s life.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have an operating system for book arrangement. I should have, I know. Organized, logical people – those who want to be able to lay hands on a particular volume without a frenzied, chaotic search – arrange their books alphabetically by author, or thematically by subject matter. Though I have known friends (odd people, admittedly) who arrange their books by jacket colour, or height. Still, even that’s a method, whereas mine is simply haphazard. I’m sure I once started with a system (though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was) but life happened to it. Chaos intervened, as chaos will; though I do believe chaos can be a force for good, as well as for upset and mischief.
In my case fate has dictated that my books be spread across two continents: in 2005, while researching THE TENTH GIFT, my 17th century novel about Barbary pirates abducting English slaves, I travelled to North Africa and fell in love with a Berber tribesman and ended up later that year shipping the contents of my London flat, including all my books, to a remote mountain village in the south-west of Morocco.
I was still working at this point, as a publishing director for HarperCollins in London, staying on friends’ sofas till my remote-working contract kicked in. It was my husband, Abdellatif, who collected the contents of my shipping container from the docks at Casablanca, transported them via some secret Berber confederacy 500 miles to our new home and unpacked the boxes and stacked my books willy-nilly on the old pine bookcases I had bought on the Wandsworth Bridge Road in another life. And by the time I’d travelled from London to Casablanca, taken a flight south, then driven three hours over the mountains, the idea of rearranging them all was beyond me, and it just seems to have stayed that way.
Just one glance shows how randomly they were arrayed. THE POETICAL CAT sits beside a translation of a haunting Icelandic saga; Keith Roberts’ classic alternative history novel PAVANE rubs shoulders with Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s CIVILIZATIONS. There is a pretty edition of Rumi’s mystical poetry, adventure-travel tales of the Nile and the Empty Quarter and the Djema el-Fna; hero-myths of the British Isles, some of JRR Tolkien’s critical writing.
And yet… nothing in a writer’s life is truly random. We are all the sum of our influences – conscious and unconscious – our experiences in both the real and the virtual world. Everything goes into the mix, making each writer unique. Your voice, as an author, derives from the narrative structures in which you think: and those in turn derive from the distant voices of all the writers you’ve ever read and digested, each book like a fallen leaf turning slowly to mulch in the forest of your mind.
And so I see THE POETICAL CAT and remember how I wrote a series of fantastical novels featuring cats under the pseudonym of Gabriel King. Tolkien, Icelandic sagas and British hero-tales combined not only in my work as a publisher (for 15 years I was the publisher of the Tolkien list) but also formed the basis of a series of epic fantasy novels under the name of Jude Fisher. Fantasy fiction is a close cousin to historical writing: your job in both cases is to being to full and colourful life for the reader’s benefit an unfamiliar world: and reading travel writers and fiction set in different cultures (like THE KITE RUNNER) helps you marshal your descriptions in both genres. That curiosity about the unfamiliar laid the groundwork for me as a writer, and also as a person, predisposing me to step into the unknown. (Being a climber on the side also added to this predisposition: I’ve often said that setting out on the writing of any novel, but particularly historical fiction, which requires so much research underlying the structure, is much like climbing a mountain: you can see the summit way up high, hazily wreathed in clouds, but you have no precise idea of how you’ll get there or the challenges you’ll face en route, but you know you’ll have to slog it one step at a time, and occasionally take hair raising risks.)
Those travel writers and adventurers into the deserts paved the way for my SALT ROAD; Rumi makes his way into THE SULTAN’S WIFE, for my court eunuch, Nus-Nus, is something of a poet and philosopher and has a great love of Rumi’s mystical musings. Tahir Shah’s THE CALIPH’S HOUSE is a late addition to the shelf, donated by the author himself on a visit to our house in Morocco after I’d written him a fan letter. I have not yet written my own account of amusing interactions with the occasionally unfathomable, always beguiling foreign culture in which I live for much of the year, but I’m working on it.
On the shelf below the one shown lie two books that were key to my development as a reader and then later as a writer: Robert Louis Stevenson’s TREASURE ISLAND and Mary Renault’s THE PERSIAN BOY (simply one of the best historical novels ever written): a combination of adventure and accurate history, of romance and a touch of the supernatural combines with all those other influences in a large metaphysical cooking pot: the resulting stew would give you a pretty accurate recipe for ‘Jane Johnson, writer’.