Campbell Armstrong, the writer who died in Dublin in 2013, was a friend from his years in Oswego in the early 1970s. We spent plenty of time together in SUNY classrooms, bars, and apartments in Oswego before I left for law school and he left for a better gig in Arizona, where his writing career caught fire. We renewed our friendship around 2000 after I tracked him down via the Internet, eventually becoming his web guy. After he died, the website went to seed and sometime in the last several months seems to have been attacked – infected with malware, so I deleted it and will post here what salvaged copy may be of interest to his fans. Please stay tuned!
Campbell Armstrong’s newsletter, October 2003
A writer’s ideas
One question writers get asked a lot – well, this one does anyway – is where do ideas come from? My answer is disappointingly standard, I suppose. I don’t know.
Sometimes they come in the vague memories left by certain dreams; although like almost anyone else, I lose most of my dreams on waking. But sometimes an idea will stick, an image will adhere to the roof of your brain and maybe the following week, the following month, sometimes the following year(s), the idea will still be there, changed from its original shape, perhaps, but still the same notion as the one that first hit you in a dream…there’s no logical explanation of this kind of ‘inspiration’. What makes one idea stick and not another?
I suppose for a tiny idea to blossom into a full novel, it has to have an indefinable quality I call ‘energy’ for the want of a better word. Let’s say I dream of a man with red eyes and a matching moustache, and he’s trying – oh this is absurd but so what? – to get a model ship out of a bottle. What intrigues me in this rather silly instance is the question why is he reversing the process? Most hobbyists try to get ships into bottles, why would one man want to take his out? Initially there’s a puzzle, a mystery, and if it tantalizes enough, and hangs around enough, it acquires sufficient ‘energy’ to become a constant in that place at the back of the brain where ideas ferment.
This is all wonderfully vague, I admit. Which is one of the reasons I like discussing the origin of ideas for books: they can come from almost anywhere, and they can hang around for the most unlikely reasons. They can be perverse, or shocking, or mysterious. They can be inherently ordinary. They can be anything. But they all share this common element: they won’t go away. Disturbingly they develop a life of their own. They enter your mind when you’re in the midst of a serious conversation. You’re about to propose marriage, say, and no sooner has the question escaped you than you drift to the red-eyed man with the dumb ship and the dumb bottle, and you wonder how far he’s got with retrieving the bottle, and why he’s even trying, and so you don’t hear the answer to your proposal and so you have to say, Sorry? Can you repeat that? (No way to start a marriage, I imagine…)
So the red-eyed guy isn’t going away. He’s become your companion. He’s signed on for the long haul. Okay, let’s give him a name. Sunderland. Why not? James Sunderland. Again why not? Does an occupation suggest itself? We know he has a hobby, of a sort – but what does he do for a living? He looks like an outdoors sort. Fine, he’s a…a…okay, a gravedigger…
This is the takeover stage of an idea, when it intervenes in everyday situations, and comes between you and what people call reality. The fact is, the reality that grows inside your fevered brain is more likely to feel real than the other stuff that passes for reality – a news item, a song on a radio, a sports event. These occurrences in the world out there assume a counterfeit sense of reality; the true reality is the one that started months ago with a leftover dream image. Which tends to put you, the writer, out of touch with the world; and isn’t that paradoxical – aren’t writers supposed to be in touch with the world because that’s what they’re supposed to be writing about?
But writers don’t deal with the world: this is a false notion. They deal with reconstructed worlds, make-believe places, dreamscapes; they trade in illusions. Even when they write about a man stepping into his car, it’s a car and a man made in the mind. They may ‘feel’ like a real person and a real thing – and the better you write the more real they become – but they’re invented, they’re created in the foundry at the back of your brain, the same place where the red-eyed guy with the bottle first emerged…this James Sunderland, undertaker.
And now, how do we go forward from here? Well, since I’m tired of watching him fiddle with this damn bottle, I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens to him when he gets up and leaves the house (questions: what kind of house? any strange furnishings? is it all ordinary? are there stuffed snakes in glass jars? inverted snails in aspic? anything like that? – Okay, we try to get a feel for his environment…and we find one that seems to fit, even if we’re not sure why, just that James Sunderland seems ‘comfortable’ there….) Right, he leaves the house, wanders – where? where does he go? is it night or day? Let’s say it’s night. And let’s say we follow him a little way. And let’s say he’s headed for the cemetery where he works….
Why is this interesting to the writer, and maybe the reader too? Sunderland’s a gravedigger and he’s going to his place of work at night. Why? It’s dark. Does he have to dig graves in the dark? Is he working overtime? Has there been such an outbreak of sudden deaths that James Sunderland has to work evenings as well as days? But when he enters the cemetery, we see another figure come to meet him…a woman, suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman meets James Sunderland in a graveyard at night….why? what are they doing meeting here? and who is she? and and and…
So now we have two characters, where before we had only one…and suddenly we’re diverted; there’s a woman in Sunderland’s world and he meets her in a very odd place…they link arms and walk down a path a little way and their voices are raised and they turn a corner and go out of sight and….
That’s the last I hear of them. Because I don’t feel inclined to finish the story; I only wanted to get across a feeling of how ideas flared up and how they sometimes turned into life-consuming passions, stories dying to be told…and how the characters dominate your own world to the extent that they live with you, and you with them, and sometimes you catch yourself speaking to them…But only if you put word in their mouths first of all, surely?
Or did you? Or do they really speak of their free will?
But how can they have free will….didn’t I invent them?
What James Sunderland & the woman did in the cemetery: answers to the email address below. Best entry wins a copy of White Rage, my forthcoming book (HarperCollins, February 2004)