Here's Part One of an extended interview with the author, Grant P. Hudson:
How did the basic ideas behind How Stories Really Work come about?
Well, of course like many people I’d been interested in stories from a young age. As I grew older, I was particularly fascinated by the works of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and a handful of similar authors for the specific effect which their stories had on me. For quite a while I put these effects down to the Christian ideas which many of these authors shared, and there is definitely something in that - but as I read more, I wanted to know how, on the level of the writing itself, those effects were created. I went to university primarily to explore those works - though I had to wade through a great deal of material there before I was given ‘free rein’ to look at my favourite authors in detail.
So you write the book then?
Oh no, the book was still years away. I began a thesis for a Master of Arts degree, which looked in great detail at how the fiction of Lewis, Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin evolved. I tried to argue that the way the books were put together showed the secret processes that authors themselves were tentatively using to create whole worlds - as though the writing of High Fantasy in particular revealed something subliminal happening in the world of fiction. I never properly finished the thesis - Life interrupted and I was off doing something else - but I was also never quite happy with it. I felt as though I was on the edge of much bigger and simpler discoveries. Which turned out to be true.
What happened next?
About fifteen years later, I found myself in Sussex, teaching English Literature to teenagers in a small private school. There’s nothing like teaching for learning - I mean, teaching others is great for learning about a subject yourself. Though I had studied huge amounts of literature over seven years at university, it had faded into the background: now, lessons for others brought it all back, in the new light of Life’s experience.
Can you give us an example?
Yes, Macbeth. I’d studied Shakespeare with a highly erudite group of scholars who were so frighteningly knowledgeable that I had shrunk into invisibility in the background, out of my depth, in awe. Shakespeare back then had been a subject as vast as an ocean in which I had narrowly escaped drowning; now, free to plan lessons around specific details about Macbeth, I was able to zoom in on minute details. I started to appreciate the play in a new way. And slowly, I began to see the beginnings of patterns in literature which took me back to my earlier attempts to tie everything together at university. I started to make notes.
Which became the book?
Not quite! There’s nothing quite like working with young minds who know nothing about a subject but which are brilliant and insightful in themselves to help you see new shapes and forms in things, patterns which over centuries of literary criticism have been overlaid with complexities.
My head swam with ideas. Conventions were challenged; new concepts from other disciplines imposed.
Then what happened?
I’ll have to tell you a story.
It was Christmas in about 2001 or 2002. Snow lay across most of England. Having packed a small rucksack with a few clothes and a couple of sandwiches, I set off from London to Sheffield. Every field and tree was covered in snow all the way to Yorkshire. The countryside changed slowly from flat or gently rolling fields to steeper hills and denser woods, broken now and again by partially or fully frozen stretches of water. By train and then bus, I reached open countryside and woods.
The first thing that struck me was the quietness. Everything seemed very still, and also very clear - whether due to the snow or to some other quality in the light, the walls and trees and houses all around me seemed in sharp focus. The wood itself was like something out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - ice- bound, quite thick snow, rumpled hillocks. Some distance away I could hear running water. I made towards it carefully along a slippery path, following the trail of someone else’s footsteps, and cautiously making my way down to a simple wooden bridge over the rushing stream, water gurgling over black rocks. Then I made my way up the other side, winding in and out of small trees, eventually climbing up a hillside as the sun began to rise above the bank of cloud to the east.
As I emerged from a row of newish houses (in one of which I would live, fourteen years later) a beam of sunlight glanced through an unseen window on my left and struck a bluish-grey wallpaper in a room I could see; just beyond that a crow hovered over a back garden and the sound of what I thought was a hosepipe spraying caught my attention - as I drew nearer it resolved into the wind blowing through the few remaining leaves of a hedge on my right, the twisted leaves looking like frozen sparrows.
Across the far horizon to the east, sharp and thin against the growing light, stood a bank of leafless trees; down the long valley towards Sheffield the tracery of stone-lined fields looked as though it had been painted in by a fine artist’s brush, but its main beauty lay in its remoteness.
I made my way up the gently rising hill to the top, where I wandered into the churchyard where I would like one day to be buried, looking as it does down onto the wide landscape of the valley both ways. I noticed some of the gravestones, some new, some recently refurbished - wives buried half a century or more later next to their husbands. In the corner of the house that intrudes into the graveyard, a tiny window cluttered with Christmas cards looked into a living room - living in more than one sense.
It sounds beautiful.
It was and is.
Down a very steep valley, and glowering clouds smothered the hilltops and dimmed the light so that the whole scene had a grandeur and a haziness which made it seem like a mountain landscape. Now the bright sun glinted off white snow and tree branches stood out sharply, each twig shining; water ran in channels hidden under the snow; stone walls gleamed with traceries of frost. Distances opened out, and rather than grand the landscape seemed dwarfed by the cloudless sky.
I reached the bottom of the valley and walked over a bridge. I looked back at the cascade of water down the steps of a water treatment works and then headed off up the other side of the valley, past a solitary house with car covered in snow, and up into a muddy lane which gave me a choice of a public footpath leading into the dark pine forest on my left or a steep climb alongside a rushing brook to the top of the valley. I chose the latter, which was a hard and long climb, getting hot before I reached the top - and the top never seemed to want to be reached but always seemed to be above me, either steeply or gently sloping away to a blank white horizon. I came first to a junction signposted the next village with a giant white stone, and headed off that way past an isolated farm and through blank, white country, always sloping upwards or curving around a rolling moor so that the view never quite opened up.
A sanding lorry roared past, the driver acknowledging my presence with the smallest nod of his head, and then I rounded a curve and came out into broad sunlight and could look down at last on the country around.
It was as though someone had casually strewn a rough white tablecloth flatly along the landscape - wrinkles of shallow, shadowed valleys were sprinkled with tiny forests, and in the deeper folds dark waters reflected them. Away on the farthest horizons, outcroppings of rock stood out, looming small because of their distance but imposing in their remote greyness. Over all of this the bright sun shone down from a now-cloudless sky.
You had an epiphany?
An extended one, yes. I walked down the hill, passing two farmers coming the other way who were deep in an animated discussion about, of all things, the pattern of the pyramids and the implications for space travel. I soon reached the next village which surprised me by being really beautiful, full of detailed old buildings of grey-green stone. Careful not to slip on the icy footpath, found myself at the bottom looking at the beautiful church there. The pub to my right was closed; I found out that it wouldn’t open for an hour so I paused to admire the scenery and went on down the hill to the next settlement, a cluster of cottages around a rushing river. I looked for a pub or somewhere to rest and have something to eat, but settled on a snow-covered bench when I found none and had a sandwich. Resigning myself to walking on without a proper rest, I had walked only about fifty paces when I came to a pub, and walked up the steps just as the landlord was unbolting the door. It was a perfect rest: an open fire, by which I quickly grew too warm, and a hot beef sandwich with a rich onion gravy. I got directions from the landlord’s wife and prepared to go on.
Little did I suspect that all of this beauty and extroversion of my attention was a prelude to some of the biggest breakthroughs in the book.
Stay tuned for the next part of the interview!