I would like to suggest that it is place. If we think of the great writers, their work is almost always centered in a place. Think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, they are centered in towns, Dublin for the Irish writer, Joyce, of course and London just after the first world war for Woolf. The place may be imaginary as in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha country, but we know this is a town in the Deep South, a town from his childhood as these places so often are. Think of the Brontes' moors. They are places known intimately when the writer was very young, places which come from their earliest impressions when the senses are acute to the sounds and smells and sights at that impressionable age. These places are at the center of the work, they seep into every part of it, they color the people and thus the plot.
At the moment I’m writing a novel centered on Rome. I have lived in Rome at different moments all through my life. It seems an almost a magical place, where extraordinary things have happened to me. At eighteen in Switzerland I met an Italian, a young Roman aristocrat, who fell in love with me. He persuaded my mother and me to come all the way from South Africa and live for a summer in Rome.
This was 1960 during the Olympic games. The young man, who died very young, spent one entire evening over dinner at Meo Patacca ( a dark Roman restaurant you might want to visit) in the Trastevere drinking an entire bottle of wine and saying in his rudimentary English, “Sheila must stay Rome” over and over again. Somehow he convinced my mother, a widow of independent means, to rent a ground floor apartment in the Parioli area ( a posh residential area) near Piazza Crati , where he could visit us, and water my mother’s flowers. My older sister, who came along for the ride, and I studied Dante with an Italian woman who would read the Divina Commedia with her hand on her heart. “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” we intoned solemnly, though it was hardly our case.
The young Roman made the mistake of telling me about his best friend, an American whose mother lived on the Italian coast, “Michaeeeel is such a clever and handsome boy,” he told me so that when the boy arrived and stood in the shadows before the iron gate which opened onto the house where we lived I was already half in love with him.
Well, reader I married him!’
Later in my life, having published many books I would return to Rome as a visiting writer and have two wonderful summer stays at the American Academy in Rome where I was researching a book on Freud called “Dreaming for Freud.” Rome had a special significance for Freud too, but that is another story.
So if you are looking for inspiration perhaps start with a place, write what you see and hear and smell from a familiar place from your early life, and the people will come out from the bushes or trees, or even an old house, carrying gifts in their arms, gifts for you to use on the page.
Dreaming for Freud: A Novelby Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy nowLove Child: A Novelby Sheila KohlerPenguin Booksbuy now