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The hidden psychology of a writer

January 2015

Two years ago I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to begin my research trip for The Tea Planter’s Wife. Vibrant life swirled around me: men crowded to carry my case, horns blared and people yelled, but little of that sank in. I stood there feeling as if I was alone and reeling from moist heat approaching like a solid wall. Palm trees waved in the breeze, the scent of cinnamon drifted in the air and, feeling profoundly assaulted by the past, I fought to control my breath while trying not to cry. Everything that had been taken from me came racing back, so powerfully that I couldn’t speak as my husband turned back to see where I was. It was my first visit to South East Asia since the day we left Malaya in 1957 and in that momentary time-warp, I was eight and a half years old again.

Why do we write what we write?

Dinah in Hatton

Me taking a rest in rural Hatton, Sri Lanka


Galle Face Hotel, Columbo

Galle Face, one of the hotels where I stayed, Colombo, Sri Lanka


That experience in Sri Lanka is a clue to why I write what I do. It’s a topic I hadn’t given much thought to until I was interviewed by insightful Katie Jarvis for Cotswold Life last year. Over coffee she touched on the psychology behind my first book The Separation and that triggered a chain of thought. With the coming of Channel 4’s Indian Summer, starring Julie Walters, I decided to give it a closer look.

Why do some people choose to write domestic noir, or thrillers, or romances or crime? There are, of course, simple preferences and inclinations along with trends and fashions which can influence our ideas. I know writers who research the market thoroughly before they begin, others who successfully hop on a trend, and others who, more brilliantly, begin one. There has been a spate of terrific novels dealing with unexpected conditions: Elizabeth is Missing, The Rosie Project, The Shock of the Fall and others.

But there’s something more at work than trends, fashion or zeitgeist, so what is it?

Many writers are obsessed with particular themes and I’m certain that childhood is a major source of material. The playwright Alan Bennett insisted that most of his work grew out of his youth; the relationships, the tensions and the conflicts from back then fuelling his imagination. In ‘The Forest For The Trees’ Betsy Lerner, an American editor, proposes the need to find your wicked inner child if you are to avoid bland characters and dull stories, and to do that you need to plumb your own psyche, consciously or subconsciously.


Coconut seller in Colombo, Sri Lanka


Only with hindsight do I see that when I was writing The Separation, I had no idea I was plumbing anything by drawing on my own childhood, other than in the most obvious way. (The book is set in Malaya, where I was born, and where I lived for nearly nine years.) Back in 1957, a solid curtain had descended after our arrival in England obliterating all memory of hot, exotic and exciting Malaya. Until I was an adult we never spoke of it again and I didn’t realise how much I had not been allowed to feel that absence as a child. The novel is about a mother’s desperate loss of her daughters, but I only gradually became aware that I was writing from the well of sadness that followed my own separation from everything I’d known and loved about ‘my’ country.

Tea Planter's Wife

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation I stayed at in Sri Lanka


Which leads me to how it feels to be an outsider. The Tea Planter’s Wife Penguin/Viking August 2015 is far less an exploration of my own childhood but still there is that issue of where does my character belong? And for that matter where do I belong? When I came to live in England I most certainly didn’t belong in the colourless 1950s of the British Midlands in February, and for a long time I had no sense of having a rooted identity: nowhere I really felt was home, nowhere that was ‘me’ or ‘mine’. By revisiting the East through my writing and also physically, to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, I’ve regained something that mattered and that had been lost for so many years, and having that makes me different now.

Night scene Hanoi

View from my window in Hanoi, Vietnam


Each book I write – I’ve just finished the third set in French colonial Vietnam – draws me further from the issues of my early childhood, though I am still haunted by the past and the lessons to be learnt there, both from my own life and also from the national upheaval that arose during the end of Empire. I lost Malaya and so did Britain. We both had to think about who we were and who we might become. As a nation we still haven’t found the answer, but have I?

Cai Be floating market

Cai Be floating market, Vietnam


Maybe partially. When you write you bare “your soul”, as my friend the author Isabel Wolff once put it, and there’s nowhere to hide. For me there’s nothing more haunting than each person’s unique experience of the bitter-sweetness of life. So I write from the heart and hope to touch on something about what it is to be human that will move a reader – the joy of life and the pity of it too – and that in itself reveals something of me. It reveals the beauty so deeply rooted all those years ago in my childhood in Malaya, and it reveals the loss that will always remain at the heart of me.

Children in shop, Hatton

Children in shop, Hatton, Sri Lanka


And so, as I took my first steps on Eastern soil and felt the clashing discord of what should have been a deeply foreign world, what was that extraordinary moment really all about? An all too brief parting of the curtain and reminder of what it was to be a child, yes, but it was also about the fifty-five years that had passed since then, and that brought the utter brevity of life into focus and the need to live life, every last moment of it. And that is why I am doing my best to make every day count, both in my life and through my novels.