Inspiration and other mysteries

Where do a writer’s ideas come from? Sometimes it’s an easy question to answer, says Roisin Meaney, sometimes it’s a mystery

Roisin Meaney: Who knows where a book comes from really?

Roisin Meaney: Who knows where a book comes from really?


“Where do you get your ideas?” If I had a euro – or even a cent – for every time I’ve been asked that since I first put my name to a book, I could pack away the laptop and disappear to Bermuda, or Capri, or wherever people go who never need to earn another bob. Sometimes it’s an easy question to answer. Something in Common was directly inspired by two penfriend relationships, and its opening scene was a direct result of my encountering an unfortunate woman in dire straits, about to throw herself into the Shannon river. (She didn’t.)

Easy to see too where the inspiration for last year’s publication The Reunion came from. I was attending a gathering of past teachers and parents at the 25th anniversary of the last school I taught in, and one of my old parents said:“A reunion would make a good topic for one of your books, wouldn’t it?”

It would. It did.

Then there was the time I went to live for a month on Valentia Island off the Kerry coast, looking for inspiration for my eighth book – and One Summer, when it was published, was set on a little island off Kerry, and featured the small community of residents and a scatter of summer tourists.

Easy to see where those ideas came from. Others, not so easy.

Take my latest, The Street Where You Live. If someone asked me what inspired that tale, they’d have me scratching my head. This one is a real puzzler: all I can be sure of is that the choir that features in it came about as a result of a wonderful Limerick-based gospel choir that provided the entertainment for the launch of The Reunion. I originally intended the choir to be the main focus of the story, with the characters all emanating from it, all known to one another to a greater or lesser extent. I had even decided to call it The Choir.

So much for that. As often happens, the characters had other ideas, and the choir was shoved to one side, with only three members and its director playing parts in the story. The others were drawn from the wider community, and complete strangers to one another (at the start anyway). So what were my inspirations for that book? Damned if I know – but let me try to figure them out.

Most of the story spans six weeks, opening at the end of June and working up to the middle of August. For some reason, I decided to employ total fiction and set it in a heatwave. Yes, a six-week heatwave. Yes, in Ireland.

Look, stranger things have happened. I’m sure they have.

Actually, I think I know what might have prompted that particular impulse. I’ve always loved stories that are soaked in heat, whether they come to me through the medium of cinema, theatre or the written word. I love anything set in someplace like the American Deep South, that cricket-singing, mosquito-buzzing, ceiling-fan-whirring, julep-sipping place where shirts are sweat-stained and passions are apt to run as high as the temperature. Think Blanche Dubois, Humbert Humbert (not strictly Deep South, but too good to ignore), Scarlett O’Hara, Atticus Finch; the heat is as much a character in their stories as they are themselves.

Sunshine – I mean unrelenting, merciless sunshine – does things to people, doesn’t it? It changes their behaviour, for good or otherwise. I enjoyed seeing what the heat did to my lot. They didn’t all react the same – the optimists revelled in the wall-to-wall sunshine, or coped as best they could; the pessimists complained to anyone who’d listen. So far, so predictable. But a few became more reckless, did things they wouldn’t dream of doing normally. They were, obviously, the most interesting.

As for specific storylines, I have no idea, not a clue, what inspired the main story of Molly Griffin, house cleaner, encountering a little boy whom she becomes convinced is her grandchild. As far as I know I never read or heard of a similar scenario – although come to think of it, there may be many a mother of a wayward son (and Molly’s is definitely wayward) who suspects the existence of unknown grandchildren.

Molly has a daughter too. Emily’s timid, phobic personality is not drawn from anyone of my acquaintance, or not consciously at any rate. I can’t speak for the subconscious, which as we all know does as it damn well pleases. Emily is almost 30, but has yet to experience a romantic relationship: the crush she had at 16, while all too real to her, we must discount, as nothing at all came of it. Poor Emily. If I were to bare my soul – and what better arena for soul-baring than The Irish Times? – this aspect of her story might be loosely drawn from my own past: the relationships of my teens and early twenties were by and large harmless, ephemeral bits of nonsense whose demise left me not so much broken-hearted as quietly relieved. Maybe here I was projecting my own failed love stories onto Emily – who knows?

Elsewhere in the book there’s a sordid, loveless affair – she’s married, he’s not, neither is invested emotionally. Let’s blame the weather for that, and say they just lost the run of themselves in the heat. There’s a very different relationship in there too, a budding, tentative one, borne of genuine attraction between two good souls that develops quickly into love – I suspect the inspiration for this plotline was drawn from Tony and Maria’s doomed love affair in West Side Story which features in the book (remember the choir?) because this one, I mean my one, is sadly doomed too.

Who knows where a book comes from really? All I can tell you is the act of bringing it into being involves a lot of sleepless nights and self-loathing, and much deleting, and comfort eating – and occasional comfort drinking.

And still I’ve written 14. I must be mad.

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