Where does inspiration come from?

NWI have always found the question of where inspiration comes from an interesting one. Authors often discuss the issue, as inspiration can come from so many different places, and its something that both readers and writers can be keen to explore. In this Guardian article, writer Zadie Smith talks about what inspired her latest novel, NW. It’s quite an open assessment, in which she states that her books “aren’t really about anything, other than the people in them.”

“When I was writing this novel what I really wanted to do was create people in language. To do that you must try to do justice simultaneously to the unruly, subjective qualities of language, and to what I want to call the concrete “thingyness” of people.”

Thingyness and language – two seeds of inspiration that are as abstract as they are concrete. I love the word “thingyness” (and who doesn’t love a word that isn’t recognised by spell check?). It is sometimes exactly how I categorise my own inspiration, when it’s difficult to work out exactly how the idea for a story originally formed, or understand exactly where a certain character might have come from. Often it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on. Smith describes “subconscious inspiration,” saying that a concept from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is embedded in NW and that she had “almost finished the book before realising it.” The line in question; Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall, brings to mind many complex issues of contemporary life, something which Smith wrote about so well in On Beauty.

When reading On Beauty I remember being struck by the way Smith used dialogue – it all sounded so real, like she really had breathed life into the characters and that they somehow weren’t characters at all. They were people, with voices. Writing a play, a writer knows there will be an opportunity for actors to make those voices heard, and watching a story being played out in front of you can help to cement those people/characters in your mind, as Isabella and Claudio in Measure for Measure were for Zadie Smith. To do the same thing with words that will only be read, and not spoken, is indeed a “tool of the trade” that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“I like writing that makes you hear voices. It really is a sort of magic.”

When I first read the blurb for NW, I wasn’t that taken with it, and didn’t think it would be a book I would particularly want to read. But, after reading this article, I have totally changed my opinion. Reading about the author’s inspiration has made the novel sound far more interesting than a blurb ever could. Perhaps every book could come with a few lines about where the author’s inspiration came from, even if it is hard to describe, like thingyness.


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