I’m not alone, I know, in secretly longing to play casting director with my own books. None more so than A Place for Us, which I loved writing more than any of my novels. I knew who each member of the Winter family was. Their home, Winterfold, was real to me in my head. I bought a pop-up book from a children’s art shop and filled it with pictures and floorplans of the house, because I had to believe wholly in it, so that the reader could walk into it and instantly feel at home.
The story opens with Martha Winter, the matriarch. We see her writing an invitation to her eightieth birthday party which will call her family, scattered all over the place, back home. She has three middle-aged children, one of whom, Daisy, is the mystery at the heart of the novel. As we meet the other characters it becomes clearer that no one really seems to know what’s happened to Daisy, much less where she actually lives.
I knew Martha straight away – I can see her clearly, a taller Judi Dench, with a neat, Mary Quant bob of light brown/grey hair. Other members of the Winter family, like David the father (Denholm Elliott) and Florence their eccentric, academic younger daughter (Mary Beard) are easy to describe in shorthand when pitching the story to someone, but it’s dangerous to go too far down this route while you’re actually writing the novel, I’ve found. Daisy herself, for example, is not one person but a composite of several. She is deliberately hard to pin down because she is so unknowable, and for many reasons has kept herself that way. I like the fact that, when I think about her, she is various different people – a silent serious girl like Saoirse Ronan in the film of Atonement, a young, tanned Kate Moss, a thin, almost leathery Joni Mitchell / Carly Simon-type, but with a mix of cruel, brilliant beauty.
What I’ve found over the last ten years of writing books is it’s fatal to base a character on someone specific: they just end up seeming hopelessly inert. A Florence who was just Mary Beard wouldn’t be real on the page. In fact she’s younger, more awkward, more like Tilda Swinton almost, with golden-red hair and I can hear her voice as I type this. But characters, unlike houses, can’t be pinned down with floorplans and photos, not for me anyway. They have to sort of live in the back of my imagination for a while and run around until they’re real to me before I start writing about them. (I find it hard to talk about without sounding hopelessly pretentious, too. Terry Pratchett said a wise thing, which is ‘the first draft is just you telling yourself the story’.) It’s only afterwards, when I’ve finished the first draft, or sometimes even later, that I realise a character is reminiscent of someone else: the gorgeous chef at the local pub is the spitting image of Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, for example, (meaning I was allowed to put a photo of him above my desk for research purposes). But for me Daisy, the centre of the novel, lives as her own person. In real-life people aren’t simply black and white cardboard cut-outs, either good or bad; nor should they be in fiction.