From first idea to finished novel

Author Zillah Bethel explores the starting point of her latest novel, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, set in an alternate UK where wars are being fought, over water.

Zillah Bethel writes, 'My starting point for The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare was the friendship between a boy and a robot. That was in my head for a couple of years and is the emotional core of the book. A father away fighting and a robot taking the place of the father to an extent. I imagined 1970s US with an emerging Silicon valley and a father in the Vietnam war; but my US editor wanted an alternate reality UK setting. As my first children's book - A Whisper of Horses - had an alternate reality UK setting this made sense.

I immediately thought of Cambridge. Cambridge to me is the mecca of all things genius. Oxonians may take up the cudgels at this but that's how I feel about Cambridge. As it happened Stephen Hawking set up a Centre for Artificial Intelligence in Cambridge in 2016 so that seemed serendipitous also! Trinity College because it has a tradition of recruiting spies and things not being what they seem is a theme running through The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare. So I had my emotional core and I had a setting and now I needed a war.

Having grown up in Papua New Guinea I am acutely aware of the challenges third world countries face. Particularly water shortages. Wars over water are fought around the globe - civil war in Yemen was sparked by a water crisis - and water scarcity is now the number 1 global risk factor according to the World Economic Forum. It was a bold move to bring drought to the UK - higher latitudes are more likely to see an alternating pattern of flood and drought according to climate experts - but it seemed like the right move. It was fun thinking up details such as ornamental cacti replacing cut flowers and raising meat prices to ridiculous heights (dairy and meat production being very heavy on water). And, of course, a governing body headed by General Woolf with his Aquarian Protection Cross!

With my war on water in place I had some ideas I needed to wrestle with. What humanity is doing to the planet. How the planet is reacting. Whether technology will repair the damage? Can it rescue us? We can create machines that destroy, can we create machines that create? Paragon I suppose is my symbol of hope - that technology will ultimately save us, not destroy us… The best of humanity, the best of technology.

My characters are pinched a bit from reality. My son is a brilliant gymnast and hates sarcasm so some of that went into Auden. My daughter has a spy kit complete with message holding lipstick and magnifying glass powder compact and some of that inspired aspects of Vivi Rookmini. I had a friend at college who decorated her ceiling with cushion covers; and I'm sure an old schoolgirl annual advised using an unwanted umbrella as a storage holder. And I have always loved a beaded curtain, separating yet not sealing off, allowing glimpses through and into other spaces. They remind me of the mosquito nets and shell screens of Papua New Guinea. Voila Immaculata and Vivi's rooms at Trinity.

Auden' achromatopsia was inspired by the phrase to see everything in black and white. I love cliches - they are comedic and vivid and I enjoy using or defamiliarising them. Collective nouns are another whimsical aspect of the English language I find adorable. My latest is 'a crash of rhinoceros'. Wonderful! Apart from wanting to explore the phrase to see everything in black and white I also had a deliriously quixotic idea that Dr Bloom might create a rainbow machine. This was probably stream of consciousness thinking: rain, sunlight, colour… In the end the rain machine was a mental red herring but its ghost became a plot device in the book. And a beautiful one I think. In the end Auden hears colour - a pinch of reality again. I once went to tea in the Randolph Hotel with a guy who said (amongst other things) that as a child he heard colours! I have to say I never went to tea with him again but thanks to the floppy-haired sorry-don't-remember-your-name guy in the Randolph circa 2000!

In conclusion the making of any book probably needs a few facts, one or two ideas, a bit of imagination and some steals from reality. Stir up with old wooden spoon and chuck in the oven. Hope it doesn't come out under baked or charred. Then cometh the icing in the shape of editorial advice, a great title (courtesy of Georgia Murray, Piccadilly editor) and a perfect cover courtesy of artist extraordnaire Matt Saunders.


28/09/2017From first idea to finished novel
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