People often ask me if the mother character, Maman, in The Night Rainbow is based on myself.
The short answer is no.
I’m not a big fan of ‘write what you know’. So many interpretations of this axiom lead to pretty unimaginative stories. Of course our lives inform our writing, because we have experiences and opinions that shape what and how we write. The angle of approach, if you like. But when your fiction is too close to your own personal experiences it becomes limited, because your creativity hasn’t been set loose – you are working within pre-existing boundaries of reality.
Unless you are writing memoir, your writing shouldn’t resemble your life. But what happens when your life starts to resemble your writing?
Just as Maman isn’t me, Pea and Margot are not based on my own daughters. For a start, when I wrote The Night Rainbow my girls were only two and four years old. In the novel Pea is five and a half and Margot is four. Also, importantly, my children aren’t neglected and they haven’t suffered any kind of tragedy in their lives.
However, while I was writing that book my waking hours were pretty much drenched in my girl’s needs, points of view, observations of the world around them and so on. They surprised me constantly, doing and saying things that seemed wise beyond their years, and reacting tenaciously to certain upsets, whilst finding other seemingly trivial setbacks to be complete disasters. I can’t deny that when writing in Pea’s voice, I borrowed from this, imagining how (when they were a little older) they might react if dropped into the kind of situation that Pea found herself in. Playing around with those scenarios helped me imagine and develop the story.
Since The Night Rainbow was delivered my children have grown. First one, then the other, became Pea’s age. And a curious thing happened. Pea and Margot jumped off the page and into my house.
The first time it happened, when my eldest daughter was five, I woke to a noise in the kitchen. I came downstairs to find that she had laid the breakfast table and set out a special breakfast for me. There was bread with honey on (and a little glitter and a few coloured sprinkles), some fruit, crème fraîche (nearest thing she could find to yoghurt) and nicely folded paper napkins. She was so proud of herself and also really anxious to see if I would be suitably delighted. I was of course, but a little freaked out as well that I was glimpsing Pea. In fact, I was seeing Amélie. I had extrapolated her early thoughtfulness and desire to please into the actions of an older fictional character and now what I had imagined was coming true in real life.
It’s happened many times since. I find the two of them, having never done it before, playing at being flamenco dancers or riding their imaginary horses. Or Pea-like words spill out of them and stop me in my tracks. I sometimes tweet them under #teatimephilosophy, like
“Mummy, what was it like before anything existed? Was it all mirror coloured?”
“Infinity can’t exist, that’s impossible. So really, what is the biggest number?”
Three years after finishing The Night Rainbow, and my youngest daughter Bea is 5 ½ going on 6, the exact age of Pea (yes, I know, the Bea/Pea thing, it’s a coincidence). So since it’s my last chance to see how much my little muse resembles the fictional character she helped to shape, I decided to ask her a few questions. Here is the results:
Margot: Then you stop talking and then you are a skeleton and then there is a big party with sandwiches, but not as much cake as at Christmas.
Bea: When you die you turn into nature, then you grow again, maybe into a flower. When I die I want to be a bird. And the people who aren’t dead do you a gravestone and once you’ve turned into something they might come and pick you (if you are a flower, not if you are a bird) and it will make them happy again.
Pea: You need to have goodness and flavour
Margot: And colour and texture
Pea: And love….I would have ham and butter sandwiches…pain au chocolat and lemonade, pizza and peaches and avocados and chips.
Bea: You have to have water and vitamins and fruit and vegetables and protein and carbohydrate. And you have to be polite at the table. My favourite food is carrots, broccoli, gravy and mashed potato. And lemon meringue for pudding.
On what makes Maman happy:
Pea: Maman likes it when she is in the house and we are not.
Margot: There are more than a thousand things in the world and one of them must make Maman happy.
Bea: You are mostly happy. Horses make you happy. And anything purple. And flowers. And Mother’s Day. The things that make you sad are mostly arguments with us or Daddy, and you don’t like shouting or having to put us on timeout.
About my sister:
Pea: Margot and I are not the same, you can tell by our dreams. I am always dreaming about witches chasing me…Margot dreams about tiny people that live in the cupboard and have parties on Thursdays.
Bea: Sometimes we bicker but other times we like playing together and we both like horses and the same things make us laugh, even when the grownups don’t think they are funny.
Watch The Night Rainbow Trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrOP2qm503c
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