Novelist Heidi James on character writing in London
Cities always seem to have had a magnetic pull for writers. Heidi James Dunbar, our creative writing Insider and herself a published author, lecturer in English Literature and London devotee, shared her thoughts with us on why characters are so often inextricably linked to the city itself.
And if you’re looking to unlock the novel that we all have lurking within us, booking a SideStory Experience with Heidi could be the key you’re searching for.
What is it about literature and the written word that really excites you?
For me it’s really quite radical. In reading something, you are literally embodying and hearing someone else’s thoughts in your mind, it’s extraordinary. Literature is the most incredible mind meld and I think it has the potential to create an amazing empathy between us as humans. It has this power to connect us, to show us what it’s like to be someone else and make us think again.
Hearing someone speak can be wonderful, but it’s not the same as being present and being able to read and re-read and re-think. Books change how your mind works: there’s so much evidence on the plasticity of the mind and how those synapses that change when you read are changed forever – it’s quite extraordinary.
Do you think we’re hardwired to tell stories as humans?
Absolutely. We use literature even before we’re really thinking about books: we are storytellers. In our lives, and even from a very, very young age, we don’t just list things, we tell stories with a beginning, a middle and an end; with a crescendo, with a rising action, with an exciting incident. We understand the world as a story, as a narrative.
They say that everyone has a novel in them, but so few of us actually write. Where do you start?
When people tell me they want to learn to write and ask me what they should do, I simply say ‘read’. Be an audience to the great writers. It’s the best way to learn, or at least how to get that part of the mind working and thinking. Read as widely – and as wisely – as possible.
What do you think are the fundamentals of good writing?
Well, all good fiction is about character. When people say they’ve got a great idea for a story, what they mean is that they have a fabulous character who is compelling and interesting and might make strange decisions. London, being this cosmopolitan huge city, has the potential for so many amazing characters that are so diverse and who may come into contact with people they might not ordinarily meet.
The other thing of course, it the history. You can walk anywhere through London and heaven knows what’s happened there before; it’s literally a palimpsest of human lives and history, and I love that. Anything is possible in London. Anything can happen, and has happened.
Which writers do you think manage to connect people to place particularly well?
I think Zadie Smith does it beautifully – her book NW really does think about London in that way.
Do you think there are any particular characters that can’t be separated from their locale?
Well, most of Dickens’s characters, without a doubt. Can you imagine Fagin anywhere else? Or even little Oliver? I think there are some characters – Bill Sykes, with his big, brutish London masculinity – who are as informed by their surroundings as by their parentage.
You mean character and location inform each other?
Well, yes. I think the thing about all cities is they have an identity that we create. It’s a human construction that transcends the geography and the architecture of the place. A city is so vast it can be whatever we want it to be. You can be surrounded by people with all the comfort that might bring, but you can also be utterly alone and swept along, almost engulfed by anonymity.
A novel I think can do two things. It either defamiliarizes and makes the world new again, or it reinforces something that’s quite familiar, so that you’re left with a comforting feeling that someone thinks or sees or has felt those same things as you might have. When you read about London – or any city that you love – there’s often that moment when you think, ‘I know that place!’ and it’s a really lovely feeling, that feeling of recognition. That sense that you belong there, that the writer has been there and made those connections, which can be so profound.
Do you sometimes get a combination of both of those things? That you recognize something is familiar but it’s presented in such a way that you’re seeing it in a new light?
Absolutely. That’s a very magical alchemy, isn’t it? There’s a lovely book called Only in London by Hanan Al-Shaykh, which is wonderful because it’s a London I recognize but is seen through very different eyes.
London has that mysterious ability to be familiar, even when it’s not. I’ve certainly read books set in other places and found that it doesn’t quite work because the character doesn’t really fit with the location, but in London, I just can’t imagine that. You always get a very real sense that anything’s possible here – almost any scenario could be believable.
When you’re doing your SideStory Experiences and you’re walking around Brixton, what sort of things are you on the lookout for?
Mostly it’s really interesting characters who are very much of their place but outside of it in some way, shape or form. Each person who takes part is different and everyone’s attention will be caught by something different as well, which is endlessly fascinating.
Does it take practice to observe without being obvious?
There’s a way of paying attention gently, without intruding, and without judgement either – just being there. I think it’s Simone Weil who says that the greatest compliment we can ever pay is to pay attention, so it’s not about forming judgement, it’s a sort of sympathy.
We are, fundamentally, social beings and therefore it’s very hard to hide feelings – you’d have to be a sociopath and have something wrong with you if you were able to completely turn it off. We all try to sometimes, but we’re more porous than we think, and that’s what interests me.
Heidi James runs SideStory’s Writing London Characters Experience. Book now to spend some fascinating time in her company. Photo credits for this article: images of Heidi James by Michael Drummond. Jacob’s Island and London street photography by Jon Wilks.