Flypaper: The Sound of It by Alison Jean Lester

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The Sound of It by Alison Jean Lester

By Alison Jean Lester

Author Alison Jean Lester reflects on how fiction is often deeply rooted in reality…

I remember the moment I had the idea for my first published novel, because it stopped me in my tracks. The pop of realisation – “I have such great material!”– was very loud in my head. All my life, I’d been fascinated and frustrated by my glamourous, neurotic aunt, and could use her as my muse to build my main character.

Lillian on Life begins with Lillian waking up next to her married lover and taking stock of her life while he sleeps on. She looks back at how and why she made the decisions that led her to this loveless relationship, and she considers the future. She tells the reader what she’s sure of, and what remains confusing: “People say that some things are meant to be. The question that doesn’t get answered, or even asked, is what these things are meant to be. And then there are more questions.”

 I thought I was channelling my character, merely a vessel. Initial ideas for novels are like flypaper, though, aren’t they? They catch many more insects that just the flies you imagine. So, as I drew on my aunt’s stories and my recollection of the other women – my mother, her friends and colleagues – who helped to raise and guide me, stories from my own experience as a woman flew straight at the paper.

Surprised? Of course you’re not. It’s natural. But what surprises me is that I didn’t recognize the significance of what of my own I was adding until after the novel was published. I just didn’t put two and two together during the process. After all, Lillian never married and never had children, and I was divorced with a daughter and a son. It eventually dawned on me that despite our differences, we were both single women with unmet needs, and we were both taking stock.

My second novel, Yuki Means Happiness, which is set in Japan, was originally called Babysitting and was set in Massachusetts. Babysitting was a way to employ my memories of the shocks I experienced as a teenaged babysitter, snooping around in my employers’ houses once the kids were asleep and learning about adults. When my agent felt that it was neither obviously general fiction nor clearly young adult, and suggested I figure out why the narrator, Diana, was telling the story, I made Babysitting the back story for her later experiences as a nanny in Tokyo. Then it fell away, almost completely. So, what was I processing in the new version? I had my memories of eight years in Japan, where I gave birth to both of my children, sure. What’s this on the flypaper, though? What are these demons that found their way into Diana’s psyche? “Sex was suddenly much more complicated: layered, and frightening. A bed with a man in it came to look like a whirlpool to me. I thought I might drown.”

Giving such concerns to Diana must have been as much for me as it was for the novel, even though it was another five years before I truly understood their source.

What could be cathartic about the novel that in 2021 became my third, Glide, is still a mystery to me, even though I began it in 1996, so there was time for it to present itself.

Wait.

My heart is pounding.

It’s not a mystery. I know what I put in there to try to exorcise it. It’s just not in there any longer. I took it out many drafts before the final one. I wonder if it will try to appear again, in another book.

This pounding is painful.

Let’s talk about novel number four, The Sound of It.

I don’t think I’ve started any novel quite as blithely as I started that one. I got the idea when watching an episode of Grand Designs that featured a couple who were building a large house to accommodate them and their young children from previous relationships – a home for living “happily ever after.”

 “Good luck with that,” I thought, and began a story of my own for them, a perfect storm of desires, needs, ambitions and follies. I thought it would be great fun, and a lot of it was, but I’d never been involved in the building of a house, so there was a lot of research to be done. Oh, and while I was at it, I suddenly found myself staring into the hot cauldron of my feelings about how I handled myself and the kids when I separated from their father sixteen years before. Didn’t see that coming!

Should I have?

Are you nodding?

Maybe you’re right. But discovering what I’m actually grappling with only when I’m deep into the writing of a novel, or even finished with it, makes it much easier to begin.

 ‘Blithe’ is a wonderful word. It pops and slithers. It means light-hearted, joyful. That’s me. Ask anyone.

And then look at what I write.

If I didn’t start blithely, would I start at all?

Would you?

(c) Alison Jean Lester

Author photograph (c) Andrew Gurnett

About The Sound of It:

The Sound of It by Alison Jean Lester

When Su, a divorced mother of one daughter, falls in love with Jeremy, a widowed father of two sons, they want to build a life together, but neither of their houses in Worcester is big enough for a family of five. They decide to build a dream house in farmland outside the city, in which to live happily ever after. For sound designer Su, it’s an opportunity to create an embracing home and heal past wounds of betrayal and loss, while failed entrepreneur Jeremy sees a chance to impress his overbearing father.

But what happens when hidden financial misjudgements cloud the horizon? What happens when some family ties grow strong and others don’t grow at all?

The Sound of It looks at parenting and at step-parenting, when expectations are high, dreams are big, and the Internet is very dangerous.

The Sound of It by Alison Jean Lester (Bench Press, December 2022) is available from all good book retailers. Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alison Jean Lester was born to a British mother and an American father, who met on an airplane when she was a Pan Am stewardess and he was coming back from participating in the first American expedition to Mount Everest. She has variously studied, worked, and raised children in the US, the UK, China, Italy, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, and now lives in England with her husband and their miniature schnauzer. Her first novel, Lillian on Life, was published in 2015, and her second, Yuki Means Happiness, came out in 2017. Her memoir of witnessing her parents’ astonishing approaches to the end of their lives, Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, was published in October 2020.

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