What crazy times these are. I write this on the day pubs reopen in England after more than a hundred days of lockdown. I was determined not to succumb to temptation. ‘Not yet,’ we all said. ‘Not until the crowds die down.’ But on a family walk this afternoon we passed a pub with tables outside and it was just too good to ignore. ‘Do we need a reservation?’ we asked. ‘Just a phone number,’ we were told. And so, like a formal rite-of-passage (which always seem to involve alcohol), lockdown ended for us with a cold beer in the summer sunshine.
Readers often remind me that I predicted all of this. My last novel, Not Forgetting the Whale, tells the story of a village self-isolating from a deadly respiratory virus as the rest of the world descends into panic. ‘Now pretty convinced @jwironmonger is a prophet,’ wrote one generous reader on Twitter. But people are too forgiving. As a story about a lockdown, Not Forgetting the Whale missed a lot of the detail we now find so familiar about the pandemic. There was no panic buying of toilet rolls. No one became obsessed about the ‘R’ value. The whole village locked-down together so there was no social distancing. What there was, however, was a sense of community. The village comes together, as one, to tackle the pandemic (and to rescue a whale). I like to think it was the one thing I got right.
Getting-things-right used to matter to me. ‘I could never write historical fiction,’ I once told Natasha Solomons (the brilliant author of Mr Rosenberg’s List). ‘I would be too frightened of getting the details wrong.’ ‘You shouldn’t worry too much,’ she advised me. ‘You’re writing a novel – not a history textbook.’ It took me several years before I really understood this advice. I think it was Brexit that did it. I was grumpy for a year or so after the referendum. ‘I think my next book will be a love letter to Europe,’ I told my wife Sue one day. I had in mind a story that linked together different countries of Europe across the generations. Could there be a story that could link the French Revolution, to, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the great wars, or to Brexit Britain? But the canvas was too vast and the timescales of European history too long to find a story that could freely roam across the centuries and still remain personal. And could I trust myself to get-things-right?
So I shelved the idea. Like you do. One day I sat down to write a short story that would have nothing to do with Brexit, or pandemics, or any of the other ideas that had been swirling around in my head. Writing a short story, I have often found, can be a great way to clear your mind of intrusive plot ideas. This story would be about interstellar travel. What if (I imagined) we could send frozen human embryos to other solar systems with technology onboard to incubate them and raise them to adulthood? That was the essence of my story. But I grew worried about the mental health of the newborns. Perhaps, I wondered, they could be engineered to carry some of the memories of their mothers. Could that work?
Writing often works like this doesn’t it? One idea leads to another, and then to another, and before you know where you are the whole thing has become a domino cascade. I woke one morning and I knew I had a story that could span the centuries. It would start in revolutionary France. The central character would inherit memories from her mother, and she from her mother, and so on down the generations. It would be an adventure story. It would be a search for hidden treasure. It would be a unique way to tell a very long story without having to write a very long book. And so The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild was born. Have I got my facts all right? Probably not. But as I was so wisely advised, it’s a novel not a history book. It is a story about a very remarkable woman, her extraordinarily talented ancestors, and the memories they all share. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know.
(c) John Ironmonger
About The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild:
REMEMBER ME WHEN THE COMET COMES…
On the day the comet came, a girl named Heloise was born. She would live a fine life, and inherit a fortune, but would meet a cruel, untimely death.
Years later, strange dreams plague Katya Nemcová, a teenager burdened with a rare and curious gift. Memories come to Katya in her dreams – images and stories from a past that isn’t her own. Are these ghosts real? And what of the memory she seems to have of Heloise’s treasures, two centuries old?
A novel that spans the history of Europe – from revolutionary France to the world wars, the Prague Spring, post Brexit Britain, and beyond – this is the irresistible, adventurous and affectionate story of a quite extraordinary woman, her exceptionally talented ancestors and the curious memories they share.
Order your copy online here.