I have always felt fortunate that as an author I’ve never been blocked. I’ve never had to struggle to find a theme or an idea to interest me, nor had to agonise over what my next novel might be about. Mine is the opposite problem. It has always seemed to me that there are so many stories to tell that I find myself standing in the middle of them, like Alice in a corridor full of doors, wondering which one to choose. Usually, towards the end of writing one book, I get an increasingly firm idea for the next. Within a week or two of finishing, I make my choice, step through the door, and hope for light on the other side.
That’s what happened after I completed my novel, The Flying Man. As ever, I had a strong idea of the next book I wanted to write. It was going to be about an isolated community. It was going to happen in one tightly controlled environment, in an idyllic place that was open to the sky. It was going to explore the dual concept of home as prison and paradise.
I began building my characters and structuring my research in parallel. I was quite far along with the writing process when I began looking into psychological experiments of the 1960s and early 1970s in the US, including Milgram’s and the Stanford Prison experiment. I thought they’d be interesting in terms of the moral compass of isolation — whether we act differently when we are observed.
Milgram’s experiment struck something deep inside me, and I kept returning to it. In the wake of the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist then at Yale, was moved to investigate whether there was something specific within the German mentality that forced obedience even in the face of obvious evil. Eichmann had played a key administrative role in sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the camps. He had argued that he, like his colleagues, had just obeyed orders. He had done his duty, which was to do what he was told.
Milgram proved how insidious obedience to authority is within all of us. His experiment involved a man in an ambiguous grey coat using scripted prompts to induce volunteers to deliver an electric shock to another man for incorrect answers during a memory test. In the first version of the experiment, all the volunteers delivered electric shocks to the other participant, an actor, at potentially fatal voltages, even when the actor moaned in pain. 65 per cent of them delivered the maximum shock allowable. Some struggled and panicked. Some cried or laughed hysterically. But despite this, ultimately they did as they were told.
The study didn’t have much direct relevance to my writing. I should have let it go. But like a pebble thrown in deep water it left ever-increasing ripples. I found myself scouring bookshops and libraries for related psychology texts, for details of the Eichmann trial, and first person accounts from Nazi collaborators. I couldn’t explain what I was actually searching for, or why.
I worried that my research interest was just a displacement activity, that I was trying to avoid the book I’d started. So I made sure to keep writing a few hundred words of my novel each day, telling myself that it was all useful background.
But then a chance encounter in a bookshop changed everything. Someone else’s book caught my eye: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I hadn’t read Beowulf since studying it alongside Ted Hughes’s poetry at school, and scraps of its verse came drifting back to me from the past.
I picked up Beowulf, looked at it long and hard, like a recovering alcoholic staring at her date’s drink, then put it down again. I couldn’t afford the distraction. Beowulf was a story about witch-monsters in caves, treasure and dragons. I couldn’t possibly justify it, even as background reading.
But suddenly I began seeing Beowulf and Seamus Heaney everywhere. Friends made references to a Hollywood movie adaptation I’d never heard of. An Oxford colleague casually mentioned she’d studied under Heaney. What finally slayed me, ripping off my writing arm, like Grendel’s in the narrative, was a radio programme featuring a recording of Seamus Heaney reading from his Beowulf translation. I heard the rich poetry that was both ancient and modern, Heaney’s distinctive voice, full of Celtic nuance and music, and the voice of the anonymous Beowulf writer echoing beneath.
And with this, I finally allowed myself the luxury of doubt about the novel I’d chosen to write. I went to seek the monster in the cave, and the treasure in the ground. I went back and got Seamus Heaney’s book.
I read it out loud to myself, because that’s how I think poetry should be read. In fact, that’s how I think everything should be read. I heard my voice rather than Heaney’s, and felt a sense of ownership in my interpretation. I was hooked most by the mother of Grendel. A monstrous mother who had spawned a monstrous child, she was powerful, singular and passionately fuelled by vengeance.
Jung wrote about the power of unconscious thought, and I let it rise through me, like oil in the still-rippling water.
I was thinking about the hidden monsters discovered within the volunteers in Milgram’s experiment who found they could hurt another person simply because they were told to. I was thinking about the monsters that lay within us all, and how they might be exposed and perpetuated.
Then my oldest child called me a monster one day when I asked him to do his homework. I may have said something like: ‘Just be a good boy and do what you’re told.’ To which he replied, ‘You’re just a monster, Mummy.’ I thought, maybe you’re right. I was stunned he’d worked it out so easily.
I finally made the connections. Putting aside the book I was working on, I wrote ‘Obedience’ on a clean white page. Underneath it, I wrote, ‘Do Good Children Do What They’re Told?’
I began to write a story about a monstrous mother and her children – her Adam and fallen angels – who are beaten and browbeaten to obey. It took me two years, 170,000 words, and untold heartache. But I knew it would be the best thing I’d ever written.
The Good Children wasn’t a book I would have ever chosen to write. Too long, too hard. Four siblings, followed from their troubled childhood to old age. Foolishly ambitious. But it was a book that chose me. The story called out to me, and something deeper than my conscious self defiantly accepted the challenge, long before I knew it myself.
I was glad, finally, that I let my unconscious author take over, the reckless monster seeker and treasure hunter. Upon finishing, I had the sense that I’d created something bigger than I could have otherwise envisioned. It seemed to me that my characters had taken on a life of their own, and that even without me their stories would go on.