Recently I was reminded of the photographer Sally Mann and how much her work influenced my first novel, SHADOWING THE SUN. Mann is most famous for her photographs of her three children shot in the surrounds of their southern American home, hanging out or in role play, getting into scraps, doing what kids do best. Some of the photographs have a set-up theatricality, while others are unselfconscious and beautiful, but there’s darkness in them too, something hidden, sometimes threatening, even dangerous. Mann plays with our perception as viewer by photographing her daughter with a black eye, her son with a nosebleed, her naked children playing, and this has upset some people. But on the face of it, there is nothing intrinsically unsettling about a nosebleed, or child nudity; it is the adult mind that draws its own, sometimes disturbing, conclusions.
My first novel captures similar childhood innocence, cloaked in something sinister: parental neglect, ambiguity and desire. I was mostly influenced by a book Mann produced called TWELVE, in which she recorded girls and boys on the cusp of adolescence, the blurred division between child and adult. When writing SHADOWING THE SUN I found it helpful to hold certain images in my mind: a girl in her swimsuit with her legs slung over the arm of a chair, her feet childishly curled while her eyes speak of a newly-felt alienation from the viewer, the world; another girl, sitting on her father’s lap, glances back at the camera, picked out from the surrounding grown-up chat as different, not quite here and not yet quite there.
Mann’s photographs remind me of elements of my own childhood – the wild freedom I felt when holidaying with my father in his commune on the outskirts of Florence. My sense of self-assuredness on the cusp of adolescence, an awakening to the world, to men, to emotion, but also vulnerability: the pale white skin of youth, its transparency, the heart-stopping unawareness of the power of your own sexuality. My first novel is set in my father’s Italian commune, and, like Mann, I take fact and elaborate it into fiction. With both of my novels, the fiction has seeded from the personal – at times when I was in the midst of writing I felt time and place so vividly and with so much nostalgia it was almost like conjuring up some deep and hidden part of myself – but what is interesting to me is where the imagination goes with it, and that, in my opinion, is creativity.
Mann’s creativity is in her portrait’s setting and stage. She has been criticised for exposing her children’s private moments to the adult gaze, but is it not brave to draw attention to something that we perhaps turn away from, or that passes so quickly it becomes forgotten? Mann is an artist but she is also a mother, and while raising her kids she saw the perfect opportunity for her art: childhood as subject matter.
Writing is not so easily combined with motherhood. My son recently told me he wished I were a teacher because then I could work at his school, wave at him across the garden while he played, and I was reminded, as I so often am, of the solitude of my profession. How sad that we mostly write when alone, that we have nothing to show during the long years it takes to complete a project. And yet writing combines brilliantly with children’s school hours, being home at the end of the school day to respond to childish needs. I have come to understand that whether you are an artist or a writer, it is about adapting your craft to your changing life. My first experience of motherhood was so absorbing that it sapped my previous creativity – but I see now that it was only temporary, as my creativity found outlet in this intense new world; I may have stopped writing for a few years, yet nothing was taken from me. I remember the night that my creative autonomy came back. I was breastfeeding my second-born, propped up against pillows in the moonlight, listening to night silence, my body still with sleep and drifting in dreams. I remember little stars dropping from my subconscious like gifts, vivid and glittering. It was in these bleary moments that my second novel was born.
Both my novels have started with emotion. With SHADOWING THE SUN it was yearning; capturing the intensity of a young girl’s love for an emotionally absent father, and how this longing can be dangerously misguided when not protected, not held. With my latest novel, THE GROWING YEAR, it was passion for my newly born son. What began with a desire to write about the sensual nature of pregnancy and childbirth was booted much further by my imagination, into complex weavings of love and fantasy, of addiction, desire and its potential for deception.
All artists tell stories, whether through visuals, sound or words, but emotional resonance is universal. Do we measure our success by how well we capture this emotion? And whom do we measure it against? Perhaps creating art really is like having a child. We pluck at our heart and give it to the world in the hope it might make it stronger, cast light on people’s lives. But once that heart-felt creation is out there, it’s no longer ours, but part of someone else’s story – the reader free to draw their own conclusions, good or bad, the child free to make his or her own way.