The world’s weather has turned truly operatic of late. This year’s hurricane season is turning into one for the record books, not to mention earthquakes and typhoons galore. This started the Prime Writers thinking about natural disasters in fiction. They feature strongly, from the storm of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to the eruption of Vesuvius in Robert Harris’ Pompeii. The chaos and fear that they produce strips characters back to their basic essences – and can have a similar effect on writers. Here, four Prime Writers discuss the how they go about representing monumental natural catastrophes, and how the process affects them personally.
Although fiction is just that – fiction – I do love it when I read a book and can tell that an element of truth pulsates between the words. When I know that the author actually experienced the thing they’re creating. That’s how it was for me when I wrote Maria in the Moon back in 2007, just after the worst UK floods on record. Fresh from losing our home, car, and belongings – and against a backdrop of hammering and drilling – I wrote the book at a rickety desk my husband had put together, in a horrible rented place I couldn’t wait to leave.
Something so huge as the force of floodwater can only be faced in a trickle of acceptance. Such vast destruction is hard to understand. To deal with. But writing helped me. I poured my emotions into the story. Used my rage at having lost so much to fire me. I’m reminded of these feelings when I now read the feisty, caustic character I created in Catherine, a woman also having lost just about everything. She personified the storm around me. The story began as a short one, called Hurricane Katrina, both after Catherine’s moniker when she volunteers at Flood Crisis, and as a nod to the even bigger devastation witnessed in New Orleans in 2005.
By the time I’d finished the novel, we were home again. The walls had been rebuilt. The floors, wires, doors and windows were new. The mould and damp had gone. But I was different. I captured that change in the novel. Writing it rescued me more than any canoe carrying bricks to houses so people could raise their furniture out of the water. More than any builder promising to repair my home. I wish never to go through such a thing again. But I would not change it. I’m the writer I am today because of it.
Maria in the Moon is published by Orenda
Staying with the watery element, Rachel Malik discusses how she imagined the fictional flooding of Winchester in Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, and how the inundation worked as a metaphor for her characters’ precarious situation.
There is a flood in my novel Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, a big one. The centre of Winchester, where the crucial trial takes place, is only navigable by boat. Characters arrive at court in dinghies and clamber across planks, the basement cells are unusable and the prisoner must be confined in an upstairs office. Yet no one drowns or comes to any physical harm. I don’t why I first decided to flood Winchester in 1963, except that while I was redrafting the novel I was watching news about the Somerset Levels. The trial was the climax of the novel and rain had always been a feature, distracting the accused – one of my two heroines – introducing the possibility of slips and leaks. But a severe flood increased the stakes and I now feel that the impulse was a good one – even though it was difficult to write. First, the setting is no longer quite realist: there are multiple reflections, new perspectives, the town is largely emptied, quietened – a suggestion of the eerie. The trial is when my two main characters are truly in jeopardy, vulnerable, the odds are stacked against them. They are in a town far from their home (they live in the remote Cornish countryside), their lives exposed to the force of the law and the eyes of the press. Introducing the flood shifted the odds just a little in their favour. For all the slippery uncertainties, everyone must now sink or swim, metaphorically speaking, according to different rules. The question becomes not just whether Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves will cope in court but how they and the other characters will manage the water.
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is published by Penguin Figtree.
When I decided to dramatize the monster hurricane which destroyed the Florida Keys in 1935, I was daunted by several things, the largest of which was this: how could I convey the fury of the storm, which stripped the very topsoil from the island and left not a tree standing, with only words? Readers these days are used to the full spectacle of 3D CGI. How was I to compete with that, using only black symbols on a page?
I felt competent to deal with the timeline and stages of the storm, but I wanted the reader to feel like they had been through the spin cycle of a washing machine. So I did the only thing an author can do, short of flying into the eye: I used my imagination. I felt a wind that would knock me off my feet and turn everyday objects into lethal missiles; I saw a towering wall of water, eighteen feet high, bearing down on me; I heard the screams of timbers as the storm shelter around me disintegrated. Always I had to bear in mind that real people had fought to survive this beast—a few succeeded, but most did not.
The very use of the word ‘beast’ is interesting. This storm was like no other in history; none like it has struck since until Irma, a few weeks ago. It seemed to have a personality. It toyed with the watchers, staying still for a few hours and then veering off in an unexpected direction. For the people of Heron Key, especially the character of Selma, it brought out their primal connection with the forces of nature. To Selma, the storm was sent by angry spirits, to punish the people of the town for their many and varied transgressions. It was an expression of anger, and its terrible destructive power would be a cleansing force. The storm became a character in the book—the only one out of my control. For an author, that is truly scary.
What’s a good way to kill a character? I’d already done knives to the death in my previous psychological thrillers. For my next novel, I wanted a more natural touch. So what better inspiration than the view from my study at the top of the house?
There lies the perfect murderer: a massive cliff made of Jurassic red stone. At first sight it might appear scenic but in fact, it which breaks off into huge clumps – almost on a weekly basis – threatening to kill anyone who avoids the DANGER! KEEP OUT! signs below.
My writing has changed dramatically since leaving London and moving to the south west coast some eight years ago. Instead of walking down high streets, my characters now deal with lashing storms, missing kayaks, lifeboat station call outs and of course eroding cliffs which, in real life, recently resulted in a lamp post hanging upside down, Narnia fashion. In fact, the author RD Delderfeld’s old home is, as I write, teetering precariously on the edge. It would be all too deliciously easy for a character to fall – or be pushed.
‘The Dead Ex’ (to be published next June by Penguin Viking) opens with a news item from the Daily Telegraph in which a body has been discovered at the foot of a cliff. According to a police spokesman, ‘No further details are available’. I can’t give away the plot but I can tell you that I wouldn’t have thought of the twist if I didn’t live in a town where natural disasters are a fact of life. Now excuse me while I go and put on my life jacket.