When acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin died earlier this year, a quote of hers was circulated on social media.
Speaking to The Paris Review, she said: “Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances.
“We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognise what you did not know before.”
This sums up perfectly why I write. Questions propel me into new projects. With my novel The Big Lie, I wanted to ask, what would life be like for young British girls now if the Nazis had won World War II? With Mother Tongue, how do people find joy after terrible tragedy?
As Le Guin puts it, I wanted to work out what I did not know before.
But what is more fascinating is that my initial question, the conscious motivation for me to put pen to paper, usually masks a deeper, more personal anxiety.
When I come to the second-from-last chapter, it will hit me – oh! That’s what I’m trying to pick apart! Sometimes this is a wonderful discovery. Sometimes it leads to much-needed soul-searching.
Hearing a fascinating description of an 18th century scientific demonstration launched me into writing, The Electrical Venus. As a means to showing-off the powers of static electricity, natural philosophers of the time would position a beautiful woman on an insulated block, charge her with electricity and then invite men to kiss her so they could feel the zap.
I wanted to know: who was this woman on the block? And also, do we describe modern love in terms of electricity – “We had a spark!” “There was a charge between us!” – because of this early experiment?
With the book almost finished, I began to see that I was actually interrogating my own relationship with science. As a child, I had been obsessed with the subject but had not pursued it and this, I realised, was a deep regret. Had I believed then that science wasn’t a suitable subject for a girl?
The reasons we write are closely aligned with why we read. We choose books which speak to our interests, but it is a great book that can reach out to us with its cover and its blurb, and then lead us to answer unexpected questions.
Sometimes this is a wonderful experience, sometimes challenging, but never is it not worthwhile.
Julie Mayhew is the author of Red Ink (shortlisted for the 2014 Branford Boase Award), The Big Lie(winner of the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History) and the critically acclaimed Mother Tongue.She also writes for the stage and for film, and has been twice nominated for Best Original Drama at the BBC Audio Drama Awards for her radio plays -including a 2016 recognition for the The Electrical Venus, the drama on which this book is based. Julie grew up in Peterborough and originally trained as a journalist, then as an actress, before turning to writing because she couldn’t find enough brilliant roles for girls.
www.juliemayhew.co.uk Twitter: @juliemayhew Instagram: JulieMayhew