What You Wish For is a book about a group of people who believe in aliens. But it’s not a book about aliens – or UFOs, or abductions, or little grey men – even though on the surface it’s a thriller featuring a search for a missing woman who is convinced that she can communicate with extra-terrestrials and is set in a world of UFO-fanatics.
As Stephen King says in On Writing, most good books have themes, but the story should always come first…and as you are writing, the theme will emerge. This is exactly what happened when I wrote What You Wish For.
I started writing this book waaaay back in 1997 and it was originally going to be called Staring Into Space. Back then, aliens were trendy. The X Files was the biggest programme on TV, that Levi’s ad featuring ‘Spaceman’ by Babylon Zoo had recently been a massive hit, and the media was full of stories about alien autopsies and crop circles. Pre-millennial madness perhaps. One Sunday afternoon when I was walking on the East Hill in Hastings, where I lived, I bumped in to my best friend from primary school. I hadn’t seen him for years. We went for a drink and he told me, excitedly, that he had recently been to Roswell to see where the US Government kept the bodies of the aliens that had crash-landed in the New Mexico desert. His eyes burned with the conviction of a religious zealot.
This sparked the idea for a novel, and after reading up on what UFO-watchers believe, I started writing it. And as I worked on the novel, I realised the theme of the book I was writing: belief.
Because She Loves Me was inspired by a number of events that happened to me.
Firstly, like the protaganist Andrew, I suffered a detached retina a couple of years ago, and spent two weeks sleeping upright with a gas bubble in my eye, imbibing a cocktail of drugs and wondering if I would ever recover my sight. It was scary. Fortunately, thanks to the surgeons at my local hospital, I recovered. But the experience, including the horrible follow-up laser surgery, has made me slightly obsessed with my eyes.
Eyes feature heavily in Because She Loves Me – but to say more would be a spoiler…
Secondly, there has been my experience of jealousy. When I was at university I had a girlfriend who made my life hell because a green-eyed monster lived inside her. She accused me of fancying every woman I met; she got angry if an attractive woman appeared on TV; she demanded that I break off contact with my female friends. Going into a lecture, I squirmed and sweated if a good-looking girl sat next to me, in case my girlfriend found out. Being a nineteen-year-old idiot, I let her get away with it for quite a long time before the relationship burned itself out.
Years later, I lived with a woman who wasn’t jealous but who told me, after I broke my leg and was trapped in our upstairs flat for weeks, that this situation made her happy.
‘I like knowing exactly where you are all the time,’ she said. ‘And what you’re doing.’
And I have experienced jealousy myself. I know what it feels like when that darkness fills you up and devours good sense, filling you up with paranoid rage and fear. It’s the most irrational and nasty emotion and I’m happy to say it hasn’t afflicted me for a long time.
All of this combined to make me want to write a book about sexual jealousy and how destructive it can be. And, of course, that original idea grew into something much darker…
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In The Magpies, a young couple called Jamie and Kirsty move into their dream home together. The other people in the building seem nice – but then everything starts to go horribly, terrifyingly wrong…
The Magpies is not purely a work of the imagination. Back in the 1990s, I left university and moved into a flat in St Leonards-on-Sea, in East Sussex on the south coast of England, with my then-girlfriend. As in the book, it was a ground floor flat in a large Victorian house, with high ceilings, large sash windows that rattled in the wind and bright, sunny rooms. This flat was where I wrote my early novels, spending a lot of my twenties locked away indoors pursuing my dream of being a published writer.
There was a middle-aged woman on the top floor – we didn’t see much of her – and a young guy above us who, at times, seemed to have a motorbike and a drum kit in his flat. But you expect noise when you live in a flat.
Beneath us, in the basement – or garden – flat were a married couple in their early thirties. I won’t use their real names, just in case they see this and track me down, but they are burned into my memory more than any other neighbours I’ve had.
She was an acquaintance of my girlfriend’s mum, and had a face, as Les Dawson would have said, like a bulldog chewing a wasp. I am pretty sure I never saw a smile crack her face. She worked as a nurse in a care home for the elderly, a detail I borrowed for Lucy in the novel.
He was a great soft-bellied hulk, with what used to be called a crew cut and eyes like a great white shark’s. He was a man of few words and had an air of simmering violence about him. He didn’t smile much either. He mostly lumbered around the garden, watering it at night during the hosepipe ban.
My girlfriend lived in the flat on her own for a while I was at university. On her first night in the flat she was playing music on a tiny cassette player while unpacking. No, she wasn’t playing it loudly. Shortly after she pressed play, the man from downstairs knocked on her door and asked, while staring at her chest, for her to turn the music down as his wife had a headache. Feeling intimidated by this huge man and not wanting to annoy her new neighbours, she obliged.
After I moved in, the trouble really started. Mostly, it was constant complaints about noise. They used to send us letters in which they described the noises that came from our flat. One memorable letter complained about the noise of ‘the toilet brush thrashing about the pan’. They wrote that they could hear me laughing (‘my boring guffaw’, they wrote). They made it very clear that they could hear everything we did – and I mean everything. I feel like I should point out that we were definitely not excessively noisy.
Then we started receiving hoax parcels. In those days, book clubs were popular, and we received a parcel of books from BCA, the biggest, containing such classics as Nancy Friday’s Women in Love, a pre-Fifty Shades of Grey work of true life erotica. We got BCA to send us the order form. The handwriting matched the writing on the complaint letters.
Cigarette butts were often shoved under our door. They constantly banged on the ceiling with a broom. Every time we put music on, they would start playing music much louder so we could hear it over ours. They were always lurking around, looking miserable and intimidating. Although they never threatened us, they made us feel on edge all the time, and we were blissfully relieved when we moved out after buying our own place.
Later, I started to imagine how far the harassment could have gone. Could your neighbours wreck your life if they set their minds to it? The seed of The Magpies was sewn. I wanted to write a scary novel that didn’t contain vampires or demons, but real monsters – the monsters who lurk in our society, causing stress and damage, and worse, to everyone around them.
And I tried to imagine what I would have done if my own nightmare neighbour situation had got a lot worse. How would I have fought back? Would I have fought, or run? I wanted to write a book about someone who is driven to the edge of despair, to act out of character, because of growing provocation. Many of the situations in the novel happened in my real life, but they are taken to an extreme in The Magpies.
I think everybody has had either a nightmare neighbour, or colleague, or some other acquaintance; the kind of person who you wish would cease to exist. Crammed together in cities and towns, in flats and small houses, we are forced to deal with other people. They say that ‘hell is other people’. In The Magpies, I have taken that saying to its extreme.
I hope readers enjoy it far more than I enjoyed living upstairs from the couple from hell.
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