Why I Wrote Sheep

cropped-photo-on-2010-11-23-at-21-28.jpgIn 1991, I went to stay with a friend who was renovating a dilapidated farmhouse in Wales. It was a mammoth task, overwhelming, and he was floundering. Leaking septic tank, internal walls literally running with water, busted roof: it was basically falling down, a terrible mess inside and out. Poor man, he told me how some days he just sat with his head in his hands and was aghast at what he had taken on. The house was called Ty-Gwyneth, and for complicated family reasons his mother had bought it on the understanding that he would bring it up to a saleable condition over the winter, a decision everyone involved in was starting to regret.

The landscape was astonishing: cliffs like the edge of the world, fields as far as the eye could see, and sheep (of course) meandering about everywhere, blank and indifferent and alien.

There was a neighbour to the property, a sheep farmer. He was a handsome man in his fifties (at a guess), polite, but oddly unknowable. I had one brief conversation with him: he was off, he said, to visit his brother who lived nearby. He visited every Sunday and they had dinner together. Apart from this, my friend told me, he had no social contacts of any kind. No wife, no other family. He had no radio or television, read no newspapers: he was, essentially, from another era altogether. And I was absolutely fascinated by him.

Some distant scandal attached to the farmhouse my friend was doing up: a policeman had committed suicide there some time ago. Everything just started to click together in my head.

I had wanted for some time to write a book like The Shining, but different. I knew more about what I didn’t want than what I did: I didn’t want any kind of supernatural events, I didn’t want monsters or werewolves or vampires or ghosts. I wanted to write a book about fear, what it feels like, how it corrodes reason, how it drives people mad. As it turned out, I needed one vaguely supernatural thing to happen: a character needed to have some kind of equivocal communication with the dead ex-resident of the house, but this didn’t bother me too much – it could just as easily have been a hallucination. Every other element in the story was explicable in ordinary human terms and did not require any supernatural thing to occur.

I had read a fair bit of horror by this time, and I was amazed at how ineffective much of it was. Is anyone truly frightened of vampires, werewolves, giant crabs? The books I read seemed like elaborate fairy stories, grotesque and fanciful to be sure, but not remotely frightening: a million miles away from the real fears that I and everyone I knew had – fear of the dark, of failure, of loneliness, fear of ruin and shame, and strongest of all, for me anyway, fear of madness, my own and that of others. Fear of the self. The same fears, of course, that drive The Shining.

The other thing I was preoccupied with at this time (I still am) was religion. I was brought up Roman Catholic by devout parents: I remember a school chemistry lesson in which we were shown a short film that explained that the water molecule, H20, was a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. My father had lapsed: my parents had had five children closely spaced and, on a teacher’s salary, more would have been ruinous. The Vatican had recently published a Papal Encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’, which forcefully restated the church’s stance on the evils of contraception. My father lost his faith, and it tormented him until he died.

My initial impulse was to write a sort of satire on religious belief, but the satire morphed into something else. Without giving away too much of the story, I wanted one of my characters to create a completely new religion, with new rituals, but based wholly on Biblical texts. I wanted to show up the selective nature of Christianity, how it picks and chooses the bits of The Bible that suit its agenda, and ignores the rest. My character would do the same, but with different bits of text, creating a monstrous and murderous new rite.

All of these things fused together to create Sheep. I wrote parts of it in a caravan in a field in Wales, with the sheep blundering about outside all day and night. To this day, I don’t like to get too close to them. (Not that I’m scared of them or anything…)

Ebooks (Sheep, etc.)

There’ve been a fair few enquiries about this lately. I would just like to report that the matter of ebooks is in hand, and steps are being taken. Plans are in development, and preparations are in an active mode. Talks are said to be ‘at an advanced stage’, emails have been sent (and, indeed, received), and there is generally an increasing sense that further progress can be expected.

Sheep is likely to be the first title, followed by Virgins and Martyrs, A Sickness of the Soul and Methods of Confinement. Sheep should, all things being well, be available by March 2012.


‘What’s it about?’

It would be fair to say I struggle with plot. I really do. One of the reasons is that I just don’t care that much about it. It’s never what really interests me.

Some of my favourite books don’t have plots. Obvious examples would include Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, of course, but also more recent examples. Independence Day (Richard Ford), Hawksmoor (Peter Ackroyd), Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), just to take examples at random. These have no plot, in the sense of a sequence of events and situations that lead consecutively to an end. They just give you some life, some vivid representation of what it feels like to be alive.

Whenever I read anything, I am always uncomfortably aware of the clanking plot machinery going on in the background. I just had to abandon reading a bestselling thriller by ‘one of our leading crime writers’ because I could see, not only exactly where it was going, but that that was all it was going to do. Characterisation, description, mood, atmosphere, sense of place: nope, just the story. There might have been some pallid pleasure in finding out if I was guessing right or not about the trajectory, but, ultimately who cares? I could invent my own ending. Who cares what such a bad author wants the story to be? And yet clearly, a great many people do.

I ploughed all the way to the end of a Jeffery Archer novel once, in the vain hope of working out what other people see in him. There were four ‘characters’, all of them simple cardboard cutouts with names attached to them. One of them was going to win an election, and I imagine you were supposed to be busy guessing which one. But again, how could anyone care which of four interchangeably one-dimensional characters ultimately won? The author clearly didn’t: they were simply a means to his tiresome end, and were no more than shop dummies with different coloured suits on. (I think the blue one won, but I couldn’t swear to it.)

There is a theory that men go for plot, women go for character. (A creative writing teacher recently reported that one of his male students had told him he would ‘fill in the characters later’.) I suspect there’s more to it than that, though. People go to books for a huge variety of reasons, and plot is just one of them. But film and TV have prioritised plot over everything else, to the extent that ‘what is it about?’ now can only mean: ‘what is the story?’ I think that’s a shame. Book are about life, and life hasn’t got a plot, it just goes on for a bit, there’s some shouting and drinking and so on, and then it, sort of, stops (round about page 235, just after the chase but before the shock twist that makes sense of it all). Plot is just a lie we tell ourselves that things have an order, a logic, a (deep breath) meaning. Well guess what, they don’t.

I read an interview with Keanu Reeves once. He was having what appeared to be a very, very bad day. ‘What is your new film about?’ he was asked. Long Pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu. ‘Tell me about your next film.’ Long pause. ‘It’s about the human condition,’ says Keanu, at which point he gets up and starts, slowly and gently, to bang his head against the window. But that’s my answer from henceforth. ‘What’s it about?’ ‘It’s about the human condition.’ End of.