Written by Sara Marshall-Ball
Photography has always been a strong presence in my life. I put this mainly down to my mother, who has meticulously catalogued my entire existence from the moment of birth, paying particular attention to every bad haircut and ridiculous outfit along the way – though my Dad, who proudly displays a photograph of me sprawled out asleep on my bedroom floor at the age of nine on his dresser, is not immune from blame either. This is hardly a unique experience, particularly now – as a species we are obsessed with recording, saving, holding on, as if it is possible to clutch at moments of your life and preserve them until the end of time. It had been observed many times that we now seem to have reached the point where moments are deemed not to have happened unless they are recorded somewhere, preferably on social media – the modern equivalent of the age old philosophical question, “If a tree falls over in the forest and no one mentions it on Facebook, did it really happen?” sums this up pretty neatly – and it has been said that every 2 minutes we take more photos than humanity took in the whole of the 1800s.
So it’s not surprising, given their prevalence in our day to day lives, that so many writers use photographs as a source of inspiration. There is some debate about whether this is a good practice to get into – there is no doubt that it can lead to one-dimensional descriptions, flat characterisation, and so on – but as a way to spark imagination I find few things to be as effective; and there must be a reason that there are so many writing groups which focus their exercises around writing responses to photos.
While I was doing my MA at the University of Sussex, a few of us decided to try an exercise which involved swapping photos that meant something to us, and writing a story as a response to someone else’s photo. I liked the extra layer involved in this: it wasn’t just responding to a static image taken by an anonymous archivist, it was spinning a story out of a real moment from a real person’s life. It forced me to think, not just about the image in front of me, but about the context of the image: who were the people? What was going on in their lives at the time the photo was taken? And, most importantly: why did my classmate feel that this was a photo worth sharing?
I was given a photo of a mother and daughter standing outside a house, surrounded by a haze of lavender. I only have the vaguest memory of the actual photo now – I never kept a copy – but the story that resulted (and has barely changed, despite a year of rigorous editing) was the prologue to my novel Hush.
At that point I had no intention of turning the piece into a longer story. I had recently come to the end of writing my first novel (the one which is still untitled and resides in the darkest recesses in my hard drive), and I had been planning to edit that before I started work on something new. It had taken me five years to complete the first draft, so my feelings about the prospect of leaping into another long project were mixed – on the one hand, I was sick of looking at the first one and grateful to have an excuse to do something else; on the other hand, leaving it unfinished felt like an admission of failure. (Getting Hush published effectively put an end to my worries on that front.)
After the torturous final phase of writing the first book, the relief of switching to a new project is hard to describe. Suddenly being able to write any scene which comes to mind, with no worry about how it might fit into the overall story or whether it’s doing a specific job; not to mention the joy of exploring new characters, finding out who they are and what they have to tell you. There is undeniable satisfaction in bringing a large work to completion, but I’m not sure it can compare to the initial stages of feeling your way into a new story and finding out what it’s going to be about.
Right from the beginning, the house in the photograph felt like it dominated the story (though I’m not sure what happened in my mind to turn the nice, sunny family home in the picture into what it becomes in Hush). I always felt like my goal in writing the book was to find out what had happened there: I started with a general sense that a family had lived there and something had happened to make them leave, but I never knew what that was, and it was only through exploring Connie and Lily’s relationship that I found out. I don’t know whether I was obsessed with the house because they were, or vice versa, but it seemed as if they struggled to detach themselves from it, even when they knew it was making them unhealthy.
This seems to be the effect of writing from a specific image, on me at least: it feels as if the whole novel inevitably stems from one moment in time. I had no particular intention of writing a split narrative, but I found that I kept getting pulled back into the past, needing to find out what had happened there. The fact that I was writing from an image of someone else’s childhood added to this: all childhood photographs tend to invoke a feeling of nostalgia, and I think it was this that triggered the sense of looking back to find the story in the past, rather than travelling forward as most stories tend to do.
I have also wondered whether it was writing from this image that was the initial trigger for the book’s central theme: silence. There is something very powerful about looking at an image where the subjects are looking straight out at you, almost as if they are trying to communicate something without being able to tell you what it is. I don’t know whether Lily’s inability to speak is related to working from this first image, but I do know that I never had an active intention to write a silent character; I just found, when I began to write her, that she was unable to explain what had happened to her. I was lucky, really, to discover that there was something worth writing about: I didn’t have a clue what it might be when I started writing.
Read Victoria’s review of Hush in our Fiction section.
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