The Old, Old Story

A few years ago I got bogged down in the book I was writing, Fever Crumb.  It had a very long and complicated story with multiple points-of-view and a lot of flashbacks, and countless bits of backstory to be explained.  Whatever I did with it, I ended up with characters sitting each other down and explaining great chunks of plot to each other in long, wordy monologues.

So I gave up on it, consigned all existing drafts to the dustbin, and set to work on Something Completely Different.  It eventually ended up being published as No Such Thing As Dragons, which is just about to come out in paperback in the UK, and as a hardback in the US (it's one of the books I'll be talking about at Edinburgh this week).  At the time I wrote it I didn't have publication in mind: I just wanted to write something that wasn't Fever Crumb.  Fever Crumb was long, so Dragons would be short; Fever Crumb had crowds of characters, so I decided the new book would have very few; Fever Crumb kept getting clogged by long speeches, so the hero of this story would be mute: that ought to stop him banging on too much...

I also tried to think of the simplest, most basic story I could.

We are often told that there are only five stories in the world, or only seven, and that all our books, plays and films are a variation on one or other of them.  Some Hollywood writers go further and say that there are only two.  ( 'A man comes to town', and 'a man leaves town'.)  But I think there is one story which is so fundamental that it's probably an echo of the first story ever told.  That's the one I tried to draw on for No Such Thing As Dragons.  It's the story of a small community being threatened, stalked and picked off one by one by a malevolent outside force; and of the hero who eventually arises to save them.  It's Beowulf and St George, but it's also Jaws and Alien.

And to our Pliestocene ancestors it must have been the stuff of everyday life.  Then, small clans of hunter gatherers would have made attractive prey for the bears and big cats with which they shared their world.  It's easy to imagine them clustered around their fires, swapping accounts of the dreadful creatures which had come back again and again to carry off vulnerable members of the group, and of how they were eventually defeated.  The hunters who tracked the predator to its lair and killed it would have been the first literary heroes; forerunners to Odysseus, King Arthur, and that Jamie Lee Curtis out of Halloween.  And as human societies developed and the threat from predators became less immediate we still kept looking over our shoulders in the dark, and glancing uneasily into the shadows beyond the light of our lamps.  We no longer lived in such close proximity to bears and sabre-tooths, so we invented proxy predators to haunt the tales we told; dragons and demons; vampires and xenomorphs.

My first plan was to tell the story of a small band of prehistoric folk getting whittled down by some fell beast - a bear or a sabre-tooth tiger, but one so cunning and so seemingly malevolent that they start to regard it as an evil spirit.  However, that kept coming up much too bleak, and as I turned it over in my mind I was reminded of how, in the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, it was believed that dragons haunted the high peaks of the Alps.  And that sparked off another memory, of a story I'd toyed with one day while walking up the Old Man of Coniston*, about dragon-hunters setting off to work on some lonely mountain.  Not St George-ish, knights-in-shining-armour sort of dragon hunters, though; ordinary, flawed, cowardly people who were only in it for the money.  And not a talking, fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragon but something hungry and primitive; a real animal.  

I took another walk to think it through, then came home and wrote the first draft of No Such Thing... very quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that it completely freed me up and I was able to go back to Fever Crumb, clear out all the dead wood and get to work again, so that's the book that ended up being published first. But I'm still fond of No Such Thing...  It's very different from my other books (although it has a few themes in common with Here Lies Arthur) and if you come to it expecting WOMEishness you may be disappointed: it's really just meant to be a children's book of a slightly old fashioned sort, and I think I'd have enjoyed it when I was nine or ten.  It also features some illustrations by yours truly, some of which I think are quite nice, and a handsome new cover by Mr Wyatt.  I hope you like it.

*Which is a mountain in the Lake District, not an actual old man.  That would be weird.