After I wrote Submission, a process that took approximately twenty years, an agent who couldn’t find me a publisher explained that, “No one wants to read about the Middle East.” I was living in Hong Kong at the time, so I decided to set a novel there.
I tried to invent a plot, and drew elaborate charts of how the characters would relate to each other, but I was spinning my wheels. Then one day out walking on the Peak, I came upon a large house in the green wilderness that could only be reached on foot. It was available for rent, so I was able to look inside. It would have been marvelously inconvenient to live in. We didn’t move there, but it got my next novel going. The Daughters of Henry Wong will be published in two weeks. A lot of the action takes place in “Wong Castle,” as the fictional version is called. One early reader has told me that the house becomes a character in the story.
I finished Daughters ten years ago. I know more about the way invention happens now. What seems to get my imagination going is either a first sentence or a “situation” or both. That house among the trees on the side of the Peak was a situation. A Caucasian American lived there with his glamorous Chinese wife, their three-year-old twin sons, her widowed father and a slightly spooky housekeeper.
The first sentence came to me as most of them do – without warning, like a bird landing at an open window. It looks at you and you at it for a couple of seconds, and then it flies away. You must write the sentence down immediately or you will lose it. “There are no secrets in China,” the beginning of Daughters read. I knew it was the right way to begin, even if I didn’t know how to go on. The house is clearly full of secrets. How does that work? And how does China work? Hmm.
I finished Daughters more than a decade ago. When I sat down more recently to write “On Being Surprised” for the Sydney Writers Festival, another kind of bird flew in the window. I found myself composing a story as well as an essay – and was able to give a little demonstration of the way invention happens. Many readers ask writers where their ideas come from. They come from a writer’s subconscious. Writing a novel is a form of dreaming. We all know that. But how they introduce themselves is interesting.