The Snake-Stone

All the time I was walking I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for my real mother coming up from the other side in the cold and the dark. I wondered whether she’d been scared. I wondered why she’d had to do it.

Well, that was what I’d come for. There wasn’t any going back now.

In an unexpected way, the idea for The Snake-Stone came from one of my other novels, Dear Nobody. I was asked to dramatise Dear Nobody for the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and one day in rehearsals Sean McLevy, the actor playing Chris the teenage hero, said to me “There’s a line you give me in this play that reminds me of a week in my life.”

“What’s the line?” I asked, already fascinated. “And what was the week?”

“The line is ‘I’m nothing to my mother now. I’m a speck of dust, and I’ve blown away.’ And the week was when I took a break from college to go in search of my mother. I’m adopted, you see.”

Now he had me hooked. When I was a teenager I used to think I was adopted, and I’ve since found out that many teenagers have this feeling. Perhaps it’s because at that age we’re changing so much, but our parents aren’t. They don’t seem to be able to understand us any more, and surely if they were our real parents they would! We can’t understand them, and we can’t imagine how we can possibly have come from them. Surely our real parents must have been much more exciting! Something like that.

Anyway, I’m not adopted, nor do I have adopted children, but the idea of searching for your own history fascinated me. Everyone has a right to his or her own past. I knew with absolute certainty that this was what I wanted to write my next book about. I never go round searching for an idea for something to write about. That’s not the way ideas come. They just happen, and there’s something so true about them that somehow they won’t let go, even when I’m in the middle of writing something else.

So I talked to Sean about his experience, and he told me how as a 22 year old student he’d gone to the adoption society and they’d given him all the details they’d had about his natural mother, and how he and his friend had set off ‘like a couple of detectives’ to the big city where his mother used to live, to see what else they could discover about her. They gave themselves a week, and as it turned out, they never actually found her.

I decided that my main character would be much younger – too young to be given this kind of information. I also decided that he would make the journey on his own, so that it would truly be a voyage of personal discovery. And though at first I thought I might write about making this young character a girl I decided against it, for many reasons, my main one being that I wanted to write the mother’s story too. So I was writing two stories that would weave round each other, and the hero of one was fifteen-year-old James, searching for his past, and the hero of the other was fifteen year-old Elizabeth, who had given birth to him. He would live in a big town, and she would be a country girl living in a Pennine valley very like my own. In this way I was getting right away from Sean’s story.

I knew I was going to be writing about something very important, about belonging, and I knew also that it was a very delicate area. The last thing I wanted was for people to be hurt by my book. I thought a great deal about what it would mean to be adopted, and to give up a baby for adoption, and to adopt. All three are special situations, and I needed to put myself right inside the experience of other people. That’s what being a novelist is all about. Now I was ready to set off on the journey of writing the book.

Yet, soon after starting it, I stalled.

This was a great disappointment to me, as I knew I wanted very much to write the book, yet I couldn’t get moving on it. Eventually I realised that it was the central character James who was holding me back. I couldn’t actually make myself believe in a boy who would just head off like that without telling anyone; and if I couldn’t believe in him, why should my readers? I knew I would have to develop his personality, and I decided that in order to do what he did he would have to be the sort of boy who was obsessive about things, who just wouldn’t let go of something until he’d sorted it out. Musicians are like that, and sportspeople.

Sport. How about that… the sort of boy who would kick a football into the net a hundred times a night? No, not a team sport, something very personal and individual, that would require the same sort of dedication but that would leave him on his own with his determination to succeed, and everything that came with that, the triumphs and disappointments and failures. Something dangerous perhaps, because James would be facing danger on his lonely journey. Something that requires great skill and courage, and which is also rather poetic, because James’ quest is a romantic one. And then I thought of a slow-motion film I’d watched about diving, and I knew I’d found my sport.

In my valley there’s a young man who used to be the European junior diving champion, and I went to talk to him. I have to confess now that nothing in the world would induce me to climb up to a ten metre board and jump off it into a little patch of water. But the more I talked to Simon Jackson the more I understood about the sheer art and precision of diving, and the way practising takes over your life, because one false move can cost you points, or a championship, or even your life itself.

That was all I needed. I felt I knew James now, I understood him to be a boy who can drive himself to the very edge of what is bearable, and I knew I could send him off on his journey into the unknown. All this gave the story another dimension, gave me a way of linking the sort of person James is with the sort of person his mother is, bringing the past and the present together.

That’s why the book is dedicated to Sean McLevy and Simon Jackson. It isn’t their story at all, James is nothing like either of them, nor is his background at all similar to theirs, yet without Sean and Simon the book could never have been written. And in the end, it isn’t about a boy in search of his roots, or striving for a championship. My American publisher describes it as a kind of love story, and in a very fundamental way it is. But for James and Elizabeth it’s really about facing themselves, their real selves. It’s about growing up.

A long time ago I used to be a social worker and I worked with adopted children, couples who wanted to adopt and women and girls who need to place their babies for adoption. I haven’t based The Snake-stone on any of them, and yet, in a way, they’re all there.

The ‘secret valley’ that James explores to find his mother is actually Edale, in the Peak District, and the village where Claire lives is actually a mixture of Hayfield and Little Hayfield.

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