When, as a teenager, I went up to my father’s studio, carrying a cup of coffee for him and a copy of The Observer for me, I set down the coffee and paused for a moment to look beyond the headline that had caught my attention. My father asked me to hold the pose and I eventually stood there for a couple of hours in my pyjamas and dressing gown. The headline is long forgotten but there is a permanent record of the moment, a rear-view portrait of the artist’s son, which now hangs in his grandson’s house.
Although my father’s day job was running a woollen mill that wove his very popular fashion fabrics that were transformed into haute couture garments in London, Paris and New York, at the weekends he worked off his creative head of steam in the sketches, watercolours, pastels and oils he produced, exhibited and sometimes sold. One day, working up a watercolour on a painting trip to the picturesque fishing village of St Abbs, he sold the painting straight off the easel with the purchaser carrying it, still damp, to dry off in his holiday cottage that, by chance had featured in the painting. As I write this, I can look up at a pastel of our garden under snow in 1956. It’s so real and so full of memories that I want to stand up and walk right into it.
The sights and smells and even the sounds of his studio, as the palette knife gathered up oil paint and placed it unerringly on the canvas can all be conjured up, more or less at will. Wordsworth, in his famous Preface, is often quoted as saying poetry is the recollection of emotion in tranquillity. However, when I had to study Wordsworth in depth, I realised he said rather more than that. He not only recalled but, as he was writing down his verses, recreated the emotions he had felt at the time. I believe this is one key to great writing. When the writer inhabits the world he is describing and feels its pain, then the prose flows hot and strong.
Like Bill Maguire, my novel’s narrator, I spent several months in Roubaix and went swimming in the local piscine. Imagine how I felt the last time I was there and my friends took me to the new gallery of modern art which, for obvious reasons, is called La Piscine. It was not only déjà vu for quite a few of the artists whose paintings I had seen decades earlier but also for the very building in which they are now displayed.
Writing Rembrandt Sings, I was able to summon up many art and painting related memories and shape them to add feeling and realism to the text. So much so that, re-reading the book, I not only access the places and events that I used in the story but multiple layers of memory stretching back, and back, and back again. These were my building blocks for the scenes against which my characters acted out their own stories.