A number of years ago, my mother introduced me and my sister to Margaret Thatcher. It was a surprise to hear that the former Prime Minister was paying a visit to a hospital ward in Coleraine, but it wasn’t the most unexpected event that had taken place in those few days. My mother had suffered a stroke, had witnessed monkeys swing down through skylights, overalled mechanics emerge from under the bed. When she suddenly nudged me, hard, with her elbow, and nodded towards the door of her hospital room and announced, with awe, the arrival of the former PM, my sister and I exchanged worried looks. ‘Mum…’ I began, but Mother was having none of it.
‘Say hello!’ she hissed at me, and in a louder, more formal voice, in the direction of the illusory Mrs. Thatcher announced, ‘This is my daughter.’
‘Mum…’ I tried again but no, in my mother’s eyes to ignore the visitor was the height of bad manners.
‘Say hello to the woman!’ she insisted, ‘She’s standing there, waiting.’
‘Hello, Mrs. Thatcher,’ I said, without enthusiasm, looking towards the door.
‘Shake her hand!’ continued our mother, with another poke in the ribs, so I took a step towards the door, and reached out my hand to where I imagined the hand of the fanciful Mrs. Thatcher to be.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said, which was a lie. Then, thinking she would be mollified, I returned to the bedside but Mother’s face was a picture.
‘The oul’ witch!’ she said, still staring at the door. ‘She turned on her heel and walked out.’ And so I was snubbed by an imaginary Margaret Thatcher, which was somehow worse than being snubbed by the actual person, since I’d made a fool of myself by offering to shake her non-existent hand.
Our mother, as I’ve said, was very ill at the time, as, so it happens, was Mrs. Thatcher herself, and I must confess that it crossed my mind that in some liminal space between this world and the next, that the two were, indeed, communing with each other. Mother had in the past displayed a grudging admiration for the woman, not because she agreed in any way with her political views (the politician was held responsible, in our house and in many others, for taking the free milk away from Primary School children in the 1970’s) but because she was a woman and a mother and had managed to be elected into the highest political position in the UK. I don’t know what part of my mother’s brain had conjured her up, or why, but there’s no question in my mind that Mrs. Thatcher was as real to her in that moment in time as was I or my sister. The brain is a very strange engine indeed.
I ought really to have embraced my mother’s propensity for conjuring up people who weren’t really there. After all, I spend much of my working life doing precisely that. I pass hours on end with apparitions, talking to them, asking them questions: ‘Why would you go there, knowing what you know?’; ‘Why would you do that?’; ‘Why would you care?’ I’m a slow writer. I take my time getting to know my fictional characters, examining their motives, interrogating their behaviour. With me, a character often comes into being through the voice. I ‘hear’ them before I ‘see’ them, before I really know who they are. The voice seems particularly resonant to me. I’m poor at recognising people’s faces, but I can often place a person when they begin to speak. I prefer the radio to the television. I always read my work aloud and encourage students and workshoppers to do the same – writing sounds differently to the ear than to the way it looks to the eye on the page. The imagined world seems to exist for me in a much more three-dimensional way through the aural rather than through the visual. It’s the reason, I think, why so many of my stories are written in the first person. My characters are often story makers, narrators, tellers of their own tales.
Last year, I attended an event at the recently opened Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy at which author Jennifer Johnston was interviewed by writer and journalist Martina Devlin. Jennifer Johnston was talking about her creative process. She spoke about a day when she was writing in her study when a man wearing a hat walked in and sat down on the couch. She didn’t know the man; he didn’t speak to her, she said, he just sat there, as if expecting something. As it turns out, he was a character waiting for a story. The writer related this incident in a tongue-in-cheek tone, but it sent me back to a piece of theatre that has fascinated me for years: Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In his Introduction to the play, Pirandello writes about how he found himself confronted one day at his door with an entire family of characters who set about telling him the whole sad series of events of their lives, often speaking over each other, cutting each other off, just as they eventually do in the play. He decided he wasn’t interested in their story, that he’d heaped enough trouble on his readers already; he tried to put the characters out of his mind, but the characters persisted. ‘They would pick on certain moments of my day to appear before me in the solitude of my study, one by one, or two at a time,’ he writes. ‘They would try to entice me, suggesting various scenes I might write or describe and how to get the best out of them…’ There is something particularly appealing to me about this idea of a writer being hounded by her or his fictional characters, insisting, by their quiet presence or by their strident entreaty, that their stories be told. In the end, of course, Pirandello gave in, not to a story or to a novel but to what seemed to him to be the natural home for these creatures: ‘why not let them go where dramatic characters usually go to live: put them on stage. And see what happens.’
See what happens. That sounds familiar. I know writers who like to outline chapters, who use laminated sheets and post-it notes to plot, rolls of wallpaper, elaborate timelines, who have very clear structures in their head before they begin to write. I do write timelines, but I don’t begin with a plan. I begin with a voice in a given place at a particular point in time and I do my best to be led by that, to listen to the story of what happens. These fictional characters respond to their environment with an experience and an attitude and a history that is not mine. Sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re contemplative, sometimes elated. I spend a lot of time ‘listening’ to learn what it is they know, what it is they’ve been through, and one of the things I’ve learned is that they don’t always tell the truth, at least not straight away. I like, I find, to be surprised, in my writing as well as in my reading. Of course there’s a lot more to it than listening. A reader cannot access a story that exists inside my own head. Both the novels I’ve written have been historical works. There’s hours upon hours of reading involved, of researching, note taking, photographing, thinking, making connections, but at some point there has to be actual writing, and rewriting, and rewriting again. The lack of a plan makes life more difficult the more words you write. I wouldn’t really recommend it as a method. It’s a messy business and a slow process but to write freely seems to be the only way I can work. To do otherwise feels to me like the act of sewing myself into my own strait jacket. I’d feel, I think, like I was suffocating. It turns out that I don’t like being told what to write, even when I’m the one doing the telling. Here’s Jennifer Johnston again, writing in the Irish Times in June 2017: ‘I have never been much good at writing to order. My head seems to object. It stops working. It doesn’t seem to enjoy being bullied, not even gently. I get no pictures in my head. No music. No words burst out through my fingertips, leaving their marks on the paper. They can’t be bothered looking for secrets. Or indeed, dreams.’ Secrets and dreams: the essential matter, surely, of which fiction writing is made.
There is an admission in Pirandello’s Introduction to Six Characters in Search of an Author as to the true origins of his meddlesome, roving characters. ‘Each one of them,’ he says, ‘shows himself to be tormented by the same fierce sources of suffering that have racked my own spirit for years’. And there’s the crux of it. However they may appear to us, fictional characters are not conjured out of thin air; they are conjured out of our own imagination, our own experiences, our own knowledge, our own desires and fears, our own, if you will, secrets and dreams. We may not know in a conscious way where they come from or why they have appeared, but they are our own creations and we have a responsibility to make them as believable as possible. Six Characters in Search of an Author is a tragi-comic classic in which the six members of one family, intent on having their harrowing story told, arrive in a theatre to interrupt the rehearsal of a Pirandello play, and browbeat the unsuspecting cast and production team into portraying their ready-made narrative. At one point, the Producer tries to comfort the distraught Mother by telling her that the trauma she has experienced is over, that there’s no need for her to keep reliving it. ‘No,’ she says, ‘it’s happening now! It’s happening all the time! My agony isn’t made up! I am living my agony constantly, every moment; I am alive and it is alive and it keeps coming back, again and again, as fresh as the first time.’ It seems to me that this is one of the best representations of traumatic memory that I have read. When sufferers of dementia become distressed at painful memories, it is not because they are ‘remembering’ but because they are reliving those moments afresh every time. And although the altered state of mind in which we found our mother all those years ago was brought on by a cataclysmic physical event, this brings me back to her. You can’t convince a person who says that their feet feel like ice that their limbs are warm to the touch; you can’t convince a person who smells burning wood that there is no danger of fire; you can’t convince a person who sees Margaret Thatcher that Margaret Thatcher is not there. We experience the world through our senses and for that experience to be questioned, because we’re repeatedly told that we’re mistaken, that we cannot trust what we hear, smell, see, feel, taste, in essence that we cannot trust our own selves, must be absolutely shattering.
We are fortunate, most of us, to know when we are participating in an illusion. To read a book, to watch a play in the theatre, to enter the world of a piece of art, to listen to a piece of music is a willing act of immersion, of escape, and even then, when we are fully aware of the fantasy, it can be a wrench to leave that world behind. But to suspect that you are not able to trust your experience of reality, to have that experience constantly challenged and undermined by the people around you, I think that must be one of the most terrifying and disorientating experiences to undergo. My mother did recover from her brain trauma. My sister said that as she drove her from hospital weeks later, she grew more lucid with every mile travelled closer to home, but physically she was much depleted. She passed away four years ago at home, surrounded by her family. In her final few days, she was unable to speak but her eyes remained lucid; articulate; intelligent; they ‘spoke’ to us to the very end. On one occasion, when we were trying to persuade her to swallow a spoonful of a bitter-tasting liquid antibiotic, and Mother’s eyes were loud with refusal, I voiced to my sister what I thought she would say if she had the words to do it: that as far as she was concerned, we could stick the spoon where the sun doesn’t shine. Our mother’s eyes positively danced in agreement as surely as if she’d uttered the words herself and my sister and I fell about laughing. There isn’t a single day that has passed since then, that I don’t miss her real voice speaking. But for that final act of ventriloquism, for that last flash of humour, for that manifestation of her unquenchable personality, of her own true and undeniable self, I will always be grateful.
 Pirandello: Collected Plays, Volume Two, John Calder, London 1988
in which Six Characters in Search of an Author is translated by Felicity Firth
 ‘Jennifer Johnston: the letter I kept in my wallet for thirty years’ in the Irish Times, 30 June 2017