Writing – a solitary occupation that brings people together?

Whilst on holiday last week I read I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill. This is her grimly compelling novel about the relationship between two small boys; one a bully, the other his victim.

In a postscript she summarised the origins of the story. She had rented a remote cottage where she could work uninterrupted on finishing another novel. Her tranquil surroundings inspired her – the beautiful surrounding countryside including a nearby wood, the unusually hot weather, and two small boys who she often spotted when out on her daily walks. These boys seemed like great friends, unlike the two in her novel. But they provided the germ of an idea for a new story. By the end of her sojourn, she had written the opening chapters of I’m the King of the Castle, and outlined the rest of the plot in her notebook.

Although the book is about children, she wrote it with adult readers in mind and, what she thought, were adult themes exploring evil, isolation, and a lack of love. However it has often been a set book for school exams and seems to resonate, to an alarming extent in her view, with the fears and pro-occupations of teenagers. It was written before the era of social media, but the account of bullying by one child leading to another taking their own life, is thoroughly modern.

She admits that it is a ‘dark’ book, even though it emerged as an idea in a beautiful place, and many people have written to her to tell them how much they dislike it. My copy, picked up in a charity sale, looked unread, a friend warned me that I would not like it, and I did find it an uncomfortable read. But other people have been gripped and have told her: ‘That’s what it was like for me. [Your story] made me realise I haven’t been alone.’

This, she feels, is one of the reasons why she and others write novels: to make some people realise that they are not, after all, on their own. Or, as the seventeenth century poet, John Donne, put it – albeit in a different context, ‘No man is an island.’

Links to my books and social media

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