‘Where’ I write…

This post first appeared in The Guardian

As a writer, there’s a process that somewhere occurs in your head; a collision between the fantasy space of your imagination and the outside world, in the form of the things that have directly or indirectly inspired your book.

Marcus Sedgwick, author in his shed (but is he?)

Much of the time, this collision occurs while I’m actually in my writing shed, putting words on virtual paper. The space in my shed I see as an exterior manifestation of my imagination – at any given time the walls are heavy with clippings, doodles, photos and words all connected to whatever book I’m working on. And yet, I’m aware that while writing, I might be physically in my shed, but some part of my mind is travelling again, to those places that inspired the story.

A room of one’s own

The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of four quarters, each set in a different time, and a different place, and with a different mood. What connects them is the image of the spiral. This is a book that has taken me a long time to write; what follows are some photographs of the places that gave birth to various elements in the book.

A cave on a hillside. 

This hillside cave happens to be in Snowdonia, but it doesn’t really matter – I liked the primal feel of the place. I took this photo with a long exposure, which accounts for the streaks, which I like; it gives it a sense of the mysterious. Whispers in the Dark is the section of the book set in the prehistory, and features a girl on the cusp of making the connection between a mark on a cave wall and the spoken word; when she does, she will effectively have invented writing.

(Modern) spiral rock carvings, near Lausanne, Switzerland.

The spiral is one of the six groups of forms known to archaeolgists as entoptic shapes, perhaps derived from natural illusory shapes ‘seen’ by the eye in the absence of light. They can be found in the artistic creations of our most distant ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago.

‘Fairy tree’, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall. 

The section of the book called The Witch in the Water takes place in a Yorkshire dale in the early 18th century. The witch-hunts were more or less over by this time but this story focuses about a very late episode in that dark history. A couple of years ago I was teaching a creative writing course at the wonderful Arvon Foundation, and feeling like a fraud because my own writing wasn’t going well at the time. On a walk in the valley one afternoon I came across this tree. I don’t know if it’s really called a fairy tree, but it ought to be. Folklore is full of the concept of things passing through gateways and boundaries, and if the local people didn’t see this tree with its ‘hole’ as a magical entity, I would be very surprised.

The valley at Lumb Bank, home to one of the Arvon Foundation’s beautiful centres. 

The part of the book called The Easiest Room in Hell is set on Long Island in the 1920s. This part of the book evolved from an interest I’d developed in the derelict insane asylums (as they used to be called) of North America.

This is one of those that have been saved, or part of it anyway. What was once the Danvers State Hospital (Massachusetts, US) is now a swanky apartment block. One wonders about the dreams to be had in such a place.

With a nice touch of serendipity, I discovered that many of these old hospitals had spiral staircases in them, central to the theme of the book. Here’s one of them; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation.

Here’s one of these old hospitals; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation. 

This part of the book is also heavily influenced by that most maligned of American writers; the creator of dark fictions and occult beings, H.P. Lovecraft. I made a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to see both his family home, and his grave marker; which bears the kind of inscription we can but aspire to.

H P Lovecraft’s childhood home, Providence, Rhode Island, US.
Lovecraft’s grave marker reads simply with his name, dates and the legend “I AM PROVIDENCE”. Like many other fans, I left a quarter behind as a token. 
The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed in this asylum in Salem, OR.

The hospital at Danvers, like this one above in Salem, Oregon, on the other side of the States, are two examples of Kirkbride hospitals. The brainchild of Dr Thomas Kirkbride, he envisaged a whole new approach to the care of the mentally ill, a key part of which was the architecture of the hospitals themselves; light, airy and with room to remain human.

The hospital in Salem, famous as both the setting and later filming location of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another hospital that has been saved – it’s now a social heritage museum.

Inside a derelict psychiatric hospital, Long Island, New York. 

I decided to make up a Kirkbride of my own, setting one out on the distant shores of Long Island – part of Kirkbride’s plan was to move away from dark and grim places in the city to sites in the countryside where the open air and healthy aspect would have a beneficial effect on the patients.

The shores of Long Island. 

I can’t show you pictures of the inspiration for the remaining quarter of the book, called The Song of Destiny, since it takes place aboard a ship venturing into deep space. The ship is the first voyage travelling to colonise a new planet.

Instead, to finish here’s a spiral staircase, this one from the Pantheon in Paris. Spiral staircases are some of the most beautiful architectural creations, be they simple, or ornate, and for me, they are the ultimate metaphor.

All photographs: © Marcus Sedgwick

My new book The Ghosts of Heaven is available at the Guardian bookshop

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