The inspiration behind City of Strangers
24 October 2015
By Pan Macmillan
Author Louise Millar talks about the inspiration behind her new novel, City Of Strangers.
You never know when inspiration for a book will strike and in the case of my new thriller, City Of Strangers, it was in the unlikeliest of places.
Chatting on the school run one day, I and two neighbours discovered an amazing coincidence. We had all shared a friendship with someone I’ll call ‘Joe’. ‘Joe’ and I had been colleagues and house-shared in the 1990s. He’d been my male neighbour’s best friend at primary school in the 1970s, and the university flatmate of my female neighbour in the 1980s. Yet when we shared stories of Joe, our versions of who he ‘was’ didn’t match. My male neighbour had known Joe as a young child, when he was still forming as a person; my female neighbour entountered him as an 18-year-old, breaking out into the world; I’d met him as adult, after he’d travelled and started a career. Our versions of Joe were all correct; they just belonged to different stages in his development.
This sounded like an intriguing mystery for a crime novel. What if an investigator found a body, but everyone who knew the dead man described him differently – not just his personality, but his age, nationality, marital status and wealth, too?
At the time, as a journalist, I was documenting the lives of residents of London’s most polluted road, the North Circular, alongside an experienced reportage photographer. My colleague is used to working on his feet in Libya and Afghanistan, and I was intrigued to observe how fast and confidently he approached North Circular residents in the street, and how often they responded to his friendly, direct questions positively, telling us about their lives, and even inviting us into their homes.
I began to imagine, Grace Scott, a young woman who’d trained as a reportage photographer but never had the opportunity to travel like my colleague. I saw her arriving home from her honeymoon to find a dead burglar in her new flat. Grace, I decided, would be my investigator. Obsessed with finding the dead man’s family, she travels to London. As her journey continues to Amsterdam, and beyond, and into unexpected danger and challenges, Grace starts to realise that she's been treading water for years. 'It was as if her future had always been on this road, just waiting for her to arrive.'
Of course, ideas for a novel are rarely singular. As a journalist, I’ve always been interested in the idea of fluid identity. I’ve seen first-hand how often we all edit our life stories, to create the identity we want to present to the world – how often secrets and history are concealed, and re-packaged. More than once, an interview subject has leaned forward and confessed a shocking secret to me that they swore their family did not know.
My final inspiration came from families I met on the North Circular, who had uprooted their old lives thousands of miles away, to start a new one in London. The North Circular is a difficult place to live – many residents live in rundown accommodation, fronting six lanes of constant traffic that makes a sense of community almost impossible. Yet, these families told us they were prepared to put up with it in order to create a new future. There was a sense of liberation about it, having the chance to re-invent your life.
When my editor read my final draft and suggested the title City Of Strangers, I knew there was no other title.