David Whitehouse shares how a rare plant - which he first read about as a child in his local mobile library- sparked the idea for his new novel. The Long Forgotten is published in hardback and ebook and is available now.
I spent a huge part of my childhood in a mobile library that was closed. My mother was the cleaner – she had the keys - and so, at evenings and weekends, we’d have the place to ourselves. I read almost every book in the children’s section. I knew that I loved it, but not how great an impression it would leave on me. Decades later, the second novel I wrote would be called Mobile Library, and be about the ways in which this time in my life woke my imagination. In it, a young boy escapes his terrible reality by stealing the mobile library on an adventure that rivals those in the books by which he’s rapt. It was a love letter to reading, to the ways in which stories enrich us, leave in us precious minerals that were not there before.
Sometimes, when whatever I’m writing is besting me, which is often, I think back to the pleasure I’d taken in those books to remind myself why I do it. But the truth is, I can’t do anything else. I can’t do maths. I don’t take orders very well. I’ve all the physical coordination of a broken marionette. Writing is the only job that will ever make me happy. When I don’t write for a while I get tetchy. I need it.
So, everything I see, hear or do is something that might end up a story I may write one day. Maybe only one percent of it. Maybe ten years later. Maybe it’ll be unrecognizable. But it could happen. Life is the clay and the books are the pot.
I’ve never forgotten reading an article about the corpse flower, fifteen years ago. The corpse flower can reach up to six metres tall and five wide. It is native to Sumatra, blooms once every 7-10 years and looks like one of the more rubbish aliens from an old episode of Doctor Who. What captivated me about it was that it attracts flies, in order to spread its seeds, by heating to body temperature and giving off the scent of rotting flesh. It immediately struck me as a great place to hide a body. So I had the end of a mystery novel. I needed to work backwards from there.
The book that eventually emerged is called The Long Forgotten. It’s the story of a young man named Dove in modern day London who suddenly starts remembering memories that do not belong to him, but to a rare flower hunter in 1980s New York who has decided to track down the six most fantastic blooms on the planet. On the way he encounters love and tragedy, the two bound together as they so often are, and Dove begins to unravel the unknown truths of his own existence.
That’s my favourite thing about writing, and reading. How, from the germ of an idea, a world can form, the same way a seed can one day become a flower that knows a clever way to lure you in.