Looking back over the writing of Worldshaker, it’s like a story in three phases. A very long story, fifteen years since the first ideas and five years of actual writing and rewriting.
The first ideas came from a couple of dreams. In one, I was browsing the books in a curious spiral library, and happened upon a third book following on from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Not the real sequel, Titus Alone, which shifts to a different world, but the book that I’d wanted to read, set once again in the castle of Gormenghast. I’d just loved the first two books, and in my dream the third book was every bit as good. I read—or absorbed—the whole book, and when I woke up, I felt as if I could have written it out in full. Except I couldn’t—because the characters and story melted away as soon as I tried to recapture them, leaving me with nothing but my own reactions to the characters and story. From then on, I longed to write a novel that would fill up the emptiness and live up to those reactions. But it would have to be my story, not set in the gothic castle of Gormenghast.
In the second dream, I was in an enclosed space with an iron floor, crouching over a slot-like hole in the middle of the floor. Far below, I could see a wan greenish light and signs of movement. I couldn’t believe it when someone told me that thousands of people lived down there.
Then I was toppling into the hole, falling down, down, down. I passed countless decks like wire racks, hardly further apart than the shelves in a cupboard, and people were crawling around on those racks, dirty, half-naked, malnourished, in the most degraded condition imaginable. I was horrified and at the same time frightened. Would they attack me when I reached the bottom? Tear me apart and eat me?
I woke up before I found out. Still, I couldn’t help dwelling on the experience, and as I dwelt on it, the idea of a juggernaut began to spread out around that one scene … a vast moving vehicle of many decks, where members of the privileged class above know very little about the wretched underclass below. The dream experience reappears in Chapter 26 of Worldshaker, where Col’s classmates push him into a food chute, down to the hellish engine-room world of the Filthies.
After the phase of world building came the phase of ‘growing’ the characters. They had to be strange and grotesque, larger than life, as adults can seem to children. I needed the exact right name for each character: Ebnolia Porpentine, Septimus Trant, Sir Wisley Squellingham, Lumbridge and Quinnea and Professor Twillip. Once the name locked in, it was as though a magnet fixed all my floating impressions of personality into place.
Of course, the characters continued to grow as they bounced off other characters. Many of them insisted on having their own say, like Gillabeth, who refused to be blamed without putting her side of the story. Comic characters such as Sephaltina Turbot and Mr Bartrim Gibber were uncontrollable in the way they kept taking their own bizarre twists and turns. Mr Gibber—based on a real teacher I met when teaching at a Secondary Modern School in England—almost ran away with the whole book.
I don’t know how to describe the third phase: ‘thematic’ perhaps? In the actual writing, Worldshaker took on more serious purposes than I’d ever intended. In trying to make plausible the monstrously cruel attitude of the Upper Decks ‘Imperialists’ towards the underclass of Filthies, I found myself saying something about inhumanity in general. The ‘Imperialists’ deny empathy to the Filthies because their entire upbringing tells them they are civilized while the Filthies are unthinkably, unspeakably different. They fail to see what’s before their eyes because social assumptions condition their minds before they ever get to judge for themselves. The degradation of the Filthies appears as a fact of nature, rather than a state imposed by the actions of the Upper Decks people. Inhumanity exists because what we ‘know’ can overrule what we see and feel. Col can’t see Riff, the girl Filthy, as attractive, because Filthy and attractive are incompatible concepts in his mind. Or when Orris feels pity for the Filthies wretchedly labouring among the boilers and turbines Below, he can interpret his feeling only as a shameful weakness. The system of thinking implanted in his mind allows no alternative.
I also found myself wanting to say something about childhood and growing up. Again, Worldshaker gives an extreme example, because Col has remained very much a child until the age of sixteen, then grows up suddenly in a couple of months. In trying to make his ‘awakening’ plausible, I drew more and more upon my own experiences. I too was a very good, very docile child until the age of eleven, then ‘woke up’ all of a sudden. Col might be speaking for me when he reflects back on his earlier life: ‘it was as though he’d hardly been there.’ (p.50)
I suspect we all revise the reality of our childhoods. So many silly things we believed, so many things we didn’t know whether or not to believe, so many ridiculous daydreams and odd feelings—far too embarrassing to remember! As adults, knowing how to make sense of the world, we excise all those forgettable misinterpretations and confusions. (At least, we think we know how to make sense of the world—though perhapswe assume too much, like the Upper Decks adults in Worldshaker …) At the time, we don’t have the contexts to fix what’s possible or impossible, acceptable or unacceptable. Childhood is far more precarious than we like to remember.
I wanted to convey this through Col. One key moment is when his grandmother tells him a fact like any other—except this time he has the evidence to know it’s a lie:
She was making it up! Yet she said it with such conviction, nodding her head like a little bird. Looking into her eyes, Col felt dizzy from the abyss yawning in front of him. …
… He was thinking back on all the things he seemed to have known forever, that seemed to have come from his own experience. But what if they were only things he’d been told? The more he thought hack, the more his childhood disappeared into a strange obscurity. Perhaps his whole world was created out of things he’d been told … (pp.103-4)
It’s another kind of childhood discovery when Col has to live a lie himself, hiding the secret of his contact with Riff. With surprise, he discovers how easy it is to mask his thoughts from other people:
Col had the strange notion that his eyes had become a screen, and he could think whatever he liked behind them …He felt as though new spaces were opening up inside him, deep private places that had never existed before. He didn’t much like the feeling. (p.41
Growing up out of childhood is a time of strangenesses, half-facts and uncertainties—at least, that’s the vision I tried to present in Worldshaker. Along with sweet-sad romantic hankerings, being bullied, ‘magical’ associations (thus Col identifies kindness with the strawberry scent of his grandmother’s perfume). I didn’t set out to paint a picture of Col’s growing up or my growing up or anyone’s growing up. I set out to tell a gripping story in an extraordinary imaginative world, and the real experiences snuck up on me. Hopefully, the story still grips and the world remains extraordinary. If I’d set out to confront my own growing up, I’m sure I’d have kept closer to my officially revised version. Fantasy often does that, I think, bypassing adult censorship and unlocking forgotten memories. Real feelings spring up in imaginary gardens!