A Daunting Idea

It’s the question every writer dreads: “Where do you get your ideas from?” Because the honest answer is usually: “I haven’t a bloody clue.”

But with my latest book, I know exactly where the idea came from. It’s so obvious it’s painful. Or should that be the other way around?

I’d just finished my fourth novel (the cunningly titled FOUR) and was casting about for the next thing. The next idea. I have an embarrassment of notebooks – draws literally full of them. Gifted moleskins, pilfered notepads, perfect and spiral bound, copper embossed, one with my name on, a red leatherette pocket-sized number that’s never seen the inside of a pocket. All of them filled with snatches of dialogue, lines of description, character sketches, historical oddities, random facts, and scribbled notes that felt like gold at the time of writing.

I set about the annual ritual of digging for treasure. And, several hours later – surrounded by notebooks and biscuit crumbs – was faced with the annual disappointment of discovering my books were filled, not with gold, but with semi-illegible nonsense and bad doodles.

Besides this fruitless rummaging, two other things of note were happening in my life at the time.

I was – yet again – trying to get my head around Shakespeare. I’d picked up Hamlet for the fifth time. And, three pages in, put it down. For the fifth time. I had a go at Lear and got a little further. Scanned Romeo & Juliet and laughed a little. And then I found Macbeth – I fell into it. I got it. I loved it. I read the play in one sitting. Then I read the footnotes, then I watched the movie with Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard. And then I read it again.

At the same time, my uncle was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He encouraged my dad – his big brother – to get tested. So Dad got himself checked out and received a matching diagnosis for his trouble. “But I’ll be fine, son,” he told me. “I’ll beat it.” And I think the old man actually believed it.

The previous year I lost an uncle-in-law to cancer. Two years before that a friend. Some years prior to that a cousin, still in her thirties. Not fair, any of it.

Another friend too – the oldest one I have – was at the time suffering terribly with his own regimen of radio and chemotherapy. He got so thin they shoved a tube up his nose in order to pump high-calorie gunk directly into his stomach. A horrible business. Then, one night when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, he was so violently sick, he threw up all that hard taken nutrition – threw up the feeding tube too, which would now need to be reinserted.

But none of this is new.

Most of us – by a very long way – know someone fighting cancer, or have lost someone we love to this disease. And most of us – I think – react the same way. We grieve for our friends, we cry and we scream that it’s not fair. And we thank whatever it is we believe in that it isn’t us. Because we don’t believe we could face this ordeal with the courage, candour and pragmatism of our uncles, cousins, friends, sisters, partners, fathers.

Because none of them stopped living in the face of their devastating news. They kept on running the hills of Scotland – even when the side effects of chemo made their feet bleed. They continued to sing in choir, despite feeling too sick to stand. They hiked for miles, went on holiday, built a greenhouse.

And while they were doing all this, I was reading Macbeth, rummaging through my notebooks and looking for a story to write. To say the idea just popped into my head wouldn’t be quite right. It had been lodged there for some time – it just took me a while to recognise it. Perhaps because the idea was so daunting.

The Last Act of Adam Campbell is about a mismatched group of terminally ill patients, who decide to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s greatest deaths.

They do this, not because they love Shakespeare (many of them couldn’t give a Puck for the Bard), but because they love a challenge, a purpose, the company of others. Because they love life and they don’t intend to stop living it until they absolutely have to.

It was a hard book to write – the hardest of all my five novels, in fact. My dad encouraged me, but I could tell the idea made him uncomfortable. My oldest friend put me in touch with various professionals in the name of research, but he didn’t want to be interviewed himself. I felt an obligation to both of them, to everyone I’ve known with and lost to cancer. I wanted to get it right – to be authentic not ghoulish, positive not mawkish.

Maybe that’s why the book took so long to write. I trashed over 150 pages and had two false starts before I finally settled on the characters I wanted and the tone they deserved. But I stuck with it, and two years after the idea first ‘popped into my head’, I typed every writer’s favourite words: The End.

The reader will make up their own mind as to whether or not that ending is a happy one. But I believe it’s honest, uplifting and funny. Like the people in my own life who have faced huge challenges with great courage.

My old friend is doing great, by the way. He kicked cancer’s arse. And – true to his word – so did my dad. He even enjoyed the book (“It was good, that, son”). So yeah, I suppose, it does have a happy ending after all.

I was unsure about writing this article. It felt too personal. But writing the last lines now, I’m glad I did – I feel lighter, thankful and optimistic. But that’s between you and me.

Next time someone asks me where I got the idea from, I’ll simply shrug and tell them: “I haven’t a bloody clue.”

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