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Helen Fisher on story inspiration and the idea behind Joe Nuthin’s Guide to Life

Helen Fisher on story inspiration and the idea behind Joe Nuthin’s Guide to Life

Apparently, a lot of authors don’t like the question “where do you get your ideas from?” But I love it, and ask it of myself all the time. Ideas are the best tool of the writing trade, so even though you need to formulate a story around an idea, which can be the hardest part, and then you need to write a book, which is time-consuming and frustrating, ideas hold the key to it all.

It’s a difficult question to answer because ideas don’t spring from a single place. There’s no easy answer as to where they come from. Inspiration can be in a song on the radio, or overheard in conversation, or from a dream. I sometimes get story ideas in traffic jams, when I’m stuck in the driving seat, with nothing to distract me from the ideas that may slide in.

Everyone has ideas, but the difference for authors is that ideas don’t just come and go. An idea might walk through my thoughts quite innocently, like a deer crossing a field in the distance. But as I watch it moving towards my periphery, I don’t just let it disappear into the trees; I focus on it, and chase it before it leaves the margins of my mind’s eye, all the time thinking What if?

For a writer, an idea can flourish and adjust, reach out and find company, evolve and grow towards some kind of potential, long after non-writers would have let the idea slip away.

The inspiration and ideas I’ve had for novels have each come from very different and specific places. I can remember them all. But Joe Nuthin – more than any other story idea I’ve had – sort of came from “nowhere”. Rather poetically, when I picture Joe’s creation, I see a sandy golden whirlwind, spinning in the centre of my head, which clears to reveal this lovely young man, innocently looking around as though he is more surprised than me to find himself there.

When Joe first emerged from this glittering twister, I let him wander around the inside of my head for a few weeks, and then I wrote down all the things he loved and liked to do, along with his habits and quirks. But all these things came from within – they are things I love or find interesting, and many of his habits and quirks are my own. Previous stories have emerged from the experiences of my friends – for example, a woman who lost her mum when she was young and longed for a grown-up conversation with her, now that she had children of her own, was the inspiration behind Space Hopper. And I have written another novel (unpublished) based entirely on someone else’s throwaway comment – “imagine,” he said – and then followed a sentence which he spoke, then dismissed, whilst I held on to the reins of that idea, saddled it up and rode away on it.

Apparently, Ernest Hemingway said “there is nothing to writing, all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And I think most authors would agree that meaningful writing involves something personal and painful coming out on the page; as personal as tears and sweat and blood. Every story I write takes inspiration from places outside and inside of myself. But Joe Nuthin is different if only because of the sheer extent to which I feel he is a part of me; borne from my core. And perhaps, rather selfishly, that is why he means more to me that anything I’ve written before.

Joe Nuthin’s Guide to Life is published by Simon & Schuster UK on 9 November 2023

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