Book Club: The Restoration of Otto Laird
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I have long been interested in post-war buildings and the people who designed them. A few years ago, while reading about the architect Ern Goldfinger, I learned that he spent some weeks in the 1960s living in one of his newly built tower blocks in London. I wondered at the time how an architect of that era might feel upon returning to live in such a building today, and it struck me as an interesting idea for a novel. What would that character think and do – especially if he found the building in a poor state of repair? The dramatic possibilities of such a story were clear.
The idea of an elderly protagonist especially appealed to me. It presented an opportunity to explore the social history of post-war London, as seen through the life of a single character. Furthermore, his return to the city after many years abroad would allow him to see it from a fresh and unusual perspective.
As I thought about the plot, several other aspects fell into place. Why would my protagonist have left London in the first place? From this question emerged the idea of a family tragedy; an event so shat- tering it would cause him to abandon the city that had been his home for decades. And why would he return there now, at this moment in time, so many years after leaving? The idea of a documentary film, as part of a campaign to save the building from demolition, provided the answer. I had a basic frame within which to work.
How carefully did you plan the novel in advance?
I had a general idea of where it would go, but I didn’t plan it out too closely, preferring to leave space for improvisation and for surprising myself with some of the twists and turns in Otto’s story. There was an element of risk involved, but it opened up all kinds of possibilities that might not otherwise have emerged. I figured that if the story surprised me, at times, there was a good chance it might also surprise the reader. It seemed a good way to avoid becoming too predictable.
When and where did you write the book?
In the summer of 2012 I was in between jobs, and so I decided to take the opportunity to begin working on the novel. I was living at the time in a small apartment in the countryside, with just the sound of birdsong for company. It was an ideal environment in which to focus on writing, away from any distractions. I assumed that writing the book would be a long and arduous process, but in the event I was lucky. The central characters took shape on the page fairly rapidly. It was relatively painless. I pressed on with the story because I wanted to discover what would happen to Otto and the others. It soon became an all-consuming experience.
How long did it take to complete?
The first draft was finished in seven weeks, which often included working nights as well as days. It was an intensive spell of writing, but I wanted to capitalise on the flow of ideas. I was concerned that if I stopped, even for a day or two, they might dry up!
Did you have a daily writing routine?
A quick cup of coffee and a bun at a local cafe; then it was straight down to work. I rarely knew exactly what would happen as I sat down to write each day. I always had a sketch in my mind of where I wanted things to go, but nothing precise. It was more a question of finding a particular mood; of placing myself in the heads of my characters at a specific moment in time and then seeing how they reacted. As a method of writing it was unsettling in some ways: would anything appear on any given day? When it worked, however, the effect was exhilarating. Sometimes, it became difficult to stop.
And the book was later revised?
Yes. Once the manuscript had been acquired by Sphere, I spent some months reworking parts of it in discussion with my editor, Lucy Malagoni. This involved sifting out the weaker material, adding new scenes as necessary and bringing everything to a con- sistent level. We also focused on improving the overall structure.
During the course of the novel, the events of Otto’s life are not revealed chronologically, but in piecemeal fashion. The effect is rather like a jigsaw puzzle, to be put together in the mind of the reader. Much time was spent in rethinking exactly where the flash- backs should be inserted within the present-day narrative. It was important to ensure that the fragments of Otto’s past should emerge in a way that felt natural to the reader, and which would not cause any confusion in terms of the overall timeline. There was plenty of experimentation, trial and error. Achieving a natural, flowing effect was a challenge.
Where did you work on the revisions?
In London. I spent some time wandering around the relevant parts of the city in order to check some details and find my way back into the character of Otto for additional scenes. It was an odd experience, especially since he already existed on paper and therefore felt strangely real to me. If there is a writers’ equivalent of method acting, I suppose this was it, although I resisted the temptation to wear an overcoat and homburg, or to carry a wooden cane.
Who was the inspiration for Otto?
He is not based on anyone I have known: he just seemed to turn up, more or less fully formed, as I started writing. I don’t really know where he came from! Of all the characters, I found him the easiest to write. From an early stage I seemed to know him really well: his humour and world-view, how he would react to particu- lar people and events. I didn’t have to give him too much thought. There was a natural sense of empathy.
Was it the same with the other characters?
To some extent, yes. I felt very comfortable writing Cynthia, Anika and Daniel, although some of the others took a little longer to fall into place. None of them are based directly on a real person, although I suppose there are aspects of reality, drawn from personal experience, within each of them. They are composites, I suppose; made of up of tiny fragments taken from different sources and memories.
How did you go about creating these characters on the page?
I imagine that every writer has their own approach, but for me there was little conscious activity involved. They emerged organ- ically, through the process of writing. I didn’t sit down and list their personality traits beforehand.
I tried as far as possible to observe, rather than invent, each char- acter; to feel rather than think them into existence. It seemed the best way to make them three-dimensional. I sought not to push them too far in any particular direction, allowing them to make decisions for themselves.
I also tried to remove myself as far as possible from each scene. The less I attempted to guide the action, the more authentic it seemed. I wanted the story to serve the characters, rather than the other way round. It was only when things seemed to veer off course that I consciously intervened.
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