St Malo, on the coast of Brittany, France, home to pirates and privateers of times gone by. August 2010. Drawing to the close of a sunshine-filled afternoon, a dark haired young man in full pirate costume lounges in one of the cafés just under the ancient fortified walls. He rolls a cigarette, making it look, as only the French can, like one of the most glamorous acts on earth. And then he passes it to the girl sitting opposite him. Meanwhile, seated on the terrace of an adjacent café, I watch. I can’t help it. Sometimes, people capture my imagination and characters are born. Not the pirate, though shades of him do appear in another of the characters in ‘Strong as Death’; I watch the girl with the pirate. I am looking at Minnie Shilling for the first time. But this is Minnie Shilling who doesn’t yet have a name, who doesn’t yet have a story. This is Minnie Shilling after ‘Strong as Death’ has ended. Why this girl with the confident bohemian soul? It isn’t because of the way she’s dressed (reproduced to the best of my memory at Dee’s eighteenth birthday party, wearing the same dress that Minnie wears to her audition and during her time on the Plain of Ethad), nor is it because of the long dark hair that looks chic loosely piled on her head, hair I would have loved to have been blessed with even though it’s what my grandmothers would have described as ‘tatty’. Nor is it her deep tan and the easy way she smiles and flirts and smokes a cigarette as though she’s immune from ever contracting lung cancer. Her aura oozes confidence in spite of her youth, without screaming arrogance. She’s the young woman that accident-prone, self-doubting Minnie longs to become but, aged only just seventeen, would never believe she could be.
Neither of my grandmothers liked their names. Both chose alternatives that aren’t the same as those on their birth certificates. One of those grandmothers was known as Minnie. I didn’t realise she had any other name until long after her death. As a child, I was fascinated by the thoughts of anyone being called Minnie. I only knew about Minnie Mouse. To this day, so far, the only other Minnie I have met is the fictional one in ‘Strong as Death’. Shilling? Who knows? It just came into my mind, linked itself to the girl whose story I knew I would write, and got stuck there, even though I tried to change it many times.
An overnight coach journey from London to Carlisle in April 2012 didn’t provide much opportunity for sleep, especially when a couple of sentences wormed their way into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote them down: ‘Minnie always knew she was going to die. Not in the way that made her live half a life, but in the way that made her look over her shoulder to see if Death was following her.’ Once I’d given in and jotted those words down, I couldn’t stop, and a whole host of other thoughts tumbled from my pen onto the page. Very few of those original sentences made it into the final draft of ‘Strong as Death’, but, during that long journey north, something of Minnie’s story finally revealed itself to me.
In May 2012, I wrote the first scene for strong as Death whilst visiting friends in Dubai. The actual scene doesn’t appear until the beginning of the 2nd movement of the final draft, because at that time, I wasn’t quite sure where Minnie’s story would start. All I did know was where it would end. As I wrote that scene, what I found out was that Minnie’s voice flowed in the first person. Previously, I had always written in the third person, so Minnie took me by surprise.
From the start, I knew that Minnie was a musician, but I mistakenly thought she was a pianist. It was only after many awkward writing moments when I couldn’t get Minnie to cooperate that I realised she was a cellist. That revelation came as, frustrated one day with my lack of progress, I began leafing through some of my treasures that I keep close by in my favourite writing haunt. From the age of nine until I was eighteen, I played the viola. I still have the books of music I attempted to master, one of which is a collection of Bach cello suites, transcribed for viola. I never played them well, though longed to. At that moment, I had Elgar’s cello concerto playing in the background (sometimes I write with music, at other times, I write in silence. I have no rule about that). And that’s when I knew; Minnie played the cello, not well, but exceptionally well. Beyond exceptionally well. Perhaps her gift developed at the expense of her poise, the lack of which makes her so clumsy and accident-prone, particularly in the first few chapters? Or perhaps, the hours she spent practising her music meant that she didn’t have to focus on fitting in with her peers; after all, the socially adept and ever popular Dee was always ready to fight Minnie’s corner and make a space for her where there otherwise may have been none. What is indisputable is that the death of her father pushed Minnie into a world she thought would have pleased him most, a world where only music counted. A world where she hoped to keep her connection to him alive. A world where time spent playing music was a world he’d never left.
I cannot pretend that the death of my dad when I was little older than the fictional Minnie has had a profound effect on the themes I write about, themes of love and loss that recur in other books I have written and plan to write. But I hope that the journey Minnie undertakes in ‘Strong as Death’, a journey that sees her develop into a young woman who grasps the gift of life, embracing its losses and loves with both hands is a journey that readers will want to travel with her, willing her on with every step she takes.