Each evening, nestled in Berlin’s Treptower Park, the immigrant circus comes to life.
When Yusuf fled Syria, he lost everything. Now the circus, with its middle-eastern flair, is the only home he knows. When the lights go on, the refugees dazzle their audience, but off-stage tensions flare.
Ellie is passionate about the circus and drawn to its broken people. Even so, if she wants to keep her job at the newspaper, she must head up a campaign against it.
One night, in the midst of a show, two young circus boys come to blows. With the circus at risk of closure, Ellie must convince her readers that we can have compassion for those we fear, or Yusuf will be forced to uproot again.
What is your favourite thing about writing books?
I write for the clarity it brings, that sense of immersion and wonder. I can take the time to weave intricate sentences or get the nuance just right without worrying that it is already someone else’s turn to speak. I can examine a thought carefully, tangibly, without it slipping through the fog of my brain like a wandering child at a funfair. In a world of constant change and fleeting lives, writing a book is an act of love and attention.
Who is your favourite character in your book and why?
It’s so hard to choose, but in Hidden Colours my favourite character is probably Zul the Clown, one of my protagonist’s best friends.
Before writing Zul, clowns used to scare me: big red noses, white-painted faces, windsail trousers and giant shoes. Pennywise in It is murderous rather than funny. Heath Ledger’s awe-inspiring Joker in The Dark Knight is not a man you’d like to run into, even in daylight. They are not good-humoured buffoons performing slapstick and tricks; they are maniacs.
Towards the end of 2016, I read the story of a Syrian man called Anas al-Basha, who became a clown in Aleppo when it was besieged by fighting, to bring a smile to children there. He’d refused to leave the city and was killed by a strike at the age of twenty-four. My character Zul is based on Anas. I imagine his story continues here.
The Clown of Aleppo’s story made me aware of the humanitarian aspect of clowning. Clowns are compassionate and clever. They are artists, outliers and risk-takers. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They remind us not to take ourselves seriously, to pick ourselves up when something goes wrong. The more I researched, the more I was struck by their empathy.
Zul doesn’t have much page time, but when he does, my heart goes out to him. He’s such a lovely guy despite trying circumstances. Maybe one day he’ll get his own novel.
What is your favourite drink to consume while writing?
It has to be a cuppa of Twinings Everyday Tea, which is beautifully rounded and a delight. The problem is that the moment I’ve made the tea (it has to be the right colour), I get engrossed in work and forget all about it. Cold tea just isn’t the same.
Do you have any bad habits while you’re writing?
Yes I do! Not stretching enough, especially if I’m in full flow. I know from other writers that it’s best to stretch regularly before your body begins to creak. I also often begin my writing days listening to music with lyrics, when I know my focus is deeper and my pace quicker when I listen to instrumental music. I write while my children are at school so I really do need to wean myself off that initial temptation to have a singalong.
How do you research your books?
By the time I’ve committed to a story idea, I know the main character’s dilemma and the themes. Often, snatches of key scenes play out in my head like a film. By the time I begin writing the book in earnest, I know where I can draw on my own experience and where I have gaps. That’s key to finding out what work is needed before the drafting begins.
Next I turn to travel guides and photo books for setting details, non-fiction books for topics and speak to friends who can deepen my knowledge. For example, my research pile for Hidden Colours included books on circus history and maps of Berlin. Sometimes I watch movies that are knwn to have elements of my new project. The internet opens up a wormhole of unfiltered information, causing hours to disappear with the click of my trackpad.
I love meandering research, how stories are shaped by a chain reaction to materials I come across, and how ideas morph into something new. Even so, fiction writers aren’t historians. My aim is to write believable and authentic stories. At some point you have to jump into the story and not look back.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I leave my pantsing for poetry. That is a freer form for me: more emotion than logic. For a novel, just letting my words rain down on paper without knowing where I’m going would be too kamikaze.
I like to figure out my characters and their desires, as well as the themes of the novel early in the process. Then I spend a few days thinking about what scenes might suit the story. I organise these in a way that would suit a novel’s arc. The beginning and end points often stay the same, but the middle often changes once I get under the skin of my characters. Then the story takes on a shape of its own.
If you could live in any fictional world, which would you choose and why?
I’d choose Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or James Cameron’s Avatar. I write literary fiction, sometimes with elements of magical realism, but I also read fantasy, and who would choose to live in the real world when you could live in a fantastical one?
When Avatar first came out, I read news stories about how some fans became depressed at the thought that they would never be as entwined with nature as the Na’vi on Pandora.
Neverwhere is equally brilliant. I live in London and it made me see the city in a new light, reinventing well known landmarks, imbuing old streets and forgotten corners with magic.
If you could befriend any fictional character, who would you choose and why?
I love female characters who are central to the story. Ones who may sometimes be confused or misguided, but are essentially brave and kind like Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood has just announced a sequel. Hooray!), Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird or Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter.