The second of our shortlisted titles in the CBA Books for Older Readers category, here Sarah Crossan discusses researching her shortlisted title, One.
Some writers get giddy at the idea of a bit of research. They dive into it, borrowing stacks of library books and trawling the Internet for slices of documentaries or newspaper opinion pieces related to whatever topic their book is about. Some spend months doing this. I met a novelist who sets aside eighteen months for research alone. When he told me this, I snorted; I thought he was joking. He wasn’t, of course, and went on to earnestly explain how he always travels before he writes and how he reads hundreds of books so he knows the subject matter intimately. I wanted to ask how he feeds himself if he is only managing, on average, to publish a book every three years, but I didn’t think it polite. So, I tried my best to act as though I understood him, but at the time I did not because I have not been one of these writers. I am usually a writer for whom starting a new book is so exciting that I have to begin as soon as a fresh idea comes to me; I have to hurl everything I know to be true about a character and his or her story onto the page before I allow silly stuff like facts to get in the way. And with my four previous books, I wrote my novels first, and I researched later. I got the story and characters in place, the plot written, the voice realised, and then I went back and made the changes that needed to be made based on what I subsequently discovered about the real world.
But this wasn’t how ONE came to be. ONE is a different book to all my others because it was the subject matter above everything else that motivated me to write about Tippi and Grace. I watched a BBC documentary about Minnesotan conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel and was immediately captivated by the idea of their lives – fascinated by the ways in which these amazing women managed to live as two separate people in one body, and I made it my mission to find out everything I possibly could about conjoined twins. I knew there was the potential for a novel in there, but I was also petrified of writing about something that was entirely unknown to me.
Although I was working on Apple and Rain at the time, and actually scrambling to get it to my publisher by deadline, I would go to the British Library every day and instead of focusing on Apple and Rain, would ask the librarians to help me find articles and books about the lives of conjoined twins through history and especially medical research about separation surgery. I had found a topic that I wanted to write about, but I wanted to tell it honestly and accurately, because the more I read, the more I realised how misunderstood the lives of these people have been, and how ready people seem to be to say, “If it were me, I would want to be separated,” without fully considering the intimacy of such a relationship, not to mention the many joys it brings.
And because I wanted to tell an accurate story, the research for the book took months, perhaps even more than a year. I read a mountain of books, close to fifty articles, and I watched every documentary I could get my hands on (and I managed to find a lot thanks to my friend who works at the BBC pulling strings to get me copies of films from the archives). It was no use simply scouring the Internet because all I could find there were sensational videos and “OMG look at these conjoined twins actually walking” sorts of pieces. And my research continued right up until I was at the copyediting stage of writing, because at the last minute, and to my great delight, I managed to get Edward Kiely, leading separation surgeon for conjoined twins in Europe, to help answer some of my hypothetical medical questions, forcing me to tighten up certain parts of the plot to create a world that was completely real. The old me would have shrugged at this idea but the new me, the research-giddy me, knew that I had to get it right because people born with unusual bodies, and particularly conjoined twins deserve that respect.
So which camp am I in now? It’s hard to say. I recently completed a new novel for which I did very little initial research and this worked perfectly. Now I’m working on another project, the subject matter of which is serious and difficult and I’m back into research mode, fourteen books read and fifteen documentaries watched. I’m learning to be more disciplined. I’m learning to start slowly and get it right. And mostly I’m learning to do what the book demands. But still, eighteen months of research? Come on, dude, pull your finger out!
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