The close of the Olympics has made me wonder about the nature of inspiration. It is easy to see how the supremely fit superstars of the track and field can inspire a new generation. I salute their courage and tenacity. I’m indebted, though, to a half-blind woman in Poland who started me on what was to be a life-changing journey.
A few years ago in Krakow, I met a woman on a park bench. I was breaking my heart over yet another unsuitable man. The woman’s name was Krystyna. She listened while I sobbed incoherently and after my self-indulgent outpouring told me her own story.
While she talked we wandered around Krakow, crossing the wide market square with its distinctive cloth hall lined with tourist stalls offering amber, wood carvings and toys; we passed jewel-like churches, prayer boards fluttering in the breeze, eventually ending up down a cool cobbled street where we stopped for coffee and ice cream. Krystyna had lost her home during the war. A manor on the outskirts of Warsaw, the house had been taken by the Germans and after the war claimed by nuns. She had no papers to prove ownership and no means to reclaim the property.
She spoke of facing near starvation during the war, of living with perpetual fear, of falling in love after the war, of daring to feel again, of music and of literature. Her voice was girlish as she remembered joyous times.
Her husband had not been faithful to her, but she had loved him and that was what had mattered most to her: that she had loved with all her being. He had died. Now she was alone, her sight was failing, and she lived in a grim block of flats used by drug-addicted prostitutes and their clients. What struck me about Krystyna was her intelligence: she was fluent in at least half a dozen languages, her resourcefulness: she spent her days in the park and in coffee shops to avoid time in the flat, and her courage: she acknowledged her losses with humour, irony and grace. That afternoon my own heartache lifted. I returned to London feeling renewed and hopeful.
I wrote to Krystyna, using large font, but never received a reply. Engrossed in my philosophy studies, I completed my degree, started teaching and finished a book I had begun in Africa. Later, I moved to Devon. My novel set in Zambia was published and I wrote another set in Vienna. During a meeting with my editor and agent to talk about the next project, they asked for a new place, preferably a city, somewhere with atmosphere, history, romance.
‘Krakow,’ I ventured. ‘I’ve always wanted to do a book set in Krakow.’ Now I realise how naive I was to think that I could just ‘do’ a book about Poland, for as soon as I started seriously reading and researching I knew that I would have to face head on the Polish experience of the Second World War.
Nearly three years later I had enough material for five books. For authenticity, I had tried to use first-person accounts of the occupation and resistance. I needed, though, a character strong enough to carry it all. Krystyna emerged. Not the Krystyna I had met on the park bench, but a character who had something of Krystyna’s strength, resourcefulness and imagination.
Each novel I’ve written has demanded more of me than I think I can give. Krystyna’s spirit kept me going through what was a tough write. I moved home three times during the writing of The Beautiful Truth and didn’t unpack until I’d finished my third draft.
Here, I’m going to writing more about how I work, about ways of looking at writing, about ideas and people who inspire. Each week or so I will choose a theme and write a short, but thoughtful essay. I do hope that you will join me and comments are welcome along the way.