Where do you get your ideas?

By Candy Gourlay

Here I am celebrating my birthday
last Sunday.  
On Writing Dual Narratives | I thought Filipinos were not allowed in books

When I was a beginner author, unused to meeting readers, the question Where do you get your ideas? baffled me.

In the classroom I can be asked the question up to three times in a row, the children not paying enough attention to notice that it's been asked before.

It is a question asked automatically, and so relentlessly I sometimes wonder if the asker is truly interested in the answer.

Recently, I've begun to think that it's not the question readers really want to ask.

Readers are moved, angered, engaged, amused, affected in so many ways by a piece of writing. And I think what they really want to know, is WHY.

Why does this book that you've written make me feel like this? Where did you get that ... that THING that affected me in this way?

One day I had lunch with a friend who'd just read Shine, my second novel. 'Oh Candy, it's got the thing you had in Tall Story,' she said.

And she looked at me with such emotion and understanding that I was almost defensive. What thing?

That afternoon we had a long conversation about the themes that run through both books. Loneliness. Separation. Being left behind. Being different.

I'm beginning to think that this is what people want to know when they ask about ideas. What they really want to know is: Why do you write about these things? But not knowing how to articulate the thought, they just ask where I get my ideas.

The truth is: you might start with an idea, but a book is more than that. "(Ideas) aren't that important. Really they aren't,' writes the author Neil Gaiman. 'Everyone's got an idea for a book, a movie, a story, a TV series.'

It's not the idea but what you do with it. For me, writing a book is like having an intense dialogue with myself. At every point, I find myself asking why. Why is the character like that? Why would that happen? Why do you care so much you can write tens of thousands of words about it?

I keep asking why, I keep searching for answers (and sometimes not finding them), until the book is done. Really, it's a three way conversation between me, the author; the characters I created; and the readers still to come.

Toni Morrison, one of my favourite authors, has been doing the media rounds recently, promoting her new book God Help The Child. It seems no journalist can interview her without referring to the conversation she's been holding with her reading public since she started writing.

... not only is God Help The Child about its own characters, it is about the conversation Morrison has been having with her readers for decades. In A Mercy, set in the late 1600s, a slave begs a traveling Anglo-Dutch trader to take her daughter with him, hoping that the child will be relatively safer under his ownership. Beloved, set almost two centuries later, examines the exacting and haunting cost of an escaped slave, Sethe, slitting her young daughter's throat rather than letting her child be captured by slave hunters. And, of course, the entire reading of God Help The Child is colored by its relationship to Morrison's debut novel The Bluest Eye. Saeed Jones, NPR
We all suffer from secret wounds, I think. Toni Morrison became a favourite author of mine because her books ask questions that pick at my own secret hurts, freshening the wounds so that I can't forget.

Click on the image to listen to me chat with
Leslea Newman in The Conversation
A couple of weeks ago via a phone link from New York to a BBC radio studio in London, I met Leslea Newman, who made LGBT history by publishing Heather Has Two Mommies, a book that has had a controversial life.

We were the featured guests of the BBC World Service programme The Conversation, hosted by Kim Chakanetsa and produced by Deiniol Buxton. You can listen to our episode here.

Deiniol (back) and Kim at the BBC studio where we recorded the show

Here's Leslea telling the story of how she came to write Heather Has Two Mommies simply because someone told her she couldn't find any books that reflected their family situation.

Looking at Leslea's books, it's clear to me that Heather Has Two Mummies was no one off. Leslea's entire body of work (57 books!) comes from the same heart that wants to embrace those that society tries to push away.

For me, one of the excitements of reading a book is discovering the hidden heart of the author. I believe other readers must have the same desire -- even if they don't know how to put it into words.

You might also be interested to read a piece I wrote for the Guardian last week: Growing up, I thought Filipinos were not allowed to be in books


  1. Very interesting post, Candy. I always enjoy reading your blog. Philippa

  2. Candy, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this question. It's so true! I don't have any books published yet, but I'm trolling through all my ideas, and I can sense I have something in particular that maybe I want to write about. I bet if we stopped and looked at a few authors' body of work, we could pick out some very definite "somethings". I loved both your books, and they definitely resonated with me. What I heard in them was the desire to be part of a family, to be accepted as I am.

    Thanks also for mentioning the Heather Has Two Mummies book. I had heard of it recently, but it didn't really register until just now. Yesterday, I was at a wedding with two brides, and two ladies at our table were mummies with a child and a second on the way. One carried their first child, and the other was carrying their second child. What an amazing gift to be able to do that and have that shared experience of motherhood. Anyway, I think I will buy Leslea's book and send it to these two lovely mums.

    Thank you for your wonderful posts. You always manage to blog about things that I want to know about. It's like you're psychic or something. Snap!

    Love Colleen :) xo

    1. Thanks for your comment, Colleen. It's interesting isn't it how some books tweak that heartstring. What a lovely wedding story - I wish your friends the very best in their marriage.