Inspiration is such a strange and slippery thing. For me, the seeds of a story seem to take root when a memory from the distant past is triggered by something that catches my attention in the present. That is exactly how this scrap of paper came to spark the plot for my new book Chasing the Dark.
I found it lying in the street when I was trying to come up with the plot for a crime mystery. I can’t even remember where I was at the time but it made such an impression on me that I took it home, pinned it to the notice board beside my desk and looked at it all the time I was thinking about the plot.
The little boy is smiling at the camera, happily leaning back in his mother’s arms and obviously feeling safe and secure. His mum however, is looking off into the distance. Is she thinking about the future or the past? Has someone or something caught her attention? You get the feeling that these two are alone in the world, so perhaps she is a single mum. If you look more closely you can see that the image has been created from two separate pictures put together with a ragged white rip passing between the two figures. While the little boy is surrounded by warm red bricks and the homely clutter of garden chairs, the mother is cut off by a bleak cold wall, as if he has a future and she does not.
The boy also appears to be mixed race, which resonated with me because I am the child of a white English mother and an absent African father, a combination that is commonplace nowadays but pretty rare when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s. This is a picture of me and my mother taken when I must have been about two.
So I was interested in exploring the strengths and tensions within a modern single parent family with a missing African father and the more I looked at the image on my notice board the more it began to shape the back story of Joe Slattery, the fourteen year old hero of Chasing the Dark.
All he knows about his father is that he was a Kenyan student who went back to Nairobi before Joe was born. His mum Sadie has struggled to bring him up, earning a precarious living by singing in pubs and clubs and performing at weddings. They live on a rundown housing estate in North London and although they have their problems their bond is extremely close. Joe’s whole world is therefore ripped apart when his mum is killed in a hit and run car crash alongside a well-known investigative journalist. Since Sadie never accepted lifts from strangers, the only conclusion Joe can draw is that for some reason the journalist had met her by arrangement before driving her home. Joe is overwhelmed by a burning desire to know what that reason was and as he struggles with his grief he begins a desperate chase through a dangerous world of secrets, lies and conspiracy.
Part of that conspiracy was inspired by a documentary I made for the BBC nearly twenty years ago, called “The Picasso Files”, all about the files that the Soviet Secret Service had kept on the artist Pablo Picasso during the cold war. It gave me a fascinating insight into the way the KGB ran their spying operations. The KGB archive in Moscow sent me a huge box of photocopied files in Russian which I sent off to a translator. When the translations came back I realised that some of the pages had nothing to do with Picasso and had quite obviously been misfiled. To be honest, what was on them was really unexciting but I have always wondered what would happen if a few pages that were still top secret accidentally found their way into the hands of a reporter. Then, a couple of years ago, I read that the government in Ukraine were opening up some of their KGB archive to the public. When I discovered that former Soviet spies were panicking because top secret files really were falling into the hands of journalists I knew I’d found the key to the mystery at the heart of Chasing the Dark.
Chasing the Dark is out now, published by Chicken House.
Find out more about Sam Hepburn at www.samhepburnbooks.com
Thanks to Sam for being this week's guest at the Edge.