In 1994 I moved into coastguard cottage #6 in Birling Gap, East Sussex. It’s an iconic place in England; whenever the media needs to show coastal erosion, this run of homes is the feature. Another couple of the run of terraced houses have fallen into the sea since I moved out.
This picture, from my return last week, captures some of the peculiar summer charm of life by the sea. I walked up to the lighthouse, the mist so thick I was right beside its stone wall before I could see it.
That little cottage and the lighthouse, now a B&B, feature strongly in my novel Look Who’s Watching. I like building fiction around real places. The novel’s main Santa Fe setting was another home, one we rented in the winter of 1995-6. Santa Fe Airport; the Buddhist stupa on Airport Road, Santa Fe; the private dining rooms of Rules restaurant in Covent Garden; the beach at Bei Dai He near Beijing; a flight in a private plane – if I don’t already know a place, I tend to visit and spend time there before bringing it into fiction.
It was good to go bad and realise just how elemental that time in the cottage was. I’d recently said to my then agent, Deborah Rogers, ‘I can’t keep up the writing, a job, and the social life,’ and so in the move to Sussex I surrendered the social life. I did my teaching job by day, would return home and walk up the lighthouse and back, and then write. Winds drove the rain in waves through the letterbox and spume from the sea swirled around like snow.
Look Who’s Watching is a supernatural thriller, with a take on the theme of Buddhist reincarnation. It was triggered into being after a weekend in Montana, camped out in fields while the Black Foot tribe transmitted their stories outside of their own people for the first time. We were driving away from that period of isolation and stopped off at a log diner for Sunday breakfast. The woman behind the counter heard my English accent and expressed her sympathy. She was clearly very troubled. ‘Don’t you know?’ she asked, when I asked what was wrong. She told me that Princess Diana had been in a serious car accident in Paris.
I went to a call box and phoned home. It seemed right, to reestablish order in that way. Driving onward, I said, ‘Even now someone is writing the book about this,’ upset at the thought. And promptly, the idea for this novel began to play itself out. It took an English actress as its lead rather than a princess (I know more actresses than princesses), with the paparazzi on her tail.
I was also attempting to write a bestseller. James, my partner, told me I had to investigate the genre first before throwing myself at it. I duly did. One element that was in all bestsellers was a chase – hence the climactic run down the hill from the lighthouse and the chase scene across the Downs to the cliff edge at Beachy Head, paparazzi riding their motorbikes.
It’s not yet a bestseller, despite valiant work from Caffeine Nights. It plays at many levels, a major one being an investigation of media barons. Rupert Murdoch once dismissed the Dalai Lama as ‘an old monk in Gucci shoes’. The book is written as karma for that comment.