Beowulf in the Bookshop

Beowulf in the Bookshop

Books are inspiring, and libraries and bookshops are inspiring places. And that’s true for writers as well as readers. Whenever a writer tells me that they’re having trouble with their next page or their next piece, I tell them to go to a bookshop. How could you ever feel short of words, when surrounded by such a wealth of imagined worlds?
 
Being blocked has never been my problem. I’ve published six novels in the last seven years, and written more than that. I usually know exactly what I want to write. But sometimes a chance encounter in a bookshop, just like a chance encounter in life, can lead in you an utterly new direction you’d never considered before.
 
That’s what happened with me a couple of years back. I was working on a novel about an isolated community. I’d done some research on the post-war 1960s psychological experiments in the US, like the Milgram Experiment and the Stamford Prison experiment, investigating how separation affected our moral compass. I was in the bookshop looking for related texts, when another book caught my eye. It was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I hadn’t read Beowulf in years, and I’d never realised that his translation existed. I remembered studying Heaney alongside Ted Hughes at school, scraps of his verse came drifting back to me from the past. I was tempted, but I knew I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I picked it up, looked at it long and hard, like a recovering alcoholic staring at someone else’s drink, and put it down again.
 
I suddenly began seeing Beowulf and Seamus Heaney everywhere. Friends started making references to a Hollywood movie adaptation that I’d never heard of. An Oxford colleague casually mentioned that she’d studied under Heaney. The clincher was a radio programme with a recording of Seamus Heaney reading from his translation, with a rich poetry that was both ancient and modern, his distinctive voice and the voice of the unnamed Beowulf writer echoing beneath.
 
I went back and got the book. I read it out loud to myself, because that’s how I think poetry should be read. In fact, that’s how I think everything should be read. (Although I’m admittedly now a little hoarse after reading all seven Harry Potter novels to my four children.) And I was hooked and fascinated, most, by the mother of Grendel. The monstrous mother who had spawned the monstrous child. A creature of myth and legend. She was so powerful, so passionately fuelled by vengeance.
 
EM Forster once wrote, “Only connect!...the prose and the passion,” and that’s what I began to do. I was thinking about the hidden monsters discovered within the volunteers of the Milgram experiment, who found they were able to hurt another person, simply because they were told to do it. I was thinking about the monsters that lay within all of us, and how they might be exposed and perpetuated.
 
And then my oldest child called me a monster one day, when I asked him to do his homework. I may have said something like, “Just be a good boy and do what you’re told.” To which he replied “You’re just a monster, Mummy.” I thought, maybe you’re right. I was stunned that he’d worked it out so easily, when it had taken me months.
 
I put aside the book I was working on, and wrote “Obedience” on a clean white page. And underneath it, I wrote, “Do Good Children Do What They’re Told?” And I wrote a story about a monstrous mother, and her children – her Adam and her fallen angels. It took me two years and a hundred and seventy thousand words and untold heartache. But I knew it would be the best thing I had ever written.
 
The Good Children wasn’t the book I chose to write. It was a book that chose me. And it happened because I was browsing in a bookshop. So this, if you like, is something of a love-letter to libraries and bookshops. With heartfelt thanks for displaying the wonderful words that inspire us all.
 
The Good Children is out now from Tinder Press for £7.99. You can follow Roopa on Twitter @RoopaFarooki.