The Purest Form of… Inspiration

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I am fascinated by destruction. My novel, The Purest Form of Chaos, has two protagonists: one is called Phoenix, after the bird that resurrects from its own ashes, and the other is Persephone, after the queen of the underworld and goddess of spring in Greek mythology. The need for rebirth is threaded throughout the plot, the characters’ names, the very fabric of the narrative. The Purest Form of Chaos isn’t ostensibly a story about destruction – it’s a story about the things we build. The things we build, and how they inevitably destroy us. Perhaps it is not destruction itself I am fascinated by, but how we exist in the wake of it.

I began writing the novel that would eventually become The Purest Form of Chaos on 15th April 2012. I didn’t have a plan. The Persephone myth was haunting me; the name Persephone kept cropping up everywhere – if I remember correctly, I even saw it in a mascara commercial. I write about the things I cannot escape, and in Spring 2012, I couldn’t escape the Persephone myth.

Once I began writing, there was a variety of things that inspired me – my fascination with Russia (and eventually Estonia), with revolutions and monarchy, and the blessing of characters like Phoenix, who popped into my head fully formed. I have written seven complete novels (and a handful of unfinished ones), and in my entire portfolio of written work, Phoenix is the best character I have ever created. Writing as a teenager, Phoenix was the best friend I never had. As an adult, writing her was a different experience. I could see her more clearly – the way she is affected by trauma, the hold her family dynamic has over her, the bitter irony that her strong desire for security is always the cause of her instability. Phoenix is the kind of character I could write in any scene, any genre, almost any format, because I know her inside out.

If I searched the dark recesses of my brain, I could remember what inspired me to write the book in the first place. But it doesn’t feel entirely relevant. The Purest Form of Chaos grew up and adapted alongside me, and I’m more interested in the themes that came up in the editing process, or the later stages of the rewriting process, than what I originally wrote at 14.

My favourite kind of conversations are the ones that begin with “what if—” and “do you think—”. Four years of improvised theatre have given me a tendency to say whatever bizarre thoughts come into my head; I write like that, too. The Purest Form of Chaos is one long “what if?” What are the limits of science? What allows us to call ourselves human? How far would we go for people we love? How do we justify our crimes? How do we recover from trauma? Are mental violations worse than physical ones? How much control do we have over our own bodies, our own minds? As the first book in a series, The Purest Form of Chaos poses an implicit hypothesis, but it doesn’t provide the answers.

The original version of The Purest Form of Chaos was the first book in a trilogy. The sequel suffered a classic case of Second Book Syndrome. I didn’t like the book, I didn’t like my protagonist, it didn’t fit within the overarching tone of the series. I can learn from those mistakes now. I want book two to be more than a bridge. The Purest Form of Chaos is the only book in the series that will follow its original narrative; I am changing the rest of the series completely – as I said: I am fascinated by destruction.

Book two will pick up a decade-and-a-half after the end of The Purest Form of Chaos. It will feature some characters from the first book, which will be an interesting endeavour for me as a writer. Writing Phoenix from the ages of 17-21 is entirely different to writing Phoenix at 36. But the biggest challenge is writing my new protagonists: Melinoë and Irina, who are both young children or babies in The Purest Form of Chaos. They will be complex, nuanced characters by the time I am done with them, but they don’t have the same intense, intimate relationship that Phoenix and Persephone do. It is the friendship between Phoenix and Persephone that gives The Purest Form of Chaos its verisimilitude, and I don’t know how to recreate that quality in a novel that isn’t centred around their friendship.

Book two will very much be a book about family, legacy, and the revoking of identities that have been bestowed upon us. The central theme of the book will be: who were we born as, and who will we choose to be? There will always be parts of our history that we can’t escape. Self-awareness only gets us so far, and that’s an interesting idea to explore as a writer. If The Purest Form of Chaos is a book about blatant trauma, its sequel will be about insidious trauma. It’s the difference between being stabbed with a sword, and being prodded by needles over such a long period of time that you don’t realise you’re bleeding out. The Purest Form of Chaos is a book about choices, and the sequel is about the lives we can’t choose, the lives that are forced upon us. It’s about being trapped, and struggling to balance your authenticity with your obligations.

I am inspired by people, communities, relationships. I’m inspired by the ties that bind us together, even when we want to run away. I’m also inspired by the world. A couple of nights ago, I read back through a little of The Purest Form of Chaos, as I tend to do when I’m feeling melancholy. My favourite parts are those I added in during the final edit, last summer, when I was in Estonia. I’ve visited Estonia four times, and I used to look at photos of Tallinn and see my novel, imagine my characters. It’s eery now to see photos of empty Estonian streets, because that’s what it would look like in my novel, in a world where mass tourism no longer exists. But I don’t just see novel settings anymore. When I see the turrets of Viru Gate, I think of the Rimi supermarket nearby, and the 99-cent focaccia I used to buy there. I see the Hotel Viru/Viru Keskus buildings, which become the Estonian Institute of Scientific Research in my novel, and remember grocery shopping in the supermarket in the basement of Viru Keskus. My characters’ fictional lives merge with the real life I lived last summer. I read descriptions in my novel of Tallinn train station, or the cobbled streets of the old town, and I am transported to two worlds instead of one.

I want to visit Russia one day, to familiarise myself with the other settings from my novel. Travel has made me the woman I am, given me strength and joie de vivre that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I miss the world, I miss travelling. I want to be excited and inspired, and have new experiences. I’ve been to the Baltic States so many times now that they’re an extension of my comfort zone. I want to go somewhere new.

Yes, this whole blog post was just an excuse to post pictures from my time in Estonia

Perhaps it’s the same with my writing. I spent the best part of 8 years perfecting The Purest Form of Chaos. The sequel will be its own adventure. I can’t see more of the world right now, but I can write about it. My characters will feel trapped in their lives, but, to me, their world is an escape from my own.

So, what inspires me now?

Power and control. I’m interested in totalitarian states, and the people that rebel against them. But I often find myself writing from within the system, instead of outside it. I’m interested in hereditary monarchy because it ties together three themes I am fascinated by: autocratic rulership, inescapable family destinies, and rebirth/the continuation of cycles. Where The Purest Form of Chaos looks at monarchy from the periphery, a grey area that grows to become black and white, book two will explore this strange dichotomy of power and powerlessness from within. What does it mean to be the ruler of a country, but not the ruler of your own fate?

I’m also, as ever, inspired by love. The romances in The Purest Form of Chaos were filled with the uncertainty of youth, and the struggles of trying to balance love for another person with the search for your own identity. In book two, some of my older characters have been in the same relationship for a long time, and I get to write about love in a way that wasn’t possible in The Purest Form of Chaos. As much as I love writing dystopia and science fiction, underneath it all I am the ultimate romantic. I’m not going to write whole novels about couples who’ve been married for 15 years, because it’s not the kind of story I’m drawn to tell, but it makes a nice cosy background for all thing awful things I’ll torment my characters with.

Politics, philosophy, and justice are also prominent themes in my writing. I’m still figuring out what I believe about the world. I could say I’m an agnostic socialist, but those are broad labels, and I think we all find our own meanings within the labels we use. In my writing, I can explore different ideologies—and the practicality of them—in a fictional setting. So many ideas that have haunted me since the days of Philosophy & Ethics A Level feature within The Purest Form of Chaos. The ones I keep coming back to are: do we have free will? And: what makes us human? If our humanity is defined by rational thought, why aren’t robots human? Why are babies human? I write about the grey areas. I have little interest in black-and-white laws of nature; I’m interested in the chaos on the periphery, all the exceptions that challenge the rules.

The Purest Form of Chaos” is a rather fitting title not only for the novel itself, but for all my writing. I am an analytical person, and because of this, I will always be drawn to the things I can’t fully analyse. I want to fit everything neatly into boxes, and I can’t. So I write about the boxes that won’t stay shut, the boxes that are crushed by the weight of their contents. You can’t put ideas in a box, you can’t put love in a box, you can’t put power in a box. I don’t want to write a formulaic novel about boxes stacked neatly in a row, I want to write about the chaos that ensues when there’s a flood, and all the cardboard begins to break. I want to write something that even I don’t fully understand. The Purest Form of Chaos makes sense to me, the plot ties together, and by the time the series ends, everything in the books will add up. But there is also an element of magic about it. I don’t understand why this was the book I couldn’t let go of after 7 years, why it was the longest commitment of my life. I can’t write a list of everything that makes it special, because some things can’t be calculated with words or facts. There is no formula I can follow to make the sequel live up to it. All I can do is give book 2 its own kind of magic. Like people, books evolve over time, and the beauty of a series is that you don’t have to contain this evolution within one book. Each book takes on its own identity, and they fit together like different stages of a person’s life. The Purest Form of Chaos accompanied me from the ages of 14-21. Book two meets me at 22, and I don’t know how long our journey will last. I stand by the shore, watching the ship of The Purest Form of Chaos sail away, and book two has come to take my hand, and lead me on a new adventure, across dry land.

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