A big welcome to Charlie Laidlaw. His book, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead was released by Accent Press on 30th June 2017.
About The Things We Learn When We’re Dead…
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets The Lovely Bones in this surrealist, sci-fi comedy.
When Lorna is run over, she wakes in a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions.
It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain.
She seems to be there by accident …Or does God have a higher purpose after all?
He joins me today to talk about the inspiration behind his new novel. Over to you, Charlie…
All books start with a beginning.
For the reader, that beginning is page one.
For the author, the beginning comes much earlier.
For me, that came on a train from Edinburgh to London. For no reason whatsoever, the idea for the book came into my head.
It was an apt place to have that beginning because, being a civilised place, Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book.
Part of the inspiration was a quote from the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who wrote that “our life is what our thoughts make it.”
I’d always thought that life is what happens to you – all things good or bad: the people you meet, the things you do.
But, from a different perspective, everything about life is also about memory. We can’t do our jobs if we can’t remember how to do them; we can’t love people if we’ve forgotten who they are. It is our thoughts that shape us.
It’s the only train journey I’ve ever been on where I hoped for signal failure, or for spontaneous industrial action. I could have sat on that train for another five hours.
When I got home, I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter. The first chapter has changed out of all recognition, but the last chapter is still pretty much the same.
The story I’d come up was the story of Lorna Love, and the book follows her as she grows up. She’s feisty and funny, but also damaged and conflicted. More than anything, she’s someone fairly ordinary who you could meet on any street.
The story is about the small decisions that she makes, and of their unintended consequences. It’s also how, apparently killed in a road accident on her way back from a dinner party, she comes to look back at her life and rearrange her memories in a different pattern.
By the end of the book, when her memorises have come back to her, she can see herself in a new light. Her old memories, rearranged in a new way, make her a different person. (She’s not dead, by the way…and hence the book’s title).
It’s about being given a second chance and that is, perhaps, one of the most universal and recurring theme in literature.
It’s also the central theme of the Wizard of Oz – how a young girl comes to reassess her life and find a new beginning. There’s no place like home is not just physical place but a state of mind..
Most authors simply ignore the fact that everything they write has been written many times before.
Even Shakespeare leaned heavily on the likes of Chaucer and Plutarch.
The fact is that, whether you’re writing about love, death, marriage, betrayal, war or peace, it’s all been written a thousand times before. (Mostly by Shakespeare). There is nothing new under the literary sun.
So, in writing The Things We Learn When We’re Dead, I had to decide whether to ignore the Oz inspiration or to celebrate it.
I decided on the latter because, I thought, there’s no harm in retelling a classic story and giving it a modern makeover for an adult audience.
It meant that I could work in a tinman, cowardly lion and scarecrow – Lorna’s ex-boyfriends. It has a witch, a yellow-brick road and ruby-red slippers. (However, before you ask, It doesn’t have flying monkeys, because that would be absurd).
But it’s also written with a degree of subtlety, so that readers won’t necessarily realise that it’s a nod to L Frank Baum or the iconic film. The links and allusions are there, but not everyone will get them.
It’s a slightly surreal book, set mainly in Edinburgh and East Lothian. I hope it has humour, without being a comedy. I also hope it has heart, because it’s a story we can all relate to.
But more than anything it is a celebration of that universal happy ending: we can get our second chance.
The Lorna in my book gets hers. Like Dorothy before her, Lorna chooses to go home and, with a new pattern to her memories, be a different and happier person. She even gets to click her heels together.
About Charlie Laidlaw:
Charlie was born in Paisley, central Scotland.
He was brought up in the west of Scotland (quite near Paisley,) and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. He still has the scroll, but it’s in Latin, so he says it could say anything.
He’s previously worked briefly as a street actor, baby photographer, puppeteer and restaurant dogsbody before becoming a journalist. He started in Glasgow and ended up in London, covering news, features and politics.
Charlie is married with two grown-up children and lives in East Lothian.