Writing The Mathematics of Love
‘I want you to spend twenty minutes writing something with the title Watch,’ said the novelist Mary Flanagan, taking her own watch off and putting it in front of her on the table. We were in a writing workshop on the Greek island of Skyros, many years ago. Before she had finished setting the exercise I had seen a soldier in a red coat, standing on a watchtower against the same kind of terracotta and dark green Mediterranean landscape that we were sitting in. It was Wellington’s war, I knew: he must be in Spain. But what was he watching? A woman, bathing in a river.
I never set out to write historical fiction: it’s just that history keeps being what I want to write about. Years later, looking for a story-within-a-story for a new piece, I remembered my soldier. His coat became green as I transferred him to the Rifle Brigade, and the dusty plains of Extremadura became the misty, pine-hung Basque country. And his name became Stephen Fairhurst. At first I wrote only his letters, which told his past to an anonymous correspondent. But I came to know so much that he didn’t write – of his past life in war and his present life in peace – that I realised I had to find a way for him tell his whole story.
And yet I couldn’t let go of the image of someone else reading his letters, someone living their own story while piecing together his, someone for whom his history comes to have meaning. One of the things I’m most interested in as a writer is how people are changed by what happens to them. What kind of person would find their life utterly changed by understanding Stephen’s story of war and love and the pain of loss?
Anna Ware was born – young, cynical, cross and lonely – and because another thing I’m interested in is how layers of history exist in one place, I pushed her off to live in Stephen’s house, in one of the landscapes of my own childhood: Suffolk, in the long, hot summer of 1976.
And where does my great-great-great grandfather come into it? I needed a link to Tom Wedgwood, the pioneer of photography, but he died thirteen years too early, in 1806. However, his brother-in-law was Robert Darwin, Charles Darwin’s doctor father. I can’t tell you how without giving too much away, but in The Mathematics of Love, although he’s never named, you’ll find out where and how I used Robert Darwin to make that all-important link.