I was about to write my promised piece on Anna Karenina, when my editor suggested that perhaps it would be a good idea to mention my new novel since it's coming out this month. This is the culmination of a couple of years' work. You'd think I wouldn't need to be reminded to make some noise about it. And yet I'm sure I'm not the only writer who prefers working to talking about workand who shrinks from anything that feels like self-promotion. Also that book is now done and I'm on to the next thing. Also Trump. By which I mean the world is in a dangerous condition and my book seems trivial in comparison.
But most things are trivial in comparison to something else. And the reading of fiction remains a source of profound emotional succour, allowing us both to escape from our immediate concerns and to place those concerns in a more timeless perspective. Where do I go in my spare time or while standing in a queue or sitting on a train? These days into the pages of Tolstoy – War and Peace, now that I've finished Anna Karenina.And I find the impulse to write stories has been sharpened, not diminished, by events in the world. Increasingly dystopian visions of a fragmented future are my main output right now. Walls sprout up from my unconscious. And so I respond to events and escape from them at the same time.
The Book of Air grew out of an idle speculation. What if there were an isolated rural community with only one novel? Since the inhabitants have no concept of fiction, they take it literally. But it's unique, so they study it closely, searching it for other levels of meaning. It becomes a source of moral guidance. Its moments of heightened conflict are ceremonially re-enacted as rites of passage. They find metaphorically reflected in it theclash of elements in the world of nature. The whole drama of human existence is encapsulated in its narrative.
I decided the novel should be Jane Eyre, precisely because that book seems designed to deliver escapist pleasure more than the kind of high moral seriousness that we might look for in, say, George Eliot. And because Dickens is too rooted in the life of the city and its institutions and Austen's characters too restricted by social convention. And because I like it.
I pictured this community living in the future. Jane Eyre is part of their accidental inheritance, along with a house, some cottages and an area of farmland. And that set me thinking about their ancestors, a handful of survivors from some catastrophe of our own time gathering in this place as though returning reluctantly to a Garden of Eden. Who might they be and what serpents would they bring with them, what sources of human conflict to keep the human drama going? And how would they express the essential human urge to create meaningin the face of damage and disorder?