How I came to write Paradise Girl
I’m lucky to live in a converted farmhouse overlooking the Calder Valley. The views from the house are spectacular, and I spend far to much time each day simply gazing at the scenery. Although the house is on its own land and not close to any others, there’s always some activity to see and hear. Perhaps there’s a tractor working on a neighbouring farm, a train passing along the valley, vapour trails, a helicopter, an emergency services siren, movement on the opposite hillside. There’s always the distant hum of human beings going about their business, so even here you know you are not alone.
In the middle of summer 2013 there was a communication from the electricity company warning that the power would be off for a few hours so they could prune some trees that were interfering with the overhead cables. The chosen day was still and hot. I worked on my laptop until the battery ran down, then took a cold drink out into the garden. I settled on a bench and looked around, and it struck me: I couldn’t see or hear any movement. None at all, except for the silent revolution of the wind turbines on the opposite hill. The distant chainsaw of the tree trimmers had gone silent. There were no signs of life anywhere, not even a sheep bleating, a cow lowing or the barking of a neighbour’s dog. It was as if the valley and all around it had gone into a state of suspended animation.
I had a thought. Suppose there was no one else. Suppose all the other people near me had disappeared – perhaps run away, been taken by aliens, or felled by some deadly virus. How would I know I was alone? How would I cope entirely by myself? What would I do? How would I survive? Could I?
The idea for Paradise Girl was born.
The heroine and hero of Paradise Girl, the twins Kerryl and Lander, had been in my head for some time. I was working on the plot for a novel based on organ harvesting in which they would feature, but it wasn’t going well and so they were hanging about in the background, twiddling their thumbs. They pushed forward, keen to be at the centre of my new story.
It was then a matter of deciding how it might be that there was no one else left, what might have happened to create such a tragedy. Around that time an outbreak of ebola was raging in Africa, and there was daily news of the fear and suffering experienced by the people exposed to it. So a virus seemed to be a possible answer, a highly infectious one which defied preventative measures because it constantly mutated.
I imagined a house not unlike ours, and Kerryl and Lander and their family moved in. It remained to tell the story of how the infection spread from its point of origin to this tiny corner of the world, what might occur on the way, and what might happen when it got here. Their friends and family would all fall victim to the disease, and then so would they. But what if by some fluke one of them was immune, perhaps the only person anywhere who was? It would be a version of the Robinson Crusoe story, a tale of a character in total isolation, exploring how fear, loneliness and the removal of everything which until then had supported their lives, affected them. Kerryl, or Lander? I decided it should be Kerryl, although I also decided to keep the survival of Lander as a possibility.
Right, so Kerryl is alone and the story is how she got to be in that predicament, how it impacts on her and what she does. It’s obvious it can’t just be her, though. Stories need characters; she needs a Man (or Woman) Friday. Enter Adam, but not a real Adam, a phantom friend she creates in her imagination.
The last major decision was how to tell the story. It couldn’t be in the first person, because a reader would want to know whether or not Kerryl lives through it, and if she were narrating it that suspense would be lost. Also, with very few characters there’s not much opportunity for dialogue, and straightforward narration would get tedious. The answer was for her to write a diary. She could describe the events and what she makes of them in the first person, and the matter of whether or not she lived through it all would remain a question until the end. There used to be a fashion in the 19th century for telling stories through letters and diaries, and I liked the idea. I included some media reports and texts too, to offer a little variety.
All that remained was to write the book.