Love story, mystery, and political dystopia – Silence is Also a Lie is all three, and each aspect of the story came to me separately, one after the other. With each, I felt the story gaining shape and focus, but it was only once all three were in place that I felt I had a coherent plot and could begin writing.
I started with a vague aspiration to write a love story. I had just finished writing a novel about the relationship between a brother and sister, and knew that I wanted my next story to have the different emotional heartbeat of a romance. The names Ash and Zara came to me early, as did the idea that their relationship would play out in the shadow and aftermath of Ash’s sister’s death. But in the beginning, that was all. I had no notion of what their story would be.
Inspiration came in a playwriting course run by the writers Bernard Kops and Tom Fry, which I had been attending for some time. Each class followed the same pattern: we were given 45 minutes or so to write a scene, and then what we had written was handed to the two actors who attended each session, and performed by them, ink still wet on the page. It was, I suppose, the pressure of that exposure that made the classes some of the most intense writing experiences I have ever had: often terrifying, occasionally inspiring (I came to love them, and profoundly miss them now that they have stopped). Though there were often set themes or prompts for our writing, we were free to follow our own paths, and I started using the classes to explore possible stories for Ash and Zara. About four weeks in I wrote (out of the blue: I hadn’t thought of it before I started writing) a scene between Ash and Zara which rapidly becomes an argument, as Ash learns that she has been keeping secrets from him about his sister, Sophie’s, death. As the actors finished reading it, Tom said, ‘Ooh. That’s story,’ and I knew immediately that it was. The scene felt like a moment of condensed energy that held all the DNA of a story. I could instinctively sense how that mystery – of a girl staying silent about something utterly and absolutely important to the boy she loves – could generate a tangled backstory, and a forward-driving plot full of tension and conflict.
But why would Zara not have told Ash what she knew about Sophie? There could have been so many answers to that question, and I spent weeks turning over possibilities: this could have become a psychological thriller, or a crime novel… But I have always been attracted – as a reader and a writer – to works that connect individual stories to the big narratives of history and politics. And this was late 2014 and early 2015: that moment in the UK when right-wing voices on immigration, national identity, membership of the EU and so on, were increasingly audible. There was a sense of something different and disturbing in the air. What, I wondered, would a fascist government look like, in 21st century Britain? And then – what if the events of this story happened under such a regime? – if Zara belonged to a politically proscribed group? – if keeping under the radar by staying silent about what she knew was necessary for her survival? Setting the novel in this near future dystopia gave the story shape, a clear drive, and an added urgency.
So here it is: love story, mystery, and political dystopia: each thread an essential part of the woven whole. You can read chapter one here.