Today's guest post comes from Katherine Webb, author of the newly released novel, The Legacy, in which she tells a story that ranges from present-day England back to the American West in the early twentieth century, as two sisters are embroiled in an investigation into the strange, never solved disappearance of their cousin, a dark mystery that opened deep family wounds that never healed. Read on to learn about the themes and meaning inside The Legacy.
In Search of Meaning
I recently saw a brilliant Venn diagram, with ‘What the author meant’ in one circle and ‘What your English teacher thinks the author meant’ in the other, with only the slimmest ellipsis of common ground in the middle. It made me laugh, and it got me thinking about my own awareness of the themes and messages present in my books. The Legacy is my first published novel, but was actually the seventh one I wrote – the first six being consigned (probably wisely) to the back of a drawer. I had never once stopped to think, either before I sat down to write or once a book was finished, what the moral of the story was, or even what the pervading themes might be.
Only once The Legacy was published was I forced to think more deeply about these things, and able to come up with coherent explanations of them. The Legacy was fortunate enough to get a spot on The TV Book Club in the UK, and I was filmed discussing the writing of the novel, my motivations, and what the book ‘was about’. I quickly gathered that a précis of the plot wouldn’t cut it – they wanted to know what the story was about. Cue a moment of blind panic from the author… Since then I have written several articles and given several interviews about The Legacy, and by having to analyze my own work in this way I’ve come to realize that there are indeed morals, messages and themes within it that I hadn’t really been aware of at the time of writing.
Of course every writer is different, and I’m sure there are many who sit down and know from day one precisely what they want to write about – authors who begin with a message that they wish to convey, or a moral dilemma around which they wish to structure their plot. I start with a story. I start with characters, and a rough idea of what will happen to them, and how they might be affected by that. I start, and am propelled through the book, by the simple, joyous question: What’s going to happen next? When it comes to dissecting what did happen next, and what those events and the reactions my characters have to them say about the world, about people, about life… I am, it would seem, on as much of a voyage of discovery as my readers!
I recently handed in my third novel to my UK publisher, and for the first time I had written a full twelve page synopsis prior to starting work on it, to give my editor and my agent a better idea of what I was working on. I found it excruciatingly hard – like trying to describe a dream to somebody once you’ve woken up. You can see it clearly in your head, where it makes perfect sense; but when it comes to putting it into words it’s like trying to take hold of smoke. But I soldiered on and got it down on paper, and once my agent had read it we met to discuss. Her first question, having made some encouraging opening comments, was: ‘So what’s the book actually about? What are you trying to say with this story?’ I could have wept into my hot chocolate…
I’m still relatively new to this way of thinking – to the level of self-awareness a professional writer is expected to have. I don’t think it will ever come naturally to me, and I’m never going to try to identify themes or messages before I start a book. I would hate to lose that urge to simply tell a story; I would hate to weigh my characters down with the need to behave in a specific way, or to reach certain conclusions. I like moral grey areas, and flawed human emotions; I like a book to develop as I write it. But I’m getting used to looking back, once a book is finished, and thinking as carefully about it as any English student might, so that I can answer the tricky questions when they come!
So I can now tell you that The Legacy is a story about the importance of facing up to the mistakes we make; it’s about reconciling old feelings with new situations; it’s about the power of the past – both our own personal pasts and the distant past of history – to shape our thoughts and actions, even when we aren’t aware of it; it’s about love, loss and finding redemption. And I hope that there are things in it that readers will find, that I hadn’t even realised were there. As for what my new book is about…well, I’m still thinking about that. I’ll get back to you!
Browse inside The Legacy, check out the reading group guide and friend Katherine Webb on Facebook.