In the Fold: creation

Week three: Rachel Cusk on the creation of her novel In the Fold

I am not the sort of writer who gets an idea for a book from something they hear on Radio 4. For me, a novel is always the result of my attempt to impose myself on raw circumstances. It is a concrete form of lived experience. Sometimes I wish that I could have a cooler, more research-based relationship to my material, instead of my way, where one runs the constant risk of either annoying people or making a fool of oneself. But then I would lose the excitement of divining, all alone, what is not yet a matter of fact.

In the Fold arose from a number of sources, though I departed a little from my usual methods in the uses I made of them. I had written a lot in the preceding four or five years about women and motherhood, and I very much wanted to write something lighter and more abstract, something deflective and reflective rather than visceral; and something also that expressed the kind of male passivity or haplessness that is often the counterpoint to female involvement in the business of child-bearing and -rearing. In that period I was struck by the fact that where childbirth represents a kind of caesura in the life of a woman, a man is much more continuous with himself at every phase, more in contact with his youth and more susceptible, perhaps, to the impressions he received and the fantasies and delusions they engendered. So I decided on a male mode of narration, though quite late in the day. Initially I had embarked on a much more conventional type of storytelling, involving most of the central characters in In the Fold, but I quickly lost the motivation for that. I don't really believe in stories, only in the people who tell them. What I wanted was the story as the expression of character itself.

We had left London and had been living in rural Somerset for three years, and I had received some strong impressions of English life - chiefly that it is far more clannish and familial than I had realised. There were plenty of people around whose sense of identity was entirely bound up with family, and often with land too. These were not "old" or aristocratic families. What I felt I was witnessing was aristocracy as an ingrained human habit. I realised that much the same thing had been going on in London, only I hadn't recognised it. It seemed to me that "family" had become not just a generational constraint but an established outlet for egotism, vanity and excessive emotionalism. In In the Fold I wanted as much of this kind of comedy as I could get. I used two families - one rural, one urban, but both equally self-mythologising and aggrandising - to play off against one another through the narrator, Michael. One of the themes of the novel is the difficulty in human relationships of establishing what the truth, the reality, is: it seemed to me that this is a difficulty bequeathed to children directly by their parents, a difficulty that emanates from the dualistic core of family life. The characters in the novel are variously burdened by their inability to see things in a way that is not totally personal. Michael's wife Rebecca is the most extreme example of this tendency. Their relationship illustrates what is, to me, the modern predicament of men and women: the suspicion that in their feelings there perhaps is no truth, no reality.

An important factor in the making of the novel was the decision I took to confine the action as far as was possible within dialogue. There were several reasons for this, but it did make the book technically very difficult to write. The difficulty lay in getting the dialogue to be freestanding, as it would be in a play. This was crucial in order to keep the correct dimensions for Michael. I wanted him to act as a prism, but it was incredibly hard to get that effect. The only way was to leave out most of what you wanted to put in. I could only do a very little bit at a time. For me, dialogue is the fundament of characterisation, and in In the Fold I often had nearly all the characters talking at the same time. If you lose the "sound" of a character it can be difficult to get it back again. I became very interested in the orchestration of human voices. For a long time after I'd finished the book I couldn't stop myself, when I was among groups of people talking, from hearing endless passages of music in what was being said. I particularly relished writing Rebecca's speeches. Female hysteria is a subject I'm very fond of. I always try to bring it in somewhere. For me it is the finest part of the line between comedy and tragedy.

· Next week John Mullan will discuss readers' responses to In the Fold. Record your views on the book club blog.

Rachel Cusk

The GuardianTramp

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