Can you tell me about Painting by Numbers?
It’s difficult to talk about Painting by Numbers without giving away the story. I like to let readers make up their own mind about what the book is about. I suppose you could say that on one level the story is about an academic’s obsession with a 17th century allegorical painting, and then his frantic search for his missing wife which takes him from Glasgow to Barcelona and Madrid. But Painting by Numbers isn’t really about any of that… But if I had to pin it down to a few words, I would describe the book as a love story.
What sparked the original idea?
I’ve talked a lot about a strange man I saw in The Prado Museum in Madrid, laying out lines of thread on the floor in the Velazquez Gallery. But there are so many factors and incidents and emotions that spark an idea for a book, and then help motivate me to continue writing it. It’s a complicated and personal process that I wouldn’t like to analyse too much.
What research, if any, was needed to write it?
When I started writing PBN, I soon realised that it would require quite a bit of research, in areas such as mathematical and art history. I am fortunate to work at a university with one of the largest academic libraries in the country, along with some of the best maths brains working there too. I enlisted the help of a maths professor and PhD researcher to help me plot out my central character’s bizarre theory, so that it would sound vaguely plausible. We also worked fairly intensely on the language and how to incorporate some maths without losing readers along the way. Eventually, I found ways to talk about maths without actually talking about it at all, so that there is the semblance of mathematical content but actually, there’s not a great deal included. It’s all smoke and mirrors, which in many ways fits well with the themes of deception that run throughout the book.
Can you share about the writing process – did you plan in advance or write it by the seat of your pants?
A bit of both. When I started, I had a very loose idea of where I wanted my story to go. I had a beginning, a few sketches around the middle and then a few months in, I had the ending. Then I would juggle stream of consciousness writing with a more controlled, editorial approach, slowly crafting and shaping the narrative structure out of the mess of scribbles, notes, words and ideas. As PBN is fairly complex, I used post-it notes on a big board to keep track of everything that was going on. I have to say I love both sides of the creative process, free writing and the hard graft of editing. One requires space, time and understanding of loved ones, while the other requires an obsessive nature and a compulsive personality.
Could you describe two or three of the characters from the book and explain how you created them?
Jacob Boyce is the central character. The story lives inside his head, so we travel with him on his psychological journey. He is an anti-hero, and in many respects, not a very pleasant guy. He is a drunk, a misfit and egotist who is pretty unpleasant to most of the people he encounters along the way, including his wife and his mother in law. And yet there is something else going on with him that I hope will encourage the reader to stick with his story and continue to empathise with his plight as more of his story is revealed. Anti-heroes are fascinating to write and I enjoyed the challenge of creating a character who is pretty objectionable. But it was tough at times living with the guy inside my own head for so long.
I suppose Jacob is like a dysfunctional family member who we feel compelled to look after, despite all his flaws and weaknesses. In fact, all the men in the book are pretty hopeless in one way or another, whereas the female characters are a great deal more sympathetically drawn. I wanted to set up a polarity of contrast between the male and female protagonists, partly to highlight Jacob’s blind stupidity and selfishness. But also, there is a sense throughout that the female characters are driving the narrative forward, and that they are the only ones who really know what’s going on.
Is there a particular message in the book you’d like readers to understand?
I have absolutely no idea about that, and as I said before.. that’s something for the reader to decide.
Where can people buy the book?
- Tom Gillespie’s ‘Writing Life’ interview can be read here.