The strange truth about how great fiction is made

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The Independent Online

Already the scoffers and sneerers, people whose habit it is to run from life's deeper mysteries, are giggling about Jeanette Winterson and her psychic astrologer. Just because this brilliant, uncompromising literary novelist has recently revealed that she consults Henrietta Llewellyn Davies, formerly the astrologer for TV Times and Woman's Own, now a freelance psychic therapist, it has been assumed that she is some kind of oddball. Ms Llewellyn Davies specialises in decisions concerning property and interior decoration, apparently, but Jeanette Winterson uses her to help with the "bewildering offers, great and small" that she receives. On one occasion, when the novelist was ill, her psychic visited her while she was asleep. "I dreamed of a purple hen - and the next day she told me she had been by to see how I was."

Anyone who writes fiction will understand the importance of having a friendly psychic on hand to help reach the dreaming, spiritual side of one's nature. Sitting at a desk grinding out prose is all very well but it is only through making mystical connections - activating one's own personal purple hen, if you like - that a story comes alive.

Of course, very few writers are as open about their lives as Jeanette Winterson. Most prefer to prattle on about "research", "character", "style" or "interiority" rather than reveal the techniques they use to access their unconscious. But the literary rumour mill is a highly-effective source of information - even if it is slightly unreliable.

It is said, for example, that the astonishing burst of brilliant, late-flowering productivity that has marked the recent career of the great American novelist Philip Roth was caused by one great, life-changing event: he was abducted by aliens. The story goes that, during the mid-1990s, Roth was writing a gentle, leisurely, Indian-summer kind of novel about a puppet-master called Mickey Sabbath and his dying mistress, when, without warning, he was relocated beyond the time-space continuum by a group of extraterrestrials who used him as their plaything in various unspecified ways. Roth is reluctant to discuss his experience but has admitted privately to friends that, when he returned to his desk from the outer reaches of the universe, he was really quite angry. The novel he was writing, Sabbath's Theater, subsequently became altogether darker and more savage, as did his subsequent two novels. They are known to insiders as the "urban spaceman trilogy".

Others have had to work harder to find their purple hen. According to literary gossip, the Islington farceuse Kathy Lette asks her husband, Geoffrey Robertson QC, to fire a series of random words and phrases at her - "Beckham", "Eurocrat", "colander", "Charles Clarke" - to which she must reply with an instant quip, sexual pun or play on words. By the time she reaches her desk, she is in a state of altered consciousness where any form of reality can be turned instantly into a joke.

Of course there are dangers in these techniques. More than once, Lette has been caught while in a joke trance and interviewed on the radio, with incomprehensible results, but that is the kind of price which a serious writer of fiction must be prepared to pay. The eminent new puritan Toby Litt has become used to taking more time than usual to complete even the simplest journey while writing a novel - he accesses his dreaming side by refusing to allow himself to turn right until he has completed his first draft.

Friends of Ian McEwan know that it can be physically dangerous to ring him between 9am and 2pm, his writing time. Ever since working on one of his early novels The Child in Time, McEwan has found that, as he reaches the climactic point in a work, he can actually levitate while writing. Unfortunately, when he is interrupted by a telephone or someone calling up the stairs to offer him a cup of tea, gravity reasserts itself so dramatically that he risks jarring his back.

But perhaps the simplest way to reach one's inner otherness is to employ the method that was said to be Lord Archer's favourite. Every morning before starting work, Archer would spend 45 minutes putting down any bit of gibberish that happened to drift into his mind in order to ease himself into a writing state of mind. With characteristic canniness, the author published his doodles as a book of short stories and nobody could tell any difference from the rest of his work.