About Nell Leyshon
Nell Leyshon, British novelist and playwright, reflects on her experience of writing a short story inspired by Cervantes for the new anthology Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories After Shakespeare and Cervantes. Nell is one of two UK authors being supported by the British Council to speak at the Bocas Lit Fest which takes place in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, from 27 April to 1 May 2016.
Nell will read from her story in the anthology which celebrates the legacies of Shakespeare and Cervantes, and will discuss how their classic works have weathered the centuries and still shape our imaginations. Accompanying her will be scholars Giselle Rampaul and Carolina Arrieta Castillo. The panel will be chaired by David Codling, Director Arts, Americas at the British Council. The event takes place on Sunday 1 May at 11am – 12 noon at the Old Fire Station.
Nell Leyshon is a British novelist and playwright and is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Southampton. She is the author of the novels Black Dirt (2004), shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best First Book) and longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction; Devotion (2008); The Colour of Milk (2012), which won the Libro del Ano prize in Spain, the Prix de l’Union Intéralliée in France and was runner up for the Prix Femina; and Memoirs of a Dipper (2015). The Voice (2008) brings together two short stories, ‘The Voice’ and ‘F Sharp’
The story of my story
When I received the email asking if I would like to write a story inspired by the work of Cervantes, my first idea was set in his birthplace, Alcalá de Henares, where I had been the previous year. The story focused on a relationship and the theatre in Alcalá, one of the oldest in Spain. I wrote around 3,000 words but the story wasn’t quite alive. It was all right, but it didn’t excite me, and so I threw it away. I turned to his short novels, the novelas ejemplares, and found El Licenciado Vidriera the story of the lawyer who believed he was made of glass. I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to re-imagine it. I wanted to feel again what it is to be on the turn of adolescence, to go from having an invisible body, to having one which is publicly scrutinised.
I wrote my story Glass quickly as though in a fever. I had been very ill t he previous year, and had procedures to examine the inside of my body: I lay on scanning machines and saw images of my pelvis, of my lungs, of my beating heart. The powerlessness I felt at being told where to lie, when to undress, was driven into the narrative of the young girl. I finished, rewrote it, rewrote it again. And when I submitted it, I acknowledged the fact that if I hadn’t been asked to respond to Cervantes’ work, the story would not exist.
But that was not the end.
Two weeks after I sent the story, I was re-reading my writing journal. It is where I put ideas, thoughts about writing, and any writing quotes I want to remember. I flipped back through the pages, back through time to old thoughts, old ideas. And there, on the left hand page, dated four years previously, I had written: Write a story about a girl who thinks she is made of glass.
I stared at my own handwriting. I had already had the idea. But I had no memory of writing these words and had no memory of having the idea. I had definitely never read El Licenciado Vidriera before.
But that was not the end.
The following week, I was tidying up the notes I keep on my smartphone. Random thoughts, ideas. And there, two years ago, I had written: Write about a girl made of glass.
The idea had been inside me, had attempted to burst out at least two times. There was an inevitability that I would eventually write it. And when I was invited to take part in the project, it meant my idea that I had had all along, took form and became real.
It felt at the time of sending off the story that I had completed a task which I had been set, but in fact more than that, it was one more thing I could tick off the list of ideas that comes solely from my imagination, from my subconscious mind, which moves in odd, slow, underwater ways.