The writing of I am The Sand came into being as a cathartic exercise for me at a time when I thought it would be useful to try to tame some of the anxieties I was experiencing at night. Anxieties that were not too dire – no one in my immediate circle was dying, thank goodness, and some of these anxieties were not even related to one another. But some quite serious issues had arisen over the preceding few years and I felt that I needed to prevent them getting the better of me. These anxieties were not debilitating in the true sense, but sometimes they were causing me to lose a bit of sleep some nights, and the very fact that I seemed to be experiencing what I think was slightly more than normal worry was in itself an extra worry, because I didn’t want to let something relatively minor start to become ‘a thing’ in my life. I wasn’t suffering from general anxiety disorder but I wanted to move from being fearful about certain things occurring, to being more pragmatic. From allowing my imagination to run riot, to looking the anxiety in the eye, pronouncing it ridiculous and ejecting it from my mind. This was very easy to do in the daytime, but the night was a different story.
I knew from experience that I could make a list identifying my anxieties, describing my emotions, and then addressing each one by asking myself to consider whether each anxiety was realistic. Then if I looked at the actual likelihood of the anxieties being realised or occurring (statistically speaking), I could even cross many off my list and so be left with only those that did have a real possibility of coming to life. And these would be the normal fears that people experience from time to time.
This technique had worked for me before, and in any case, things often become much clearer when you have to detach them from the clutter of your mind and untangle them in order to inspect them carefully. Which is necessary in order to make that list in the first place...
But for some reason at in the early months of 2019, I decided to try writing a description of a nightmarish anxiety that cropped up from time to time. Perhaps I could get it all out of my system and in the process understand things about myself that way. There was nothing to lose.
I certainly didn’t set out to write a novel. At first, it was just jottings for me with the aim of getting to the bottom of some old anxiety. I found I really liked the writing part and the jottings became more cohesive and descriptive. I was having fun in a kind of odd way...
And then, somehow, a girl appeared and stayed with me, and I had the kernel of a very dark story.
I didn’t have a name for my girl until I had her firmly in my head and she showed me her personality. I called her Chloe. I’ve always liked that name. She was a teenager, held captive in a cellar and abused by her abductor. Not a very original idea for a novel! Especially in the current climate when, for some reason psychological thrillers have become one of the most popular book genres. I began to describe what I imagined she would be feeling and how terrified she would be. Slowly, the shallow waters eddying around the edges of my imagination brought in its gifts on daily tides: the rest of the abductors’ house, the street, the girl’s home and school, the allotment, the barracks, the major incident room in the police station and then the city.
And so Chloe is a sixteen-year-old who is in the lower sixth form. In English terms that is the second last year of secondary schooling. Her school is an independent one near the cathedral in town. She has a boyfriend called Jack although he only came a bit later into the story as a way to explain why Chloe was alone on a path in the wood late one afternoon. She is a normal, well-adjusted, popular girl from a happy family background. Although separated, her parents are still good friends and live in the same town. Her father, Anton, has re-married and he maintains contact with his three daughters but is not involved in their everyday lives. Chloe has twin sisters a little bit younger. Her mother, Anna, works as an art teacher at the school Chloe attends and although they don’t see much of each other, Chloe usually wanders back to the art studio when the end of school bell rings to help her mum pack up and get ready to go home. On the way they stop and pick up the twins who are at a different school because Chloe’s school accepts girls only into the sixth form, not into the lower forms. Chloe’s mother, Anna, is a happy woman who finds satisfaction in her teaching and bringing up her girls. They have a nice house on the outskirts of town in semi-rural countryside. This home used to be the old farmhouse perched on acres of cultivated land in earlier days. But over the last thirty years or so the land has been sold and developed. The Thomas family bought the old house when the children were little. Anna and the girls stayed on there when Anton and Anna separated.
Chloe’s abduction was violent and her abductor continued to use strong violence throughout her captivity when she was imprisoned. She was beside herself with terror and dread. There was more than one scene of cruel rape and torture. I didn’t hesitate about writing this – it was just for myself and I had no notion of any audience or reader at the time. I imagined the type of horror to which she would be subjected that brought her to this state.
Then I really began to look at myself and question where these violent thoughts had come from. Was there a propensity for violence inside me that I never knew existed that it all came easily to me to think about what would so terrify a girl in this position? But I knew that no, that was not the case as I absolutely abhor violence and cruelty. And yet here I was writing graphically about violence inflicted upon an innocent teenager by an unhinged man.
I just went with it and as the days progressed found that I was truly immersed in this story that was developing. I became consumed by the story and the telling of it. Each day was exciting to me to discover where the plot was going and what I was learning about the characters and also about the writing process on the way.
Inside that cellar on a normal street in an ordinary English city, the violence escalated and intensified. Dangerous, writhing snakes as thick as an arm, lay coiled in Chloe’s mind. They hissed at her, terrifying her further with their flicking tongues and poisonous spittle. She was beset by blind terror. The frightening creatures inside multiplied and were joined by scorpions and wasps. As Chloe lay alone in the cellar, often drugged and semi comatose, they tormented her ceaselessly, taunting her, jeering, snarling that she was shameful and that she deserved this treatment as punishment for being worthless. Weak. It was almost unbearable.
When ‘the monster’, as she called him, came down the cellar steps each evening after returning from work to inflict more damage, Chloe began to dissociate. She left her body to go somewhere else, just as many people, especially children, do when they dissociate. Dissociation is a defence mechanism. It is an ingenious way to escape the present situation when hurt is being inflicted upon them in an attack. Especially when these attacks are repetitive and over a prolonged period. Chloe goes to her secret cave. The secret cave is created from wave erosion and reaches deep into the cliff that rises above it over a beautiful silver beach. It is remote and hard to access unless you know the way and can find a thin path through tropical foliage and forest to finally break out onto the sand from where you can see its opening facing the turquoise ocean. Inside it is cool and moist and once your eyes adapt to the gloom and you search carefully, you can find beautiful seashells and wonderful pieces of driftwood scoured and sanded to perfection by the water that brings them in at high tide. The floor of the cave is of the same finely ground, silver silicone sand, and which in the sunlight sparkles like a billion diamonds. This is where Chloe feels safe and where the monster cannot get her. She lies on the cave floor and the sand covers her body like an intricate hand-sewn coverlet. A coverlet that protects her. She seems to meld with it as her body becomes indistinguishable from the sand.
Now I have the title of my novel. I Am the Sand.