Today’s post by debut author, Helen Giltrow | @HelenGiltrow
If you’ve written a novel that’s attracted the tag ‘high concept’, you must have started with that concept. Right?
My novel The Distance started with a glimmer of a character: an individual, once involved in terrible events and now living a weight of guilt that threatens to destroy them. What had they done? Back then I didn’t know, but I knew who would have to solve that individual’s mystery: the man hired to kill them.
A few things struck me immediately. First, that if I was going to live with a professional killer in my head, I had to give him morality, and rules. Second, I’d have to expose him to people who were infinitely worse than him – people entirely without morality, who’d force him to live up to those rules. Who’d push him to his limits.
And third: that he wouldn’t be able to do the job and then just walk away…
By this point the setting seemed obvious: a prison. But not just any prison.
The Program is a high-security experiment. Overcrowding and riots have brought the UK prison system to its knees; the Program is the hastily-extemporised solution, a privately-run ‘secure community’ temporarily housed in a bunch of run-down streets, backed by a glossy internet PR exercise which talks grandly about rehabilitation, but in fact where inmates are simply left to get on with it, and create their own society.
So how’s my hitman, Johanssen, going to get in there? Enter Karla, my female lead, a woman who sells information to criminals. Although she doesn’t want to, she must help Johanssen break into the Program – and then get out alive.
The Program couldn’t simply be a freak show. It had to function as a society, one with its own hierarchies, codes and rules. There’d be gang-bosses and killers – but also ordinary people, put away for non-violent crimes. And while some inmates would be out for all they could get, for others it might be a place for second chances. A place to establish a sort of normal life – even to seek atonement for the past.
Just what Johanssen himself is trying to do, when he accepts the job …
I didn’t expect to write about a prison – still less create one from scratch. But maybe that’s the joy of writing – and reading – fiction. It takes you to places you didn’t plan to go. And although the Program’s not on any map, I hope it’s far more than just a concept.