Dear Reader: a letter from Tom Bale
Skin and Bones is unique among the novels I’ve written in that the idea was inspired by a dream. It’s not uncommon to have dreams that appear to offer the potential for stories, but usually upon waking they dissolve into nonsense. This one was different.
The night before, I’d been at a very enjoyable office Christmas party. Feeling pleasantly merry (merry as a newt, in fact) I’d fallen into bed around one a.m., only to wake suddenly, a couple of hours later, stunned by an experience more akin to watching a movie than dreaming.
The setting was a tiny Sussex village on an icy winter’s morning. A young woman parks in the High Street and pops into the general store. As she comes out she notices a Royal Mail van further along the street, and what looks like someone lying in the road behind it. There is no one else around, so she hurries to investigate – and finds a dead body.
Attempts to raise help are futile – no one is answering their doors – and in the village church she finds more victims. She races back to the shop, only to come face to face with a masked gunman. The woman has stumbled upon a killing spree, and now she has to run for her life. On the village green she manages to hide by climbing a tree, only to make a shocking discovery about the killer. Moments later a burst of gunfire rakes the tree, and the woman is hit…
Unlike most dreams, this one hadn’t featured any places or people I knew, and I hadn’t participated in it; nor had it ever departed from a logical, linear progression. As a result, my second reaction (my first reaction was: Wow, what an opening for a book!) was that it must feel like a movie because it was from a movie, or a TV show, or perhaps a novel. So for the next few days I scoured my bookshelves and my DVD collection, wracking my brain for any story that might have featured this sort of massacre. To my delight, I came up blank.
This was mine, gifted to me in a way that has never happened before or since. Because of the intensity of the experience, the key details felt sacrosanct – and that was fine as far as the setting and season went, but I had never before attempted a novel with a female protagonist. I told myself it only added to the challenge, though actually Julia’s character came very easily to me, and was a pleasure to write.
The far greater challenge, of course, was to decide who had carried out the massacre, and why. It took a good few weeks of mulling things over before I had a story I was happy with, but once underway I wrote the novel quickly, in just five or six months.
Then came the time to seek representation. I had tried to interest agents in my work on many occasions, without success; this time I began by submitting the opening chapters to a total of ten agents, expecting the usual long slog of rejection after rejection. I was astonished when, within a matter of days, four of them offered representation.
There was some work to do to get the book into shape for submission to publishers – and an awful lot more rewriting to satisfy my editor – but at last I had a book deal that enabled me to write full-time, marking the fulfilment of a dream that I’d had since the age of seven; all thanks to a boozy Christmas party and a one-off cinematic gift from the subconscious.