|The rare - but fascinating - Billion Dollar Brain notebook
The context is the British Library putting up on its website a new collection of authors' notebooks - from such luminaries as Jane Austen and Jane Dickens - describing their roles as "junkyards of the mind". It is fascinating how authors will often speak of squirrelling away a snippet of conversation, an unusual name, a location, a street name or something insignificant in a notebook. Over time, it sits in the note pad, germinating, waiting, until its time is come and it serves its purpose in providing the genesis for a scene or perhaps a whole story.
I was prompted to post about this fascinating article as it reminded me that Len Deighton, the subject of this blog, is one of the great note-takers of modern writing. Indeed, I've seen it myself. The last couple of times I've met with Len in London for lunch, there it is, on the table - a little A6 note pad - something like a Moleskine or similar, bound at the top of the page, flip-over style - into which Len periodically wrote little notes with his ink pen with patented purple ink.
I remember once in a restaurant near Hyde Park, when we were joined by Len and his biographer/friend Edward Milward-Oliver, at certain points during the conversation Len would pause and make a short note in the notebook, in the same way as the author Laurence Norfolk describes in this BBC piece. Things that came up in conversation - I think we talked about the Cold War, satellites, French medieval history at times - every so often, Len would note something down. Indeed, a couple of times I've seen Len do some little sketches or drawings to annotate these notes (not surprising, given his training). It's clearly for an author an important discipline - to remember the little details of everyday life which, when reproduced in a descriptive passage or in some dialogue, add the authenticity and piquancy of real life which separates out the good writers from the great.
There's a great example of how Len has used notes for one of his previous books, Billion Dollar Brain, for which I've a page on the main Deighton Dossier website. This facsimile of his notebook, used when researching the book during trips to the Baltic states - then, part of the Soviet Union, of course - shows the sorts of details which Len noted which ended up in the book to help compel the reader to imagine "Harry Palmer's" investigations in the Baltic which end up with the final denouement with General Midwinter and his forces. It has drawings of machine guns, notes about Finnish policemen, street names, shop names, descriptions of various buildings. This was reproduced as part of a pack of ephemera which his publishers came up with to send out to booksellers to raise awareness of the book.
In some of the forewords to his new editions, too, Len talks about the process of gathering in information and researching his books, for which he's long been regarded as one of the most assiduous authors of his day for so doing. I know from discussions with him about the Samson novels that his writing office was filled with posters and wall-charts covered in notes and post-its and small cards - annotated with details and bits of information, such as above a particular hotel, say - which form part of his reference library of data which ends up in his books.
The lesson of this is clearly that nothing should ever go to waste as a writer, as you never know what snippet of conversation or glanced at figure might trigger your next novel.