Throughout the 1970s and 80s I was in love with light and colour and longed to become an artist. In the summer of 1974, working and living-in at a holiday hotel on the South African coast midway between Cape Town and Durban, I filled free afternoons by walking along the dusty road that led to town and ended at the public library. Along with novels - by Flaubert, Zola, Balzac and Dumas (for I was drawn to all things French, then), I would stagger back carrying an armful of the framed prints of famous paintings which the library loaned out for two weeks at a time. Somehow I kept van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, with its yellow light spilling onto the pavement and its orbs of starlight in a Prussian blue sky, on continuous renewal. It hung at the end of my narrow bed, and whenever I think of those distant afternoons - sleepily engrossed in Madame Bovary, or The Three Musketeers, it is against a backdrop of blue and yellow, of van Gogh's whirling stars.
I love to write at least one moment of silence in a novel, a few seconds of emptiness or arrested motion, an Edward Hopper-like stillness in which every object vibrates with the intensity of a lawn full of crickets, though soundlessly. Towards the end of Nights in the Asylum, a young woman stands outside a truck stop cafe and looks through the window into the gaudy interior where she works, as if for the first time; she notices the humming refrigerators, smeary surfaces, cheap cutlery and paper napkin dispensers; she sees her own future stretching monotonously away into bleak old age. The truck stop waitress is a minor character, and yet, like a stroke of Rose Madder Genuine on wet paper, she has the power to contain the movements of others.
Writing a novel which incorporates many different story strands is not unlike the wet-in-wet process of watercolour painting. Characters are set down and allowed to mingle; chemical reactions take place. It is one method of writing, a painterly method in which accidents can occur that turn everything to mud. But on a good day you can end up with a scene that seems somehow to have written itself, one in which a certain amount of white space is left for the reader to mix the colours. Write enough of these scenes and you have a novel which has grown organically, pages filled with complex and intriguing juxtapositions that couldn't have been arrived at in any other way.