I write when an idea comes to me that is so loud, so urgent, that I cannot ignore it. When it bangs on my windows and hollers through the letterbox so loud I cannot sleep and have no choice but to grab a pencil and notepad and let it all spill out.
The idea for The Book of Crows came when I was travelling on the Silk Road. I had made my way to the far west of China, to see Xinjiang, the vast desert province that borders Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the city of Kashgar, I saw huge yellow mosques and also giant karaoke clubs. It seemed to be a city where east and west went colliding into each other.
I took a taxi into the desert with a driver who, like all taxi drivers, started the journey by asking me where I was from. Once I told him, he asked me if I’d ever met David Beckham. He took me to a red sandy mountain where the famous Monkey King from Journey to the West was supposedly born from a stone egg. Then we ate black noodles at a roadside café. At last, we reached the ruins of Gaocheng.
Little remains of this desert town that grew up two thousand years ago as a stop on the Silk Road. A few cave dwellings remained, long abandoned. The bare bones of a city that had been gutted by time. A place for traders who had trekked hundreds upon hundreds of miles to rest up, sell their wares, and swap stories. And that’s when it hit me. The Silk Road wasn’t just a trading route for merchants. It was a vast superhighway connecting diverse continents, an early, physical precursor of the internet, a place where people exchanged not only goods but also ideas.
The Silk Road was never just one path or route, but rather a network of trading hubs and market towns connecting Europe and Asia. Along with rugs, jewels and spices, vegetables like rhubarb were first brought to the West from China along these trade routes. The Chinese exchanged them for novelties like grapes, which they had never seen before. Merchants traded animals across continents, as well as clothes and fabrics such as the famed Chinese silk which gives the trading network its name. In fact, silk was such a valuable commodity to the Chinese that according to law any citizen who gave away the secret of how it was made to a foreigner would be executed as a traitor.
But more importantly, this is how ideas spread. Buddhism reached from India all the way to Japan thanks to this trading route, with merchants sharing stories as they bartered or sat down at local taverns and inns. Later Christianity and Islam would spread in much the same way. New philosophies, new concepts, new ways of thinking about the world: all grew out of this connection that the trading route offered.
Before I knew it, the first stirrings of the novel began to come to me. A young girl trapped in a desert outpost like this, looking for hope. A city of millionaires built above a buried secret. A ruined poet returning to the Emperor for redemption. Lives touched by the Silk Road; lives changed beyond recognition by all it brings and all it leaves behind.
I knew I had to write a novel set along this route, one that would travel like I had – and like all those merchants, traders and new ideas had done – from the western deserts of China to the new cities in the east. A story about how a single idea might take hold of history and turn lives upside down. A tale of how a story might reach across time and space, and grow so loud, so urgent, that we cannot ignore it.
The Pigeonhole is serialising The Book of Crows from 19 January. With additional content of maps, photos, interviews and more, and with Sam Meekings reading along, this serialisation is not to be missed. Limited free slots available. Sign up here.