I’ve always had a mild case of it: the presence of color in places it doesn’t belong. It was strongest in childhood. I often saw colored shapes when listening to music, and the days of the week were firmly associated with various hues—Tuesdays were blue, Wednesdays green, Thursdays red.
I didn’t choose what I saw, and the images were often as perplexing to me as they’d be to the next person. This, for example, is what the sound of a siren looked like to me as a kid. If I was walking around my neighborhood and heard a fire engine in the distance, a black keyhole would hover before my eyes:
Maybe (probably) this makes me sound insane. If so, don’t worry. Most of my synesthesia is gone now; I understand that this fading away is normal in adults.
Where it remains is in my writing. My books have colors to me, even though while I’m writing them they only exist, in a literal sense, as black Times New Roman on a white MS Word background. Often the colors guide me toward the finished version.
When I was writing Inside, I struggled a lot with the structure and content of the book, but I always knew it was blue.
Why? I’m not sure. The book follows three people who each try to rescue someone in trouble, and how their stories intersect. It’s about the imperative to help people, even if we sometimes fail, and what it means to be on either side of the equation, the helper and the helped. And about whether help is the same thing as love.
It might be blue because for years there has been a Chagall poster hanging in my office that I bought in my early twenties. In Chagall’s paintings the people are always connected in some tenuous landscape that may be product of their dreams or memories. The images have a wistful, interior quality that is not far from the tone I was trying to capture in my book.
Aleko and Zemphira by Moonlight. 1942. From the MoMA website
Or maybe Inside is blue because the book I most often referred to while writing it was To the Lighthouse and the cover of the edition I own is mostly blue.
I’ve always loved the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse, in which all the characters exit the scene and only the house, abandoned, witnesses the progression of years. The way I structured Inside—it covers a decade and is told out of chronological order, breaking from one moment in time to the next—was surely influenced by Woolf’s swooping, radical handling of time.
It might be because of my association between writing and color that I often work while (or after) visiting galleries or museums. It seems to free up my brain to be surrounded by the visual stimulus of paintings and sculpture.
Objects at home exert their influence, too. While I wrote this book, on my mantel was a soapstone carving of an inukshuk that my parents gave me years ago.
Soapstone carving by Barney McLeod, photo from Turtle Island Gallery.
An inukshuk is a structure of stones in the shape of a human being. Inuit people use it to mark a trail, to show the path forward. It says, “you are on the right track.” Needless to say, this is a reassuring thought for a novelist struggling through a draft.
The carving I have is pale green, flecked with black. Though small, it has a satisfying, sturdy weight.
A section of my book takes place in Nunavut, where the Inuit live, but that’s not because of the carving. I do think the color and shape of this object made its way into my book, hovering before my eyes like that keyhole I used to see. It reminded me how one person can guide another, even across time and space, showing them the way. It helped me not get lost.