In about 2003, my boyfriend at the time suddenly boasted to me: ‘My name is one of only two Englishmen’s names that have four syllables.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ (I admit, in hindsight), I rather snottily replied, ‘There are heaps of them!’
And I began to reel them off, finishing with the claim that I could create an entire family tree consisting of Englishmen with four-syllable names, and so the seed for The Avery-Stripes was sown.
In the decade that followed many of my idle moments were spent imagining five generations of the family and decided that the number of syllables in their names would be a thing of great importance to them, and then I began to think why that might be.
Growing up in Bedford Park, I encountered many families who seemed to consider themselves superior, though I could never discern what this belief was based upon. Occasionally, I would spot a chink of enlightenment as to their reason but would think it laughable, and remembering this I decided that the Avery-Stripes’ delusions of grandeur would be based primarily upon the exploitation of guano.
Wanting the family to be detestable and lovable at the same time, I set out to make the reader somewhat despise them from the beginning but would hopefully grow to love them as the story developed. A set up that has always appealed to me in books ranging from the Moomin stories through to the novels of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, several characters of which inspired the creation of those in The Avery-Stripes. Strange collections of people who, as is often the case, would unlikely interact were they not related and living under the same roof.
The Marchioness of Marchmain and the Bolter certainly contributed toward the character of Olivia, except, of course, it was not the Catholic faith that she preaches to her children but the import of lineage, money and noblesse oblige. Lord Sebastian Flyte and Cedric Hampton have a bearing on Valentine, but with him I wanted to create a stronger character, one who, whilst comical, was also resilient, and though manipulative and somewhat treacherous, was likeable enough to hopefully persuade the reader to root for him. Tom Ripley also had an influence on Valentine, with his ability to mimic and forge – though Valentine would not ever murder. Perhaps he could be Mr Ripley’s equally talented, but less sinister and far more fanciful, nephew?
As for the rest of the book, I cannot account exactly what inspired specific things. I am unable to remember how I came about imagining a small boy in a feathered headdress with three Dalmatians beneath a grand piano but I remember clearly the image coming to me. I made this boy – Corny – mute because I wanted to play with language: Valentine’s overuse of it; Olivia’s predilection for alliteration; Gretchen’s accent and Harry and Izzy’s speech impediments. It just made sense to have a mute character.
Sense is not an aspect that much influenced The Avery-Stripes. I most certainly wanted to write a nonsensical book: An amusing, camp, modern fairy tale for grown-ups. One in which to escape completely what is of matter in the real world because the only world that matters to the Avery-Stripes is their own. And around it revolves the sun and moon, heaven and hell, love and hate, good and bad, every country, every colour and animal, because that family intrinsically holds their unwavering belief that none of these things would count for much were the Avery-Stripes not at the very epicentre of it all.