Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
Stephen King: On Writing
One of the first ingredients for my thriller Black Art – which actually began life as a screenplay – was a trip to a paintball venue. The sight of a brick wall spattered with a viscous residue of red and yellow paintballs immediately triggered associations with Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. Although that memorable outing didn’t provide me with the plot for a novel, I knew that it would eventually find its way into my writing. Not only that, the visual, essentially cinematic nature of what I had witnessed that day did eventually contribute towards the imagery of the book’s cover design.
The multi-coloured fingernails of a fellow student provided yet another element. At the time I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University, and those eye-catching fingernails suggested a self-confident young woman who was intensely visual, perhaps even someone who worked in an art gallery. So now I had a possible character – a feisty young woman with an artistic streak – but, alas, still no story.
On the MA we used examples of modern art as inspiration for our writing exercises in both poetry and prose. I picked Marc Chagall’s I and the Village and embarked upon my first stumbling attempt at a haiku:
Bewitched by the lamb
The green-faced guardian grasps
The glowing tree of life.
For another project we all drew lots and I found myself having to give a presentation with one of my colleagues on Abstract Expressionism, which meant researching the likes of Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. During the writing process I recalled my first visit to the Rothko room in the old Tate gallery in 1983 or thereabouts. It was intensely moving. As an atheist, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a religious experience.
Then I had a stroke of luck, though I’m of the opinion that writers make their own luck. I read an article about an elderly lady who had died in 2010 in the south of France. When the executors looked into her affairs they discovered that she owned an apartment in Paris. It turned out that the apartment in the Pigalle district had been abandoned since 1942. Here, then, was a mystery and no mistake, all of it connected with World War Two, since the German army had occupied Paris in 1940. Now I could see a possible storyline developing – but there was still one piece missing from this particular jigsaw puzzle.
Not long after reading the account of the so-called ‘time capsule apartment’ the final piece slotted into place. German art dealer, Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hitler’s art thief, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, was found to have concealed an amazing treasure trove of looted art in two of his properties. His father had been active in France during World War Two, especially in Paris, and the experts put a valuation of one billion Euros on these works of art. Gurlitt died shortly afterwards and, in a final act of defiance, which effectively snubbed the German authorities, left the entire collection to a museum in Switzerland.
Being half German I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War and the art of that period – in particular the so-called entartete kunst – degenerate art. Hitler, you might recall, was himself a truly dreadful artist who was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. If you examine his work closely it really is painting by numbers – utter tripe. He’d have been better employed in the related field of technical drawing. Even so, no one should have been surprised in the slightest that when he came to power he outlawed most modern art, promoting the work of artists who he himself admired and which exemplified the values of classicism and traditional peasant culture. Bad art, in other words.
I mentioned earlier that my thriller started life as a screenplay so it makes sense at this juncture to draw your attention to some cinematic works that explore the subject matter of Nazi art theft. Without a doubt the best film in that genre is John Frankenheimer’s The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau. This is a masterpiece of 1960s cinema and one to be savoured. Of more recent vintage is Woman in Gold, a somewhat earnest endeavour starring the wonderful Helen Mirren. One to avoid at all costs, though, is George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. Don’t get me wrong, Clooney is a fine actor and an engaging personality, but this film is an absolute train wreck. In fact he needs his arse kicking for making such a ham-fisted movie.
Anyway, enough of Mr Clooney and his turkey, which should have been strangled at birth, and back to my novel. It was at this point that I started to perform some thought experiments. In particular I wondered what would happen if a dealer who owned certain works of art that had been effectively extorted from their rightful owners during the years of the Third Reich, wanted to put them up for auction? There followed a lot of ‘what iffery’, especially what if there were a black market for such artefacts where unscrupulous, rich art collectors could enjoy the thrill of acquiring works of questionable provenance for their private collections?
With all of these elements in place I could now plan and write my novel. But that’s another story.
Baal-Teshuva, Jacob, Mark Rothko, Taschen, 2012.
Balken, Debra Bricker, Abstract Expressionism, Tate Publishing, 2005.
Dube, Wolf-Dieter, The Expressionists, Thames & Hudson, 1972
Hickley, Catherine, The Munich Art Hoard, Thames & Hudson, 2015.
King, Stephen, On Writing, Hodder & Stoughton, 2000.
Lorenz, Ulrike, Die Brücke, Taschen, 2008.
Nicholas, Lynn H., The Rape of Europa, Vintage Books, 1994.
Partsch, Susanna, Franz Marc, Taschen, 2012.
Ronald, Susan, Hitler’s Art Thief, St. Martin’s Press, 2015.
Thompson, Don, The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark, Aurum Press, 2008.
Toynton, Evelyn, Jackson Pollock, Yale University Press, 2012.
Wolf, Norbert, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Taschen, 2013.