Tor Udall: The Writer's Practice by Susanna Baird


Kew Gardens, the historic, 299-acre botanical garden in southwest London, sits at the heart of Tor Udall's first novel, A Thousand Paper Birds. The main characters — a widowing musician, a struggling origami artist, a grief-stricken linguist, a curious child, and a quiet gardener — push through time, through despair, even through the porous borders separating the living from the dead. As their narratives intertwine, the characters crisscross Kew Gardens, from memorial bench to glasshouse, from woodland to pond. 

Udall has been writing for 20 years. A Thousand Paper Birds demanded her attention seven years ago, while she was trying to focus on another project. Stir crazy in her small flat, she escaped to neighboring Kew Gardens to write.

"I found myself distracted by the beauty of the garden and the stories of the passers-by and started jotting down notes and observations. I became fascinated with the juxtaposition of the abundant nature around me with the benches I was sitting on that commemorated the dead. Being aware of other people who had once loved these gardens only made me appreciate the present moment more."

Around the same time, Udall's temp job consisted of folding endless leaflets. "I found the only way I could survive that was to become interested in the actual folding. How could I do it mindfully? That steered me towards origami."

A very British green space and a very Japanese art form rose up simultaneously as driving forces for a new project. Udall wanted them both, and she needed to know more. She spent more time in the Gardens, she read books about the Gardens, and she watched A Year in Kew, a BBC series that provided insight about staff activities. "I also went behind the scenes to visit the Herbarium, an extraordinary collection of 7,500,00 specimens," she recalled.

For origami insight, Udall read Peter Engel's Origami from Angelfish to Zen and grew to appreciate the complexities that can be expressed and examined through the art of paper folding. "Origami is more than a party trick," she said. "It's been explored by mathematicians and scientists, people looking for how patterns work. It's also a great way to explore quantum physics." Origami ultimately provided Udall a conceptual framework for the complex themes running through her novel; a way to think about the big picture. "In the book, time and space bend, as if the universe is a giant piece of paper folding and unfolding. Sometimes two corners touch and you see a moment from the past, or something most people don't see." 

As Udall researched and wrote, she transformed her workspace into a visual scrapbook of her novel-in-progress, something she does for all her writing projects. "At the beginning …. I collect hundreds of pictures — of Kew Gardens, origami, folding patterns — and pin them up on a huge noticeboard that covers one wall. I also pin up inspirations for characters. For instance, for A Thousand Paper Birds I studied Modigliani portraits. It’s not so much that the characters look exactly like these portraits – but they might capture the right mood or smile, or how they hold their shoulders. By the end of the process all four walls are covered with images, so when I go to work it feels like I am walking into the book."

She surrounds herself with relevant images, but Udall also reserves wall space for plotting, one of the more prosaic aspects of story creation. "I have one part of the noticeboard covered in Post-its. I chart the overall narrative arc, the scenes, where the turning points are." With A Thousand Paper Birds, Udall used different colored Post-its for each character. "I could quickly see if there are times when a character is silent for too long, or is taking up too much space." 

When addressing cadence — not only the motion of the narrative outlined on Post-its, but also the beats comprising each individual sentence – Udall pulls from her experience as a dancer and choreographer. "I’m very interested in rhythm as a writer – for the story as a whole (how the threads and stories interweave, how motifs return). But I’m also very attuned to the rhythm of each sentence – it’s very important to me where the comma is, the dash. It’s Fred Astaire in a graceful spin, his arms wheeling, then a pause – oh, how important the pause is – before he stamps, shuffles, stamps again. Writing is a dance."

Rhythmic prose composed, office walls obscured, narrative complexities mastered, character arcs folded together into one finished book, Udall sought a publisher. At York's Festival of Writing, eight agents vied for her favor. When Udall arrived for her meeting with Jenny Savill, of Andrew Nurnberg Associates, the agent presented a display she'd created in homage to Udall's book: pictures of origami, of Kew Gardens, of music referenced in the book. "I just knew she understood what I was doing," Udall recalled. 

Savill set to work securing a publisher. One afternoon when Udall was in Kew Gardens, the agent called to say Bloomsbury was making an offer. "I was in the perfect place, right outside the famous Palm House, hearing the news that after 20 years I was finally going to be published. It was quite a moment," Udall said.

Bloomsbury proved a perfect publishing partner, all the way to cover design. Designer Emma Ewbank first created an orange cover centered on the silhouette of a couple on a bench (read about Ewbank's design process.) Udall found the garden a bit too thorny and fairytale scary, though it reflected the book's original title, A Place for Lost Things. When the title changed, so too changed the cover. Pulling in the origami and respecting Udall's wish for a more exotic, erotic, more vibrant feel, they arrived at the final cover, as well as endpapers featuring origami birds, and even a map of the gardens. "I’ve adored maps in books ever since I was a child, so this was a dream come true," Udall said.

The process was lovely, in retrospect, but also the process was long. Two unpublished novels and 20 years spent writing, seven of them on A Thousand Paper Birds. Udall said "it's the little coincidences" that kept her going. Example: Like origami, David Bowie's song Oh! You Pretty Things appears throughout the book. One afternoon, after signing on with Jenny Savill, Udall was sitting at a stoplight, her children in the backseat. "Next to us was a massive New Musical Express (magazine) billboard poster. The front cover of NME was Bowie, surrounded by origami birds." Googling, she discovered Bowie himself had arranged for the origami. The next day, her agent received a copy of the same magazine, which she doesn't subscribe to.

"I love those little signs that encourage you to keep going," she said. "I really believe creativity is a dance with myself and something other. I wouldn’t want to define what that is – but that’s the thing I love – the magic of imagination and coincidence, joining up the dots – it’s such a wonderful mystery and I feel hugely privileged to be a part of it."

By Susanna Baird for Spine Magazine. (original post here)