Love and Invention with paper boat sideways


Questions for, and answers from, Benjamin Constable on the subject of Love and Invention

We've read the blurb, great, but what's the book really about?

Love and Invention Chapter Icons

Love and Invention is two interwoven stories. One is about a teenager, Maleck, who learns that his grandfather, Abbas Ibn Firnas, disappeared ten years previously. Maleck is passionate about cinema and has been making films since he was a kid in the rough neighbourhood in Paris where he grew up. He also has a special talent for getting in to trouble and a morbid attraction to fire. His parents decide to move back to the village in central France where his mother was born. Maleck struggles to settle in to village life and decides that he will run away back to Paris, until he becomes friends with an old woman who he discovers was his grandfather's lover. He also becomes friends with the Mayor of the village who is 84. Maleck decides that he's going to make a film about his Grandfather, but the village is an uncomfortable place for an outsider, and like I said, he has this talent for getting in to trouble.

The other story comes from the people that Maleck talks to. It is about his Grandfather, Abbas Ibn Firnas, and how he hid alone near the village during the war and how after the war had finished, he never managed to get away. He was a recluse, an inventor of flying machines, a philosopher and an amazing dancer. Maleck follows the life of Abbas from boyhood travelling around Europe on a theatre boat, through his relationships and on to his disappearance.

Perhaps the book is about wanting to run away and not managing. Perhaps it is about the connection between young and old people and the parallels and divergence between generations. It's definitely about identity, and not fitting in, it's about beauty in simple, unexpected things. It's about people being scary, and danger coming from all kinds of places, notably, the elements are always life threatening in this book. It's about not finding all the answers. It's about flying and it's about dancing in the face of difficulty.

Why did you write this book?

Why does anybody write a book? I've been writing for years because I love it and I love making up stories and I love the tricky art of trying to get them down on paper. I love the challenge of finishing a huge project. The more I do it, the more I love it. Curiously, I'm not a big reader. I find reading laborious. I wish I could whip through books, but I'm dyslexic and that means reading is slower than for many people. But I love putting words together and going back again and trying to make them better, and again, and again.

This book, this book, why did I write this book and not another?

Since my earliest memories I have dreamt of flying. It was something I could do at will, whenever I remembered that it was possible. I would just kind of relax and concentrate at the same time and my body would levitate, sometimes just above head height or sometimes high above the world, swept along by the wind. Would that flying had been for pleasure. unfortunately it never sprang to mind when I was having a good time. Flying was always a brilliant and skillful means of escape from bad things. It was my joker, my get out of trouble card that my dreams have always provided. I think I'm not the only one. I think a lot of people dream like this.

I had just written a book called Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa. It's a book about Paris and New York and friendship and murder. I wanted my next book to have no murders, no gimmicks. I wanted it to show another side of life, or another side of the way I see life. But what it has in common with Three Lives is the idea that stories are all around us and it is just a question of how we frame them.

Books are rarely just one idea. My books and my understanding of other people's books is that they are a collection of ideas gathered and stitched together. I saw an article about an exhibition at the V&A museum in London called something like: Great Inventors of the Arab World. I got stuck on a picture of a man in a flying machine and read about the 9th Century inventor Abbas Ibn Firnas from Andalusia in the South of Spain which was at the time part of the Caliphate of Mohamed I. Abbas Ibn Firnas fascinated me. He was a polymath. He had invented a way of cutting crystal and he wrote poetry. He also was also the first historical figure to have been documented as flying. He had built wings from wax feathers and silk, and jumped from the tower in Cordoba and flew 200 metres. He broke both his legs on landing, but he was the first person to fly. He was 70.

A friend told me the story of how he took his then boyfriend to meet his grandmother who had dementia. She thought the boyfriend was a prince come to woo her. Another friend told me about a canal boat that is a travelling opera. I since found another canal boat which is a theatre. I wanted to write about not fitting in and wanting to make art - these are big parts of my own development. I wanted to write about France and how, particularly in the countryside, the war still has influence. While I was writing this book, everything I saw and everybody I met seemed to connect in to this story. Maybe it is about me and the many conflicting arguments about everything. Why did I write it? Because I wanted to.

What's the best thing about being a writer?

Growing a beard?

No, finishing a draft of a book.

No, going exploring, chasing an idea and talking to people and finding leads and connections that take you to the next thing. It's a twisty adventure in itself and it has in someways become the model for the content of my books. What I love is exploring and experimenting, trying things out and finding new things.

I love playing with words too. I love to find a passage of awful writing, go back and read it out loud and slowly juggle and whittle away at it until it works.

What's your advice for aspiring writers?


Seriously, the definition of a writer is somebody who writes stuff. The only thing standing between you and being a writer is your decision to pick up a pen. Motivation is a funny subject but there are some powerful techniques to harness yours. Ask yourself these questions: What do I want to write? Why do I want to write? Who will I be when I have written? What is the first step to writing (you can do this same question for the second, third and fourth steps as well)? And then, how can I commit to doing this? It might be about making some time for yourself, it might be a text message to yourself or a note in your diary or an alarm on your phone. A powerful way of harnessing your motivation is to make a habit or a routine and attach it to some other routine you have (like, I write for half an hour every evening before I have an early evening drink). I find the most powerful ideas that get me to write are ones of identity. I say to myself: I am a writer. I say, I can take on and finish big projects; that is my nature; that is who I am.

Everybody has their own needs and strategies, it is up to each one to find what works, but you are motivated to do all kinds of things in your life. Have a look at what gets you to do things and learn from it and reproduce it.

How do you deal with writer's block?

I don't really get writer's block. There are days when I don't, or can't, write as much as I'd like, for reasons like the Internet and a host of other distractions. Concentration is a real issue and one that I could write an essay about. But my understanding of writers block is that it's about not knowing what to write. I see stories everywhere, woven in to everybody's lives; the question is how to frame them. There's a metaphor that I find useful and that is of a photographer framing a shot - there are questions to be asked like how much context do I want to show. But the more you take photos the beauty you see around you. When you start looking for stories they are right there spilling out in front of you. Choosing which one to write is again another subject, but I try to just write without focussing on it good or worthy. The desire for perfection stops us all from doing so many things. I try to be kind to myself and write whatever comes. If it's rubbish, I throw it away, if I like it, I rework it and rework it until it becomes something I can be proud of.