Terry Pratchett has apparently proposed a fundamental particle called an ideon, which streams through the universe causing writers to come up with the same idea at the same time. I for one believe in it. What are the chances of two authors publishing a book about a boy called Luke with synaesthesia in the same year, for instance? Yet it happened with Nicola Morgan’s Mondays are Red and Tim Bowler’s Starseeker, both published in 2002. My own The Fetch of Mardy Watt, which concerns a girl who finds that her life is gradually being taken over by a supernatural double, or fetch, had its publication delayed for six months when it was discovered that it was due to be released at the same time as Catherine MacPhail’s Another Me - which, again, involves a girl whose life is taken over by a fetch ( and even features a character called Mrs Watt). That my book about mysterious doubles should have a mysterious double of its own seems weirdly appropriate, but it’s not untypical. Ideons are very common particles.
Now, this isn’t to say that writers are never influenced, consciously or otherwise, by other authors. Of course they are. I’m proud to acknowledge my own influences, from Alan Garner to Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, to name but three. The sense that I’m working within a tradition that pre-exists me is, far from being something I feel detracts from the value of my writing, part of what underwrites it. As for J. K. Rowling, her books only make sense when placed in the context of the genre of the boarding school story, as well as the many folk stories she draws on and adapts. They are the air that her imagination lives and breathes.
Originality is an overrated virtue – if by originality we mean writing as though unaware of the work of previous authors. Of course, that’s not what originality is really about. But how do you set the desire to do something new against the desire to do justice to the tradition you’re a part of?