The delightful Toni Jordan, award-winning author of Nine Days, Fall Girl and Addition, sheds light on the beginnings of her latest razor-sharp comedy about love and marriage—Our, Tiny Useless Hearts—from Anna Karenina to scribbling on the back of a boarding pass in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Anna Karenina was one of the many gaping holes in my reading life, mostly because I struggled with War and Peace. (The war bits. I loved the peace bits.) Then I went on a hiking holiday last year and finally read it and, of course, I adored everything about it. I know everyone talks about the ending (spoiler alert: the train dun it) but I loved the beginning. After the famous Happy families sentence, it says something like everything was in confusion because the wife had discovered the husband’s affair with the governess. And then Anna, who is the husband’s sister, comes over to try to calm everything down.
I just thought it was a killer way to start a story: the morning after the affair has been discovered, and the repercussions that has on everyone.
My main character, Janice, is actually the wife’s sister rather than the husband’s, and the idea of a governess didn’t quite work so I made that character, Martha, a teacher instead. Of course, there’s nothing remotely Tolstoyian about my style of writing—he uses substantially fewer genital jokes, for a start—but I tried to give a few other nods to him along the way.
For the rest of the hike, I turned the idea over in my mind. Some of the villages we stayed in loaned us solar lanterns, so I made a few more notes on some sheets of scrap paper. The main part of the story came to me in the middle of the night, in a tiny cabin in North India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. There was no electricity and it was freezing, but I scrambled out in the dark and found my head torch and sketched out the first few chapters on the back of a boarding pass.
I wrote most of the first chapter on a very long train trip down to Delhi, on my laptop in the top bunk of the sleeper cabin. I thought it had the makings of a classic bedroom farce, the kind where there’s one innocent person, and she tells one little white lie to try to get out of minor trouble, and then she has to tell a bigger lie to get out of the trouble that that causes, and before you know it, it’s mayhem. And it helps that sex is inherently funny. When you step back and look at it objectively, it’s utterly ridiculous: all that wriggling and panting and funny faces. And who doesn’t like to laugh? Everyone likes to laugh.