Counting the Clouds is a novel with a deaf hero. Born with auditory neuropathy, Neil’s rare condition was missed by the local doctor who just thought he was stupid. Bullied, laughed at and finally ignored he retreated into his own silent world where he thought in pictures rather than words. Because he didn’t know any.
We think in words. We plan, we remember, we love, mainly in words. It’s called our “internal voice” and, reading about it a few years ago, I started to wonder: what do you do if you don’t know any words? What does your brain run on?
Some people with hearing loss think partly in sign language, which is a cool idea. But what if you don’t know how to sign either? What if you’ve never learnt how to communicate at all? You think in pictures, apparently. It’s all you’ve got left.
I tried it. It’s really difficult. I tried blanking out the words in my head (which are quite obvious once you’ve realised they are there) and just using pictures to think. I did it to try to understand how my hero, Neil might feel (I can only guess) and I decided that motion might be important, that he might focus on things that moved and changed. Test it, to see how you think? Close your eyes (no, not yet, read the rest of the sentence first…) and see which of the two pictures above comes to mind.
Done? Was it the landscape at on the left, with the variation in tone down the sky, the ripples on the sea and the clouds that never repeat? Or was it the magazine cover, with its simple, bright colours and firm, bold text? I’m 18 in that picture and (if there weren’t any models around) I’d lie on the ground for hours then and watch the clouds, preferably through sunglasses. You can never guess what will happen next. Dreadful haircut though…
“Counting the clouds“, my second novel, is about a young man, Neil, who is deaf but thinks himself just stupid. He grows up on a small Scottish island, with big skies and plenty of rain so I decided that clouds might mean a lot to him. He’s actually quite bright but he’s hasty and very unsure of himself and, when he does decide to become a photographer, he doesn’t listen to the women in his life. So not auto-biographical at all…
My debut novel, Kicking the Tyres, was about an engineer with concussion. That was me, courtesy of a 16 hand thoroughbred with faster reactions than mine. I gave up riding soon after that (to the relief of my family) and took up skiing instead as a safer way of letting off steam. Read on down to see how that panned out or click here to read about my hard of hearing hero.
Four years ago I went to Switzerland to speak at a pain conference… and broke my leg. Yes, very funny and my own fault entirely: I should never have been on a red run in deep, wet snow. I clearly remember the horror as the ski dug in, I somersaulted and felt the bone snap in mid-air. The funicular train ride that got me off the mountain was painful, (although on time), but Swiss hospital food is excellent so I put my feet up and started writing “Counting the Clouds“. Actually just the one foot, it was horribly swollen and the surgeon kept lifting it higher, telling me that “gravity would be my friend”. Eventually I pointed out that it was gravity that had got me into the mess in the first place and he went off in a huff so I ate some grapes and started on the plot.
The title of “Counting the Clouds”
Cocoa Beach, 27th May, 1999, 2 minutes after lift-off for the space shuttle Discovery. Even ten miles away, the crackle of the engines was deafening, only surpassed by the sigh of relief from the crowd as the solid rocket boosters fell away correctly, 91 seconds after they cleared the pad. It was only two launches after the accident and everybody was waiting…and willing it all to work. You could see them separate quite clearly and we watched the vehicle (or rather the ball of fire behind it) for yet another minute afterwards.
But Discovery launched at sunset and nobody moved for long after the shuttle had disappeared. The whole crowd just stood and stared at the huge white vapour trail arcing across the sky and turning pink as the light faded. And that’s where the title of the novel comes from. Here’s the beginning of Counting the Clouds.