When asked about their writing process, many novelists claim there was an initial spark of inspiration but that the plot was not immediately apparent. They had an idea of how the story should unfold, but then the characters surprised them and events took unexpected turns. The key, they say, is to keep writing, trust the process and the book will reveal itself one piece at a time.
For Harriet Alida Lye, King’s was one of the sparks that initiated her own incredible story—and journey to becoming a writer.
“In Grade 12, I was so wildly in love with my high school boyfriend … I just didn’t do any research into universities at all,” she laughs, adding that it was her mom who suggested King’s. “She had printed out all this material from various university websites and King’s was on the top, and I was like, sure, I’ll go there. I’m really glad I did, because the small campus and focus on primary sources was perfect for how I learn.”
Though Harriet enjoyed her tutorials and involvement in the theatrical society, she says she had no idea what she was working toward.
“People would ask what I was going to school for, and when I told them, they would say, ‘Oh, are you going to be a teacher?’” Harriet says. “I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I’d usually just say yes because I didn’t want to talk about it.”
However, by the second half of her degree, the story started to reveal itself with two significant plot developments: she moved to Paris to study abroad and started Her Royal Majesty, an international literary arts magazine that grew to acclaim. Harriet ran the magazine for six years, then ultimately decided to cease publication in 2013. The idea of walking away from something like this was a little scary, but for Lye, it was a necessary transition.
“I had accomplished something I was proud of and I felt so adrift afterwards, because that thing I had been so deeply involved with was finished,” she says.
That summer, she finished her first novel draft.
“The magazine was taking up so much of my creative brain and so much time. So stopping that in order to focus on my writing was necessary – I loved the community space the magazine provided, but I wanted to write,” she says.
Since then, Harriet has published two novels, a memoir and co-authored a children’s book.
Her latest novel, Let It Destroy You, was inspired by the real-life relationship between physicist Leó Szilárd, who patented a more lethal version of the atomic bomb and also invented the radiation machine, and his long-time partner Gertrud “Trude” Weiss. Harriet says she wanted to explore the idea of guilt, particularly as it concerns the unintended consequences of our actions, and the development of nuclear weapons came to mind.
The letters Szilárd wrote to Weiss during this time are preserved at the University of San Diego, and Harriet used them to inform her book while imagining how Weiss may have felt and responded. She says the juxtaposition between Szilárd’s public persona and his personal life was quite shocking.
“He was such an ambitious, idealistic, really noble, capital ‘G’ good … man. He wanted to save the world,” she says. “But he was so cruel to his wife. In the letters to her, he was just so awful.”
The challenge, she said, was using the facts to guide the story while allowing the book to take on a life of its own.
“I took so many notes. I was reading so many books, and at a certain point it was too much research because I didn’t want to write a biography,” she says. “The story is inspired by real history, but it needs to work as a story more than it needs to work as a factual representation of the people who inspired it.”
She describes her friend Rosy Lamb, a painter who she modeled for: “Rosy said that her time with the model, painting from life, was so important. To try to capture the colours of their skin, the shadows moving, the energy, the feeling. But what was even more important was the time after the model left, when she had to make it work as a painting. Because a painting, just as a novel, is not simply a moment of life. It is a creation – a framing decision by the artist, a choice of whose story to tell.”
In this way, Harriet took liberties with some events. For example, Szilárd and Weiss never had a child, but Harriet gave them a daughter in her book. She also says she put a lot of herself into the story, and despite taking place in the 1930s, it feels very contemporary, and the universal themes continue to resonate today.
“It’s a couple who were in love, and fell out of love, or broke up because of the circumstances,” she says.
As she neared the end of the editing process, Harriet said there was a sense of relief but also anxiety. Let It Destroy You was the last of the projects she conceived in Paris, and like many writers, she worried about inspiration finding her again.
“I was kind of worried about what my next idea would be. Like, will I even have another idea? Will I ever write another book?” she says. “The weekend I finished my final edits, that’s when I had the idea for my next book, and I started writing.”
The concept of setting aside expectations and going with the flow encapsulates Harriet’s journey since graduating from King’s. She insists she had no idea what she wanted to do and wasn’t even sure about writing. “I didn’t know any writers in Canada. I didn’t think it was a possibility, until I started meeting writers in Paris, and people involved with books in all sorts of aspects.” Her advice for others in the same situation? Find one thing that makes you happy and build from there. And above all, surround yourself with inspiring people who are living the life you want for yourself.
“I was sure about Paris,” she says. “So I just tried to make things work around that … I didn’t have a grand plan, but I was sure that I wanted to be in Paris living this creative life, and I worked to make that happen.”
And while she’s lived in Toronto since 2015, her next novel will be set in Paris.