Following the financial crash of 2008, Britain elected a coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, which instituted a punishing programme of austerity in order to reduce government borrowing. It was in this context, early in 2014 – as Britain’s wealthiest 1% seemed to be enjoying ever more comfortable lifestyles, while dependence upon food banks was also rising all over the country – that I decided it was time to revisit the world of my most overtly political novel, What a Carve Up!.
I couldn’t write a straightforward sequel to the book, however, for the simple reason that nearly all of the major characters (spoiler alert) had been killed in the final chapters. But I wanted to write something to show that the spiritual descendants of the corrupt, venal Winshaw family were alive and kicking in Britain today. I decided the best thing would be to retain the few surviving characters (notably Phoebe, the young artist from What a Carve Up!, and Hilary Winshaw’s daughter Josephine) and try to recapture the mode of horror-comedy that seemed to have worked in the earlier book. A day at the Beverley literary festival in the autumn of 2013 had ended in an atmospheric, somewhat eerie visit to Beverley Minster at dusk, and that gave me the inspiration for the novel’s opening pages.
In a piece published around this time for the London Review of Books, I’d expressed my growing disenchantment with comedy as a means of provoking political change. (You can read the piece here, or in my collection Marginal Notes, Doubtful Statements.) Satire, I was beginning to think, could still be effective but did not necessarily have to be funny. With Number 11, therefore, the idea was to make readers feel fearful and uneasy, rather than making them laugh. The book draws on memories of things that had scared me as a child, from Hitchcock’s Psycho to the stories of H G Wells. Formally, too, I decided to make the book not a simple, linear novel, but to construct it as a network of five, interlocking novellas, taking inspiration from the British horror-movie anthologies that had been so popular in the 60s and 70s: one of these, Tales that Witness Madness, provided the book with its subtitle.
As for the main title, I sat down to begin making notes for the book in the breakfast room of a hotel overlooking the Vieux Port in Marseille one Sunday morning and, knowing nothing about this novel-to-come except that it was to be my eleventh, I simply wrote the words ‘Number 11’ at the top of the page. And, since nothing better occurred to me during the months I spent writing it, the title stuck.