Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guest post: Novelist Anthony McCarten

I am delighted to host today a guest post by prizewinning New Zealand novelist, playwright and filmmaker Anthony McCarten, whose new novel, Brilliance, will come from Alma Books in March. (See below the article for his biography.) Brilliance is a fascinating exploration of the Faustian bargain struck by Thomas Edison, inventor of electric light, with 'the world's banker', J P Morgan, a moment which McCarten sees as 'a point of embarkation for the modern world' with its powerful corporations and bankers 'greater than governments', and answering Occupy Movement. Interestingly, McCarten provides an Author's Note concerning the fictional treatment of a factual subject, similar to that in Andrew Miller's Pure which was discussed recently by Robert McCrum. Picking up on a phrase in my own post (below) on the matter, 'fast and loose', McCarten argues here that, rather than the 'loss of heart' McCrum sees in such Author Notes, they offer something quite other:


Fast and Loose: sounds like a cricket term for a ball badly bowled.  It derives, actually, from a medieval cheating game, where something seemingly stuck 'fast' becomes, in an apparent act of magic, 'loose.'

Fast and Loose: how often the term is now used by writers to warn the reader or viewer to be prepared for a healthy disregard for historical fact in the story they are about to read or witness.

And the reason we need such a term? Because of the inbuilt tendency of life to not ever quite conform to a well-told story, hence the temptation for the writer to extemporize, to play, to invent, to
conflate, to even falsify events and finally, by an act of apparent magic, apply the angled cricket bat of fancy to the hard, straight ball of fact, sending it rushing on some surprisingly new trajectory.

New: the critical word here. Newness. To introduce the unforeseen into the foreseeable. To surprise. To take what we know, or think we know, and present in a fresh way. To make the wise, unwise. To make the learned ignorant. When applied to historical fiction the writer wishes to get away with murder, and be praised for it.
But praise is not always forthcoming. Should the writer take too many liberties with famous facts
then await the backlash. In anticipation of this backlash "The Authors Note" is born. In this half-page apologia, the author readies the reader for quite a bit of fastness and more than a smattering of looseness.

I wrote such a note for my new, upcoming novel, "Brilliance" which does small injury to virtuous fact as it pertains to the lives of J.P.Morgan and Thomas Edison. Fortunately both men are dead — no small detail, as writers (and their lawyers) meddling with the lives of living entities will tell you — and so they cannot admonish or sue me for setting them in rooms they never entered, spoke lines they could never speak, committed crimes for which the evidence is only circumstantial at best.  In his piece in the Observer, Robert McCrum, suggested that the Author's Note seemed proof of a lack of inventive gumption in modern literature. Why the need to explain, to apologize for anything? Wasn't literature's charter to invent, at all costs, to take no prisoners while doing so? Only wimps feel the need to explain. Publish and be slammed. 

I have a slight problem with this. If you've ever, as a writer, had to face your audience, at a Q&A session, after a reading or the screening of the film adaption of a story based on historical record, then you'd realise that everyone simply wants to know where the facts end and where the fiction begins. "Mr McCarten, can I ask... how much of this story is true?" It's as if the audience has put on hold their emotional reaction until confirmation is delivered that the key scenes that moved them — the key ones, the ones that depict the hero taking up a knife and stabbing, or opening the vault to steal millions, or sending the telegram that will alter the world — whether they actually happened. If they did, then the reader/viewer is all yours: you have a devotee at once. But if you reply, as on occasions I have had to do, "Well, I have played slightly fast and loose with that bit"  the moan in the crowd is pronounced and prolonged, I can assure you. The gumption is not lacking in the writer, I would claim, but in the reader. To address their lack of gumption - for the writer has already proved his licentious credentials by writing of the unhistorical historical in the first place - the Author's Note tries to embolden the reader. It's not an apologia, it's an analeptic. I argue here that the Author's Note is a courtesy to the reader, no more, and that Mr McCrum is bowling something of a wide ball, and I plead for the referee to raise a judicious finger and award one meagre run to the lonely batter.

Anthony McCarten.

Anthony McCarten’s novels have been translated into fourteen languages. His collection of short stories, A Modest Apocalypse, was shortlisted for the Heinemann Reed Fiction Award in 1991. Death of a Superhero won the 2008 Austrian Youth Literature Prize and was a finalist for the German Youth Literature Prize. He has published five novels to date and also written numerous stage plays, including co-writing the world-wide success Ladies Night, which won the prestigious Molière prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique in 2001. While most of his novels have been turned into successful feature films by other film-makers, McCarten directed Show of Hands himself, as well as his adaption of his stage-play, Via Satellite.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Imagining reality

Robert McCrum considers an issue that this blog has touched on more than once: the troubling need in our contemporary cultural climate for fiction to pass itself off as 'authentic' - increasingly in terms of factual authenticity. He quotes from the author's note in Andrew Miller's Costa-winning Pure: 'This is a work of imagination, a work that combines the actual with the invented' and notes the 'queasiness' of this apparent sense of the need for a defence of the novelist's right to invent, imagine and play fast and loose with historical and social fact. As McCrum says, 'When the novel was young and confident, inventiveness was its raison d'etre. Not now.' David Edgar's recent piece in The Guardian made reference to the extent to which this trend has affected radio drama even more strongly, with its proliferation of factually-based plays about well-known events or disasters or incidents in the lives of famous people. And of course we needn't mention the dreary ubiquity of 'reality' TV shows.

It's interesting. On the one hand we have this over-dependence on the comfort of 'fact', and on the other the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter and virtual gaming. What we can't seem to deal with is the inventive re-imagining of our recognisably real world that makes us look at it differently and uncovers truths we may not have previously noticed. This, ironically, is not an embracing of reality but a withdrawal from it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Radio drama and the process of commisssioning

My latest post on The View From Here concerns the issue of commissioning, in particular radio drama commissioning. At the same time a Guardian piece by David Edgar considers the current state of radio drama and also touches on the effects of the current commissioning system.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

New ageism

Like so many others, I was utterly charmed, moved and delighted by Michel Hazanavicius' black and white 'silent' film The Artist, and quite bowled over by its cleverness, and have little to add to Peter Bradshaw's rave review in the Guardian beyond this:

Bradshaw's review stresses the love story angle, which is truly engaging, but it's also a deeply political film with searing contemporary relevance. Not only is its central issue that of old technology needing to make way for the new (here silent films having to make way for the talkies) and the effects on the careers and lives of artists, but embedded in that is a significant theme of ageism. 'I'm all washed up,' says ex-silent-movie idol George Valentin (his speech shown in an intertitle), after Peppy Miller, with whom he fell in love when she was a young hopeful and helped towards her stellar talkies career, announces in an interview that the old must make way for the young. George and the audience witness this interview taking place in a restaurant: it's comic and well as painful. All those old silent movie stars mugging for the camera, Peppy comments to the interviewer, a statement undercut not just by the fact that the nature of this film requires its actors to mug in the same way as those silent movie actors, but, hilariously, by her particularly exaggerated mugging as she makes the comment.

And the film undercuts the ageism in other, dynamic ways. As I walked out of the cinema afterwards it struck me how few older faces we ever see now on the screen. In The Artist, all the retainers and servants are old, which would never happen, I believe, in a contemporary film, and they aren't treated like background props, but play significant parts in the plot. Even the woman who tells the (getting on in years) policeman that George's dog wants him to follow, is on the wrong side of middle age and ordinary-looking, yet the camera lingers on her and makes us relish her, whereas nowadays, you feel, such a character would be both more summarily dismissed and picked for ease on the contemporary youth-and-beauty-obsessed eye.

This film is about invisibility and well as silence. And yet it wears it all with such a light touch; it's so enjoyable, and it really does touch your heart. As Peter Bradshaw says, it has it all.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ebooks and the slog of publishing

Well, I got my Kindle for Christmas. I've read so much about Kindles, but it was still a shock to be able to press the One-Click button on Amazon and be told that the book I wanted would appear in a moment on my Kindle, and in the next instant look down and find it there, and with another flick of a button begin reading - and all for less than two quid! Maybe I'll get used to it, but at present this does seem to make books kind of magical. Although I am getting used to it: there's another book I want, King Crow by Michael Stewart, and actually, I sent off for it in early December and it never arrived, so rather than bother chasing it up I'll just download it on Kindle, shall I? Oh hey, no, it's not on Kindle.* I've got to bother chasing it up after all, or pay the print price all over again plus postage and packing and wait a day or two, when really I want to look at it NOW! And there are other books on Kindle: I can imagine a scenario where I just don't bother and get one of those instead (though I didn't do that). And since my own books aren't yet on Kindle (they will be eventually, I'm told) I'm jealous of all those authors whose books already are - readers being able to get hold of them so quickly, so easily. People interested in my books have asked me if they're on Kindle and I have answered with equanimity (and, for a considerable time, little interest) that they aren't, imagining those readers happily ordering the print copies instead. Now, though, I'm imagining them instantly losing interest... Surely being on Kindle must make a difference to sales... Surely, as a small-publisher at a book fair said to me recently, even though the price of ebooks has been forced so low by Amazon, you can still turn a profit, as ebook sales can be phenomenal?

But apparently it's not so simple. Which books do I download? Why, those I know about beforehand, of course: you can't exactly browse for books on Amazon. So those books that will sell well via Amazon, either in print or electronic form, are those which have had good marketing. And since Kindle books are priced so low, you need to sell a lot to make any substantial profit - which must mean that ebooks need particularly aggressive marketing.

And marketing a book is really hard and time-consuming work. I've heard so many non-writers advising authors having difficulty getting published to do it themselves with ebooks. Of course, they're thinking of Amanda Hocking, who has become a millionaire through her self-published young adult vampire ebooks, but it's interesting to learn in a recent Guardian article that she 'became so burned out by the stress of solo publishing' that she has now turned to a traditional publisher, and to hear what she herself has to say on the matter. I read elsewhere that she wants to be a writer again, the implication being that being a sole publisher left her no time to write, and The Guardian reports:
She also resents how her abrupt success has been interpreted as a sign that digital self-publishing is a new way to get rich quick. Sure, Hocking has got rich, quickly. But what about the nine years before she began posting her books when she wrote 17 novels and had every one rejected? And what about the hours and hours that she's spent since April 2010 dealing with technical glitches on Kindle, creating her own book covers, editing her own copy, writing a blog, going on Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, responding to emails and tweets from her army of readers? Just the editing process alone has been a source of deep frustration, because although she has employed own freelance editors and invited her readers to alert her to spelling and grammatical errors, she thinks her ebooks are riddled with mistakes. "It drove me nuts, because I tried really hard to get things right and I just couldn't. It's exhausting, and hard to do. And it starts to wear on you emotionally. I know that sounds weird and whiny, but it's true."

* Edited in: In the few days since I wrote this post, Michael Stewart's Not-the-Booker-winning King Crow has become available on Kindle. I've also read it since, and recommend it - vivid and moving (and very cleverly written).

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hooked on Sensation

Recently I saw a wonderful film, Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias. What's wonderful about it? Well, nothing really happens - not in the sense we usually mean nowadays when we're taking about film. It opens with a long sequence in which we watch acacia timbers being felled, the sunlight falling through their swaying, tumbling branches. There's sound: the loud yet also distancing sound of the machines. And then we get a shot, a long and contemplative yet riveting shot, of a truck driver's arm  resting on the open window of the cab, cigarette (I think) in hand, as he waits for his load of logs. It's a beautiful arm: sinewy, sheeny in the light falling across it, and mysterious: signalling all of the contradictory possibilities of masculinity - its toughness and tenderness - and thus encapsulating the essence of the film. For this is Ruben, taciturn Ruben, who, we will discover, on this particular lumber-hauling trip from Paraguay to Beunos Aires has been charged by his boss to pick up Jacinta, the daughter of the boss's housekeeper, travelling to seek work and live with cousins. It's a long time before we know this: almost in real-time, we haul out of the timber forest with Ruben, sharing his view of the road ahead and through the wing mirror the road behind and the great sweep of the long log-laden wagon as it takes bends. There's no dialogue: it's a silent movie, almost - apart from the huge sound of the engine, in which, along with Ruben, we are drowned. At last he stops in a lorry park, and slowly we realise he is looking for someone. We see her the moment he does: a pale speck struggling in the distance across the dual carriageway and carrying several bundles, one of which, as she nears, is clearly a baby. Are you Ruben? she asks him, and he speaks his first words of the film: His boss said nothing about a baby. He is not pleased. This is the moment - a fair way in - that the real drama of the film begins. But by this time the film has taught us to watch and attend, which, to appreciate this drama, we need to do:  for the journey is long, and most of it is conducted in silence. We need to listen to those silences (filled with that throbbing engine sound), we need to watch the faces and see the thoughts flitting across them, and only then will we truly appreciate those crucial moments when the silence is broken. It is the five-month-old baby who first breaks through Ruben's displeasure, and a relationship begins to develop between the two lonely adults, but the development is gradual and subtle - and all the more moving for being so.

There is a moment, after Ruben has clearly become attached to Jacinta and her baby, when it looks as if he might lose her. They have stopped to eat at a roadside canteen and at the outdoor table which the drivers share, a young Paraguayan trucker strikes up a conversation with Jacinta in their own language. Ruben comes back from attending to his lorry to find both their places at the table vacated. Has she gone off with the other trucker? There she is: talking to him beside his lorry... Is she going to go off with him? No: in the next shot she and Ruben and the baby are back together on the road, behaving towards each other as before. We are glad, but I have to say I was also surprised. One gets so used to sensation in film, to plot twists geared for excitement, that I fully expected that she would go off with the other trucker, however disappointing that would be (and that possibly Ruben would get her back in the end). The fact that she didn't - that we simply shared Ruben's fear that she would, and the subsequent understanding that it was an irrational fear stemming from his growing emotional investment in her (ie, it was the clinching thing that showed to him he was falling in love with her; that was the point) - was infinitely more satisfying and true to human nature.

Watching this film made me realise that we are no longer used to paying the kind of attention it requires from us (some people walked out of the cinema well before the scene in which Jacinta appears) - an attention to mood and emotion and psychology and relationships rather than event - and the deep satisfactions it yields. We have been schooled for crass over-the-top drama, and I think our response to both films and literature is affected.

Not so long ago I was invited to spend a day in a secondary school since one of my stories, 'Compass and Torch', is included in the AQA GCSE exam syllabus. This is a psychological story about a relationship: it features a moment on a camping trip taken by a father and young son estranged by divorce, and deals with the emotional tensions between them, and at the end suggests a prognosis for their future relationship. It's chiefly a story of repressed emotion, symbolised by the watching wild ponies ignored by a father and son intent on the practicalities and the tensions between them. The story ends thus, as the father and son bed down for the night:
In the plummeting darkness, the man's own anxiety began to mount. He could feel it gathering in the blackening chill: the aching certainty that already, only one year on from the separation, he has lost his son, his child. And the thought grew so strong that he could only half-listen to the child's earnest desperate voice.

At last the child, tucked up in his sleeping-bag, chattered himself out.
The man gently takes away the torch.
 It isn't long before the man, already expert at blanking out pain, falls asleep too.
Neither hears the horses moving round the tent in the night.
For years to come, though, in his dreams the boy will see their wild fringed eyes and feel the deep thudding of their hooves. 
I guess very few children nowadays know the experience of feeling the ground thudding as a horse gallops by at a short distance, but I have to say I was taken aback when, in two of the classes I read this to, a boy put up his hand at the end and asked in a troubled voice if someone died. Yes, there is the concept of death in the ending, but it's an emotional death: because of the emotional repression, the relationship between the father and son is doomed and they'll never be close. But the boy, still longing for that closeness, will dream in the future of the ponies they ignored that day (and which moved around the tent in the night and then galloped off again), and which, with their wildness and softness and freedom, symbolised the unexpressed and unfulfilled emotions.

Those boys - though understandably puzzled - had interpreted the ending in a literal way that cuts right across the story's psychological approach and, for me, renders the symbolism illogical: they assumed the horses had trampled the tent. And it's not only school students, it seems: here's one of the teaching activities suggested on the AQA website for the story:
A speaking and listening role play activity in which students agree on a version of events to explain what might have happened during the night and create a report for the evening news.
Well, I have to accept that as an author you can sometimes imply things you never intended, but I do wonder if such readings are due to a growing cultural expectation of sensational event - one aspect of that bogey 'high concept' - in our literature.