Excerpts from a reading journal, 2006
Writers and Readers Week
George W. wasn’t there, but might as well have been. He was at least mentioned in every session I went to – the Americans all fairly desperate to disassociate themselves from him, which is fair enough; and others having to make a derisive statement on him of some kind. He kind of just hung over the whole week.
Nowhere Man: Aleksandar Hemon
He said, after his reading, that he wanted to narrate that particular scene from the point of view of another character falling in love with the central character. And, in doing so, the reader falls in love at the same time, and will then be happy to follow the central character anywhere because he’s loveable – they love him.
True. I’ve often fallen in love with characters completely and can not put the book down and then pine for a sequel, anything, a movie (even if it stars Nicholas Cage), in order to see him again. But what if you’ve got a not-so-loveable character?
At the moment my main character is not entirely loveable. I guess I kind of wanted her to be Trouble, and cause trouble for the ‘nicer’ characters. I may have to rethink this. Although not all central characters are loveable though. Humbert Humbert is completely awful – and that’s what I love about him; well, it’s probably the black humour and the way he exposes ‘nice’ people’s stupidity and vanity along with his own. Helps that it’s in first person. And he, pretty much immediately, gains sympathy by telling of his spoilt first love in a princedom by the sea. Which was innocent and, psychologically, explains a lot about his love for Lolita. I guess I love villains if they’re funny. And I’m not on the receiving end.
Hemon went on to talk about how he views literature, saying it should stick to what it can do, which is to illuminate details of humanity (the light in the morning when you’re lying in bed etc.). The legal system has its own job; and history also. Which is great because I think maybe just a few hints to indicate that my story’s set in the 1950s will work, rather than loading it down with details etc.
He also mentioned that Nabokov (?) said Chekhov wrote sad stories for humorous people. He believes he writes humorous stories for sad people. I like that pull between two extremes when I’m reading, or watching theatre. You can get away with the most horrible things if it’s surrounded by laughter. Lolita is incredible in this way. I would be laughing and horrified simultaneously.
It’s interesting that he says the conceptual ideas get in the way of the story and the characters. This was echoed by Jose Carlos Somoza and Michelle de Krester when they talked about their characters totally taking over and changing the pre-planned shape of the book.
The New Russian Doll: Jose Carlos Somoza, Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser went on to say that sometimes the ideas, the choices that are made are not clear until even after the book has been published. I guess all the subliminal work comes together and the human mind is always making connections and ordering things. I do wonder, how much information do you have to give before a reader makes all the connections? Touched on this briefly during class when reading Sue’s ’Learning the Alphabet’ piece. It didn’t take many clues to figure out her character was anorexic.
The more I think about it, I find I like the tension when reading that comes from getting the first ‘clue’ and thinking, no . . . no . . . is it? And then being made to wait, but not too long, until the suspicion is confirmed (and not usually by being told, but by some implicit action/reaction of the characters).
What was particularly interesting about Somoza was that he had to rewrite his novel completely after the translator character haunted him and demanded to written in as the narrator. I don’t really have time for that . . .
Caché (Hidden): a film by Michel Haneke
This is the same guy who directed The Piano Teacher. He’s probably my favourite director at the moment. He’s really restrained in what he does, lots of under the surface tension; everything’s suppressed, including the characters, usually, and then when it finally erupts, boils over, it’s completely shocking. He seems very technique driven, or maybe I mean restrained, and holds back, pares back the story and the acting, so it creates this heightened tension, you watch every little movement, every item in room for a clue. And then it will explode into raw . . . something . . . and the audience is left shattered. Interesting – comparing it to writing – particularly mine. Less is more. Well, no, not always. It’s this careful containing of energy, very ‘craftful’.
This time he focuses on guilt and whether this is a collective guilt or individual – particularly looking at the massacre of 200 Arabs in the early 60s during a protest in Paris – as viewed through the eyes of a French family who are being terrorised with videos of themselves entering, leaving their home etc. It acts like a typical thriller.
What particularly interests me is the ending or lack of certainty at the end. It seems to me at times that the tension that runs through many stories can fail to be realised at the end. Whatever the final discovery is, does not really warrant the anticipation and build up. I often find endings a let down. Is it too neat? Convenient?
The ending of Hidden is left open enough to keep up the tension once the credits roll, and for the audience to leave all looking around to see ‘did anyone get it?’, and go home jump straight on the internet and find chat sites dedicated to people saying, ‘did anyone get it?’ – which is what we did. However, audiences don’t feel completely cheated because the film is so well made they are sure that there are clues that reveal ‘whodunnit’, throughout. Reviewers keep saying they don’t want to give it away, supposedly, but my thoughts are they didn’t quite get it either. There is no quickly tied bow at the end of this film. And I really like it.
Which makes me think of In My Father’s Den. Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I read it, but the ending really annoyed me. It seemed pat and contrived and quickly, neatly tied up; and didn’t seem to stand up to the quality of writing, and the characterisations that had drawn me in throughout the novel. I’m thinking now, it shouldn’t have told me exactly what happened. It could have left me high and dry, the sense of atmosphere and mystery still hanging over me. I might read that last bit again, mainly because I feel bad for saying this about the book – because I really do love it. But in some way I felt the plot may have been a cop out. This probably relates to me, more than the book, doesn’t it? I’m wondering if I’m stressing about a plot when I really shouldn’t have an overt one at all? But that’s dangerous and heading towards wanky . . . I’m going to concentrate on writing little scenes that intrigue me, exploring the characters, atmospheres, tensions, repetitions, relationships and just see what happens . . .
But mainly, mystery, mystery, explaining it all kills all the mystery involved, doesn’t it?
The God of Small Things: Arundhati Roy
Structure – how exactly does she get that continuous flipping back and forth of time and memories to make any sense at all? The story is revealed in parts, or maybe it’s levels. Is this what Louise Erdich was talking about when she said the story was told in circles and each time around it revealed a little more? Because the surprises in this story are not who is killed, or who did the killing, but how it came about. So, early on we know that Sophie Mol and Velutha are dead and that Ammu, Rahel and Estha are punished for it, in fact we’re told this in the prologue. Bit by bit we are given more of the details. Not in any chronological order. The book ends in the middle of the story with Ammu and Velutha meeting as lovers at night. Which is lovely and not sentimental. Probably because we’ve just witnessed Ammu’s decline and Velutha being bashed to death for being an Untouchable, and are in need of something beautiful and redeeming at the end.
I think the ability to locate the various memories in time is to do with the author being specific. The narrator will say ‘Years later in New York’ and ‘Now on the way to Cochin’ to make all the slides in time/place easy. To distinguish between the young/old Estha and Rahel, they will be described by body parts: ‘stick insect’/‘Elvis puff’ versus ‘her mother’s lips’/‘honey skin’. The use of repetition works to place them. Maybe laying out the story bones at the beginning helps. And then all the following scenes are the colouring in. The Why. What worked for me really well in this, was the way the scenes circled around the climax scenes right until the very end. We know what happened before, we know about the aftermath, and we have been given small hints about what actually happened that night. We are hooked by the mystery.
Also, interestingly enough, she took five years to write this. And says she didn’t do it in drafts, but it came in a more organic way – taking ages to get the words right and then at the end she altered the structure somewhat, but didn’t really rewrite much.
Books on Structure Etc.
Well, feeling a little overwhelmed after my first folio showing. To be expected. Many-many questions about plot and structure and where to from here and how does it all tie in. Unfortunately, I don’t know. Everyone did pick up on the bits I was unsure of: the shifting tone of Maarni’s voice; how old is she? Where exactly is she? If it’s set in the 50s, how would the psychiatrist talk to her? Is he too nice? Is there anything to actually locate it in the era I originally said I was aiming for? How am I going to let her past seep through without making it clunky? And! The two stories running along side each other – how to keep the reader interested in both? (Well done, everyone. Can’t slip anything by you all – which is assuring. But pretty annoying.)
So, off to the library looking for some lovely books with chapters on Structure. Plot. Narrative. Dialogue. Then Anna caught me red-handed in the Ms with a copy of How to Write a Blockbuster Novel. Looking just a little desperate . . . (It had a chapter on author photographs.)
I spent the rest of yesterday writing out storylines and chapter breakdowns, but I couldn’t get past chapter seven. What happens next? I think I write loosely in circles. I think I have to keep writing, and see where I end up, which probably isn’t worth dwelling on at the moment.
This morning I met with Kathryn again. Who made me feel a lot better about how I’ve been working so far. We talked about novellas and plot, or lack of – jumped on Google: Mrs Dalloway; Metamorphosis; Seize the Day. This calmed me. It made me want to write again, because, to be honest, the whole plot thing had me turning in circles and inside out. I don’t know if my head works that way at all. Whereas, I like the seeping quality of Mrs Dalloway. The little stories that appear, seamlessly, really, and the inside of her head. And the writing, the writing, I love her descriptions. So am I concentrating on ‘writing’ – even though I think my writing could either be my strength or downfall?
But what was encouraging about this morning, was the shape of a novella. I think I could get my head around a novella? The ability to concentrate on mood and character, and let stories arise from that?
There wasn’t really a chapter on author photographs.
Hari Kunzru’s Visit
He wrote two ‘terrible’ novels before he published The Impressionist – and he’s still not happy with the first chapter. Which is interesting because that is exactly what a reviewer said. And: how can you expect a beginning novelist to write brilliantly? It should be their third or fourth novel where things really start to get interesting. (But then, why inflict the first two novels on readers at all?)
Anyway, it’s coming home to me from all quarters – write what you want to write (within reason and all the other conditions against it – how confusing) – from Kathryn; Hari said it; from other random bits of interviews I’ve read. It’s the same when you’re creating a piece of theatre. You absolutely cannot base your story around what you think people want to hear/see. It has to be for you – what truly interests you. Well, I guess that’s the way I’m heading – and I should let go and run with it. Surely it’s easier to tidy up a bit of a mess than to try building something out of nothing? I’m writing in splotches at the moment. I keep planning loosely, focusing on themes and rises and falls and hope that it will all come together and make sense later. Because already connections are appearing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emma Gallagher was a student in the 2006 MA class at the IIML. ‘The Little Grandfather Clock’ started life as a workshop exercise and won the novice section of this year’s BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards.