Bernard Beckett is the 2012 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. In that role, he occupied a small, sunny office on the bottom floor of the IIML. Throughout the year, his door was frequently open just enough to hear the clack of his keyboard. And to wonder what he could be up to in there.
Bernard is a prize-winning author of young adult fiction but he still holds a day job. He’s a teacher of English, mathematics and drama at Hutt Valley High School. It’s a position that gives him instant credibility as a writer of teen literature.
His career as a writer started when he was a young teacher living in Tokyo. He had time to spare so he filled his schedule by learning to write. He had five novels — bad, bad novels, he calls them — rejected before he found his first success in Lester, published in 1999. Since then, Bernard has published ten works of fiction, all of them placing Bernard’s fascination with ideas into the competent or at least credible hands of teenagers for further exploration. Occasionally, two of his novels will appear in the same year. He’s a prolific writer and also very fast.
Bernard has won the New Zealand Post Book Award for two of his books: Malcolm and Juliet in 2005 and Genesis in 2007. Genesis went on to be licensed for publication in 21 countries and earned Bernard further recognition in France, where he was honoured with the prestigious Prix Sorcières in 2010.
This year, he came to the IIML with two projects in mind. He intended to develop a screenplay of his most recent published novel, August. He also aimed to complete the trilogy that started with Genesis. He started his residency with a first draft of the third novel but all worthwhile projects present surprises and Bernard is skilled in exploiting fortuitous conditions. Bernard will finish his residency with a new novel to complete his trilogy but it won’t be the one he brought to the residency or sent to his publisher in June.
Bernard sat down to chat with me in his well-lit, sparsely decorated office in October 2012.
What was the plan for your residency year?
I had two projects in mind. It was quite a nice balance. One was a novel and one was a screenplay. They were both underway. The screenplay was in progress with a British director, an interpretation of my novel August. We were at the stage of talking it through scene by scene but we hadn’t started scripting. I said to him, I have this year of freedom coming so this is a great time to finish it. We had a sense that we’d get one or two drafts going, hopefully get it to the stage where we both felt it was ready, and my friend could put his producer hat on and sell it.
The other project was a novel — also underway. I was just starting in on a second draft. I had a complete first draft but I was well aware that it needed a redraft from word one. It wasn’t a draft where I could go into the text and play with it. It needed a complete rewrite. I had the ideas on the page, some bits I might copy and paste but not much. It was a draft of feeling. And again, I knew I had the time to spend on it. In essence, I was trying to follow up on Genesis and August. Just in the sense that Genesis and August are my metaphysical novels. They are intended to take philosophical notions to a teenage audience. For whatever reason, I floated the idea that I’d write three of these.
A trilogy. It’s become a standard structure for teen literature.
I know. You do tire of things but you don’t want to give up on them too early. Three is a good number. I also wanted to see if I could recapture what had worked in Genesis. That book had a lot of good fortune. I didn’t really know what I was doing but it came together well. So I wanted to give myself two more chances after Genesis to play with these ideas. That’s what I had in mind when I came to the IIML. Not since 2005 have I had a year to do nothing but write. Up until then, I’d been writing but as a hobby, or a part-time gig, because I mostly write while teaching. So this IIML year was to be my time.
Was Genesis the culmination of that time in 2005?
Were you hoping for a similar kismet?
In 2005, what I’d done is I’d gone in with a different project in mind, got stuck in it, and jumped to Genesis as a sort of relief. I’d been stalled on something I wanted to write, something I called an ‘Adult Novel’, but I couldn’t do it. So I just thought, oh well, I’ll write around this idea while the ‘Adult Novel’ resolves itself. I had low stress and no expectations — didn’t even know if I would publish it because it wasn’t what I was trying to do. It’s a lovely way of writing, really. It’s a shame you can’t trick yourself into those things. They just happen. And this year, I find that something similar happened.
Even with a first draft, you were experiencing a block?
Here’s what happened with that draft. It had been quite hard work writing it but I thought there were different reasons for that. When I hit writing that feels almost turgid, when every page is a hard page to write, I inevitably tell myself stories about why it’s hard. And those stories give me a motivation. We’ve always got that bit of story about our writing, I think — who we are and why we’re doing it — and we need those stories otherwise it’s very easy not to write. So the story I told myself is that working from that first draft was challenging because I was trying to do something difficult. I thought if I succeeded in that difficult thing, it would be really worthwhile. And I thought I could succeed if I just had time to focus on it. To labour over it.
When writing comes too easily I feel suspicious that I’m not trying hard enough; I’m being slack, lazy, this isn’t the story I should be writing. So it’s almost as if a part of me wants to suffer a bit more because that proves I’m taking it seriously.
So I was telling myself this slightly earnest story: no, this is good because it’s hard. But one of the reasons it was hard and one of the reasons that writing is hard sometimes is that I’m not actually excited by the project. I lie to myself about what it’s about, about what I’m trying to do. And I fudge. I can always fudge when I’m explaining a story.
When your writing comes too easily and you feel like a slacker, do you find that the result is good or lacklustre?
The easy stuff is always better. Always. The novels that came easily have always been my best work. But I always have in the back of my head that there must have been something wrong. And I can’t plan on an easy project. I just have to wait for them.
Did you make your peace with the difficult project?
I finished it through another draft. But I still felt that it wasn’t working. I gave it to my wife to read. She’s a very, very astute reader who won’t be overly critical but I’ve learned to read a lot into her silence. It means, this is shit. I prefer when she says, ‘hey, I love this because…’ But she read it and she was quiet. There was no easy engagement. I also gave bits of it to Kate DeGoldi because she was going to interview me about it. And Kate had some immediate reservations about it.
Still, I’d submitted it to my publishers at Text and they had already got back to me. They said, hey we’ll publish this but we want to talk about changes. So I knew if I stuck with it that it was going to be published. The editor was amazing. She sent me a list of problems. She was quite right in identifying them but I thought they were insoluble. I also thought there was a deeper issue that none of us could fix, that was native to the structure. I managed very easily to convince the editor of that because I think she suspected the same. So I told her that I was withdrawing the manuscript and I pitched her a story that had morphed from a small thought experiment in the last draft of the novel into a story that obsessed me. She said, go write that. What an incredible level of support from her. I could feel her excitement. This happened in late July. And since then, I’ve been working non-stop and have a first draft. I’m in a situation now where I have to hold back.
I can’t really ask how the obsession happened but how did the chance for the metamorphosis take place?
I was talking as part of the Writers on Mondays event at Te Papa. I was trying to explain to the audience the story of the original novel despite all those scruples of me and my wife and Kate and my editor. I mentioned that little thought experiment — it really only took half a page, right at the end of the novel — and I noticed the audience reacting. So I embellished it. The audience seemed to think it was great so I said, that’s what the novel is about.
Of course, in my head I was thinking, that’s not what the novel is about. That’s what it should have been about. That’s the novel I should write. I got very, very excited about this new idea and I wanted to write it in a way that I hadn’t wanted to desperately write something for a long time. You know, for five years, at least.
Are you willing to share a brief pitch?
There are identical twins. Boys at 17. The novel opens with one of them looking at the other one, in a coma in hospital. The healthy twin is confronted with the possibility of having to say goodbye. A psychologist comes in and asks for a decision — whether the healthy twin is willing to share his memories, his experiences, his knowledge with the other. To replace everything lost in his brother. And we begin the dialogue.
A Socratic dialogue along the lines of Genesis?
Yeah, yeah. I’m happy doing these dialogues. I like writing theatre. I like the form. I avoided it in August because I didn’t want to overtly write the same novel but I’m past that now. Now, I know that I love doing this shit so it must be right.
Okay. And the twins are in the future?
We are vaguely aware that it’s sometime in the future — maybe 50 years. I really enjoy playing with the idea that in the last 50 years, not much has actually changed. So when you write 50 years in the future, the truth is that everything looks mostly the same. Maybe our phones are different or our barcodes. Someone once made the observation to me that we are much closer to Mad Men than Mad Men is to Downton Abbey. The real changes were in the first half of the 20th century. So although my story is futuristic, only a few things have changed. One of which is that we can harvest our own organs from a bank that stores our genetic material. But unfortunately, brains have not yet been cultivated. Thus, the need to restore data to the damaged brain of the injured twin.
Listening to you, I have the impression your excitement hasn’t waned.
No. Not at all. It feels really good. And it feels quite Genesis. But it took me a whole novel and a discarded novel to realise that there’s no problem with that. Writers often contend with that duplicity. They think, I don’t want to keep doing what I’ve done because all I’ll complete are pale imitations of the first. And then you face someone 15 years later who says that the first book is the best.
I was once in a bookshop and I overheard a customer telling a bookseller that he was thinking of buying my latest book. And the bookseller said, ‘to be honest, it’s all right but I think his first book was definitely his best.’ And it was a slightly brutal thing to hear. Despite the fact they were saying that they liked a book of mine, it didn’t sit well that he was saying that the book he really liked was the first one I tried almost 15 years ago. I thought, oh really? I’ve gotten worse? I always think in terms of filmmakers and musicians. Sometimes, there are musicians who keep making the same album again and again and I kind of admire that. Others are pathologically inclined to change and change and change but I sometimes wonder if that’s a search for freshness or an act of running away from a form of success. It’s a really interesting phenomenon. What you do: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
When I read your work, I don’t think, here’s Mr Beckett teaching me. But when I’m done, I’m very aware that I’ve been schooled. Is this the authority you hold onto as an author of teen literature — to provide a subtle education?
Ha. Well, 16 or 17 is the time when there is nothing more intoxicating than discovering that everything you’ve been told is wrong. And therefore you look for what’s right. To move out of childhood, teenagers have to create a new story. They find this gap in which to invent themselves. That’s why I think philosophy is so interesting to that age range because it challenges the endurance of what their philosophy is, or is becoming.
I like standing in front of a classroom and I like that I’m author as schoolteacher. I really enjoy watching teenagers rearranging the furniture when they’re introduced to new ideas. Plus, all of this is something that I really like to explore. I like trying to work out these ideas, to translate them for myself into story and to share my thoughts.
Does writing under a YA label give you a certain freedom?
Yes. People have already packaged me. They don’t get offended if the next book is not a thriller. If I wrote adult thrillers and then I wrote a love story, people would be angry or maybe I’d be counselled to release it under a different name. But because I write for teenagers, it’s all right to write what I want. The market has been defined for me. It’s already there. Away you go. I can write cross-genre freely within the teen world.
I also think I’m better writing YA or genre fiction because it’s all about story and ideas. I think you have to have access to some level of introspection to write literature, which I like reading but I actually am more of a quick-slap-and-get-over-yourself sort. I don’t indulge in ideas. It’s not me. It means a lot of the things that I love reading I won’t ever be able to write.
This from the guy committed to writing about what mind is. Do you have an ideal reader in mind as you write?
Yeah yeah yeah, it’s not that I have to write light. I like the ideas, the complexity of ideas more than indulging in the emotions that they prompt. My ideal reader? I think at some level, I end up writing for a version of myself. You have to like what you’re writing. But I’m aware of my readers being teenagers. Some people say no no, don’t think about that but I think that’s bogus. If I’m talking to an adult as opposed to a 15- or 16-year old, there’s no way I use the same references. I might use the same speech patterns but I’m aware that my references might be foreign. Spending too long on a marriage metaphor for example, that’s not going to work. But you can go deeply into ideas with teenagers. They read, I think, in the same way that they discover music or anything else. Very intensely. I remember bringing home a record at 15 and listening to it over and over until the songs, the album, the band became a part of my life. Teenagers interact with fiction in this way as well, with a level of intensity that not many adults reach. And then, among teenagers, there’s nothing homogenous about them. So I’m not really writing for teenagers but for some subset. And they’re usually the kids that I’ve most enjoyed teaching: smart, curious. Those are the ones — my ideal readers.
I found a great reaction to my work on a teenage reader’s blog. She was writing to her former self on the occasion of her birthday. She wrote, the best thing about being 17 was that she’d read Genesis and now she’s in the middle of reading Bertrand Russell wondering how she ever lived without these ideas. It wasn’t just that she read the book and had an opinion about the way that it was crafted. It was that the book had captured her imagination and transformed the way she viewed the world. That’ll do. She’s my reader.
Tell me how you work. Do you keep a journal? Do you plot? Imitate?
I definitely imitated. In things like voice. That’s how I got into teen writing. Catcher in the Rye was important. I didn’t know that teen literature could be so interesting. It plays to a teenage psyche without being overly simplistic and obvious.
I don’t keep a journal, no. I assume that if something doesn’t stay in my head, then it’s not worth it. If I really like an idea, I force myself to think about it. If you think of something and you say to yourself, oh that’s great, write it down and forget about it, then it’s probably shit. If it’s good enough to examine and I become very thoughtful about it, then it’s probably good enough to explore again and again.
Oh, I plot sometimes. The biggest thing I’ve realised is that if I don’t know the ending before I start, then it will never work out. I never find the ending. I know this. I can’t find my way to an ending. I’m comfortable wandering through the middle, but the destination is the reason I’m writing. Beginnings are seductive. There are so many great ways to start something. There are so many novelists who can write great beginnings but then the novel doesn’t deliver on the promise. I reckon Ian McEwan writes great beginnings that almost never deliver. In Enduring Love, there’s a picnic and a hot air balloon drifts down as a wind gust picks up. People realise a kid is still in the balloon as it’s floating off. And all these men jump on the basket to keep the balloon down but their weight is insufficient. One by one, they let go except for one man who floats away and later falls to his death. All the other guys are okay because they decided to save themselves instead of the possibility of saving the boy. It’s a great opening. A great scene. But I don’t think the book delivers on that wonderful opening.
Do you return to your work? Do you read it after years have gone by?
Occasionally nostalgia prompts it. Not very often. But if I go talk to a school, I’ll pick up a book and look through it. I think to motivate myself and move forward, I sort of park the old stories behind me. We tell stories about our old stories. Almost like we’re still writing it. I look at a book and realise that there are some conveniences that I would like to resolve. Some flaws. Recently, I’ve just realised that the first books I wrote were the sort of teen writing I could never do again. I was close enough to that age, in my 20s, that I was amongst it still. I think part of that is facing up to the fact that there are some things that I’ll never be able to replicate, never be able to find again. So, if I’m writing about a 14-year-old falling in love, there’s a greater detachment now. I’m much farther from it, married with kids and happy. The angst is gone. I can imagine it, remember what it was like, but it’s distant. So I move into another place. Some writers move into other types of fiction or write adult voice novels that are for teenagers. I think the best YA fiction is that kind of aspirational stuff — for a 16-year-old to read about what 16 looks like from an adult perspective. The nostalgia comes through but the perspective is fresh.
Do you read other writers in your genre?
No. I’m not a teenager. Reading is precious. I read some YA because I teach. But not for my pleasure. I don’t have a range of knowledge about teenage literature. I read non-fiction mostly. I planned to read a lot of fiction this year because I have a 30-minute commute on the train each way. But I keep going into bookstores and gravitating toward non-fiction, coming out with non-fiction. I have read fiction this year but nothing that I really adored. I read The Marriage Plot recently and I quite liked it. For every piece of fiction that I read, that I like, I find that I’ve read three or four non-fiction works.
So where can we find you in the bookstore? What kind of non-fiction grabs you?
My non-fiction choices are always in science, neuroscience, philosophy, politics and particularly economics. My degree was in economics. I’d like to see more popular philosophy out there. Academic philosophy is a challenge that keeps it inaccessible. It’s really hard. And popular philosophy, there’s just not enough of it. It’s not like the other sciences where leading figures have taken it upon themselves to explain their field to the person on the street. For some reason, philosophers just haven’t.
Do you ever think about your position in terms of popularising some of this thought?
Sure, but only at the level of fiction, just to introduce the idea. Because to introduce the idea, you don’t have to be able to give the balance between various viewpoints, their strengths and weaknesses, or acknowledge other arguments. It doesn’t have to be academic. You can just take a thought experiment, throw it out there and allow people to feed off it. That’s quite different. I did write a work of non-fiction called Falling for Science about the philosophy of science which was really just me working through some ideas and publishing it on the grounds that others might be interested in the same thing. The world is full of bad representation of ideas, too often free from counterview. I don’t want to contribute to that.
This will reveal my vulnerability, totally, but the reactions I dread are the ones that say he’s nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. These hurt me the most. This idea that I’m writing about stuff but I don’t really get it. I think, if that’s true, then I feel really stink about it. I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe that I have enough of a handle on it.
Are you hopeful about the role of literature in the world?
Yes, particularly if one isn’t grandiose. If what you do is measure success by the fact that some people somewhere are engaging with the story, then that’s fantastic. But if you measure success by changing the path of civilization, then everything, almost, is a failure. But if some readers engage with a book and find new ideas, learn to tell stories, then that’s brilliant. We are storytellers. It’s story all the way down. So we can’t really move away from it. And to be part of that is great.