Archive for category My Memories of a Future Life
I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.
Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined.
For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.
My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.
My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.
Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.
Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?
I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.
Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.
That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.
Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.
This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.
One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.
I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach. Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.
Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.
In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.
So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.
More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.
Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.
I’m not good at nominating favourites. I find the question too complicated to answer so absolutely. For instance, a favourite book? Favourite in what subset of a subset? It’s like comparing apples to aardvarks. But I do have a few authors I’m wholeheartedly absolute about, and one of them is Peter Shaffer, whose death was announced today. I thought I’d dig out this piece as a tribute.
First published at For Books’ Sake, October 2011
We create the infinite: my favourite 3 fictional characters when I was 16
Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.
This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court. Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.
General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot. His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.
His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.
Pizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving. The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.
Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled. When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.
At the age of 16, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed. I got the grade as an academic duty but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.
At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.
And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.
Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.
And Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart – uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.
Writing this post, I realise how many of those synapses are still smoking. My first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before. The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, where players seem to be channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the transcendental infinite, music must be it. I wrote that whole book without realising that Mr Shaffer was secretly at the controls.
Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. ‘Account for me,’ says Equus’s Dr Dysart, confronting what he’s seen. In my own accounting, I owe a great debt to Mr Shaffer.