Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Talking Books: How to achieve 'epic'?

It's funny how books - like people I suppose - turn up in your life and deliver answers almost before you know what the question was.

I've been working on the novel, and got to the point where I was quite happy with the basics: storyline, character, language etc. But something else seemed missing. It didn't seem to have any gravitas. It was, I suppose, just a story, but not something that said anything profound about the world: and I like to read things that are profound.

I was thinking about this when I started reading John D. Rateliff's excellent The History of the Hobbit, which gives a draft by draft account of The Hobbit: where Thorin was Gandalf; Gandalf was Bladorthin; Smaug was Pryftan; and the Goblin king was called Fingolfin. All a bit obscure unless you're a Tolkien fan - but the important thing for me was a letter CS Lewis (of Narnia fame) wrote about The Hobbit, to Charles Williams 'The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious change of tone....we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsokn [hall-burning] and Badger had begun to talk like Njal'

It was the phrase 'escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot' that struck me. My novel felt like it was well-paced and drafted, but failed to reach to the pinnacle of relevance: when it says something profound about the human condition.

I came across a similar concept yesterday while reading VS Naipaul's Reading and Writing. He quotes a letter by Joseph Conrad, who is commenting on a novel by a friend: 'the novel was clearly one of much plot but all the drama all the truth are thrown away by the mechanisms of the story.' And Naipaul writes of Conrad: 'The discovery of every tale was a moral one.'

It's easy to understand what is missing and quite different working out how to fix it. I have my ideas, and will come back when I think I've solved it. There's another relevant quote from Naipaul which gives a very interesting insight: 'A novel was made up; that was almost its definition...at the same time it was expected to be true...so that part of a novel came from rejecting the fiction, or looking through it to a reality. '

Seeing reality through the fiction: this is of course what all good novels - good writing - all good art - does. It adds insight to our lives.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The First Man Asian Literary Prize

Not all hedge funds are bad: and in a world where literature - from the writers to the organisers of festivals -are usually involved in a loss-making business (writers usually receive something less than the minimum wage for the hours, or years on a novel), it is important that Man Group plc have stepped up to support a Asian Man award, a prize very much along the lines of the Man Booker in the UK.

It seems a little odd to encompass Asia into one literary prize, but actually all the other great landmasses already have their own prizes - a plethora of them in North America and Europe - and apart from the generic 'misery books' that China throws out, along the lines of Wild Swans, Asian voices seem under represented on the shelves of most bookshops.

Having spent the afternoon listening to the finalists of this, the first Man Asian Literary Prize, reading and talking about their work I have been struck at how universal their stories are, and how accessible and important. There is Jose Y. Dalisay's dark comedy about the body of an overseas Philipino who is sent home in a coffin, and gives us the flip side of the impact of US naval bases on a local community; Reeti Gadekar's clever and funny exploration of Western and Indian culture and society; and Xu Xi's novel which - like many of Hong Kong's residents - straddles cities as far apart as New York and Hong Kong.

Unlike most literary prizes, which peg their publicity on the 'big' names who file around the shortlists on 5-yearly intervals (please not McEwan/Rushdie again!) the names of this list, chosen from a staggering 200+ entrants from across Asia, are probably unknown to most people. None of them have been published in the UK or USA, which does not mean they shouldn't be. Jiang Rong's 'Wolf Totem', is a run-away best-seller in his native China, with sales figures in the league of JK Rowling (2 million official sales, and an estimated 4 million pirated copies). Nu Nu Yi, a favourite Burmese writer, has written fifteen novels, and over a hundred short stories, while five of Dalisay's novels have won the Filipino National Book Award. That writers of this calibre have remained undiscovered is surely a crime, and more than this: it is a loss to people who love literature.

Of course - and this is part of the purpose of the prize - this award will help propel some of these writers out of the 'Asian' world into a Western bookshop. Wolf Totem has been picked up by Penguin and will be out in the UK in March 2008, and many of the other writers have publishers who have shown interest.

It begs the question why do we need a prize to encourage readers to try something from a Burmese or Philipino writer? Stories are about people, and having written two novels about Chinese characters - both eminently successful - I heard nothing from the writers this afternoon that would preclude a Western reader from sitting and enjoying their tales. Because good writing is - and there is no doubt that the five writers shortlisted here are good writers - universal. It is about the human experience and that experience does not change radically if you are Thai or French or American or Chinese.

Hopefully this prize will put Asian writing more onto the map: and also give Asian writers more confidence and more encouragement to put their experiences and lives into literature. Certainly the profound changes that are happening here deserve a literary voice.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Harry Potter of Novel Writing

I've spent much of the last 6 weeks going back through the novel, teasing out scenes here, rewriting them at times, cutting in others. What has struck me and my readers is that I often build to a climax, and then avoid the climax and move on. Which means, when I go back I need to build all these scenes to their natural conclusion: which is truly exhausting work - and probably the reason I avoided doing it the first time round. I think of this process as a little like casting a spell, which is how Harry Potter comes in: because hitting these scenes is just like spell-casting.

Here's how:

Preparation: think about the scene, work out where you want it to end up, and what the climax should be. Get all the ingredients you need with you (not spider's legs but tea of coffee or cigarettes or whatever you're going to need for this process which might take anything up to a couple of hours.) Sit down. Clear away all the detritus of the day. Focus your mind.

Casting: Focus clearly. Put yourself into the characters - in wizard terms, possess your character's body and feel how they feel and see what they see and write it down as clearly and honestly as you can. There will probably be more than one character that you have to possess: which is an exhausting process as you take on the personality and backstory and experience of each of the characters in turn. Like a spellcaster, you are summoning spirits and illusions and movement to enchant and entrance the reader. Focus: your are summoning a world and a moment into being.

Recovery: If the spell has been cast properly then as all wizards in all tales - you will be exhausted. You're body will feel empty and dislocated from the world around you: because in truth you have passed from our world into the world of your imagination; have possessed the body of imaginary people and moved them like real.

The spell ends.

This analogy becomes much more understandable when you think of the original meaning of the word 'spell', whose spelling (from a different word source) hasn't changed since Old English times, and which comes to us in the word 'gospel' [O.E. 'godspel'].

For the original meaning of 'spell' is story. And what else is story-telling than the working of illusions, the charming and enchanting of an audience: once through sitting in a fire lit hall and telling them a tale, but now more likely through the words we write on a page.