Friday, 25 April 2008

Ask The Author - A.L.Kennedy (Day)

Mr B's Tremendous Tuesday Book Group read A.L.Kennedy's "Day" shortly after it had won the 2007 Costa Book of the Year Award. Mr B had an e-chat with the author to get her answers to some questions posed during the book group discussion. Everyone at Mr B's would like to thank Alison for answering the questions for us and Chloƫ at Random House for making this interview possible:

Mr B - Alfred is portrayed as a flawed character but does he actually have many real flaws? As a group we ended up thinking that he isn’t really as flawed as he’d have us believe (as shown by how much others – Skip, Pluckrose etc – seem to value him). Other than being prone to murder of course!

A.L.K - Yes, murder is a bit of a drawback, but he is very specific in his murdering. Unless you look at the morality of area bombing - which I think he has become more troubled by as time has passed and he's talked to Ivor. But he is, as you say, a man that others can warm to. I think he's very loyal to his friends and can be very loving. He would probably assume that someone he loves will die - which would disturb him - and he'd be aware that his nerves are very frayed, so he's not that good at strangers, or loud noises, or stress. And I would imagine he gets into, at least verbal, fights quite easily. But generally, a decent man doing his best in odd circumstances.

Mr B - The structure of the book and the way we follow Alfred’s thought-processes back to his four or five memory areas (the crew, his family, the bookshop, Joyce etc) caused lots of discussion. I think the biggest question we had for you as an author was where did you start once you’d decided to use that style? Did you write the book in a very different sequence to the end-result?

A.L.K - I wrote the book in the sequence you meet. If you think about it the chronology just happens to be emotional rather than temporal - it's still a chronology. We go from early to late in what he remembers (that's completely conventional really) and from intimate to less intimate, depending on what he can stand to feel. When I set out, I only had an idea of who Alfred was and what he could stand to think about. I knew he wouldn't open up early and that the frame of the piece was based in the fake POW camp. Everything really came from Alfred and the fact that WWII was enormous - then I worked out from there. It took about 3 years to prepare, so I had a while to think.

Mr B - Another point that came out of the structure was that people had found they really had to concentrate hard in the first few chapters in order to follow the flitting of Alfred’s thoughts between times and story areas that they were not yet familiar with. Then, as you get to know Alfred and his references better, it becomes “easier” to follow. Did you set out to immerse your readers immediately into Alfred’s viewpoint and were you conscious that the early pages may make more difficult reading than the later ones as a result?

A.L.K - I do tend not to compromise when I open up a book and I thought with this one - because I have to take you so far into somewhere really unpleasant, it would be best to get you used to concentrating and trying to reach Alfred and go with him - so when people start dying and bombs start droping you're going to be there for him. With a 3rd person book that covers so much ground it seemed a way to create as much intensity and intimacy as possible - given that intensity would define most of his wartime experiences.

Mr B's - We were intrigued by Joyce’s relationship with Alfred. She seemed quite a predatory character and some people wondered what she saw in him? What do you think attracted Joyce to Alfred?

A.L.K - I always liked Joyce, but I couldn't really bend the book out of shape to make it about her as well - Alfred does love her but he just has so much else on his mind. I think Joyce was in a very hard position - she clicked with Alfred (these wartime romances often did fire up very quickly) but she was married to someone who was almost certainly dead and whom she had married in haste. She seems to have socialist leanings and to be keen to escape her own set. She knits for him, which I think is an indication of something - clearly she's an awful knitter. I managed to allow her to explain herself a little at the end - how difficult it was effectively waiting for two people and knowing so little about what would happen. She's a bit fast, but I think she would try her best for Alfred and their relationship might work.

Mr B - One of our book group members thought that the overriding message or moral of the book might be in Ivor Sand’s monologue near the end of the book where he talks about people not being scum. Is there an overriding message and if so what would you say it is?

A.L.K - My overriding message is always that people aren't scum - although I very rarely have someone around like Ivor who lectures and can say such things. There's a sense of the complication and awfulness of war - that human potential can be appalling and war releases it - that guilt is difficult and justice can fail. But I'd be happy with "people aren't scum" yes.

Mr B - The group were interested in your motivations behind writing the novel. The tagline on the reverse of the book praises the book “particularly” because it’s written by “a woman born in 1965”. Did you set yourself the challenge of writing a novel about WW2 and then create the character and decide to follow his story, or did you start with Day as a character and then choose to place him in a WW2 setting? Or something else entirely?!

A.L.K - The impetus for the book came from 3 areas. 1) I've always been interested in that period and I worked for quite a while in elderly care homes and just think that generation was remarkable. 2) I was preparing the book while we ploughed off into a very different war, still pursuing the idea that area bombing is acceptable and practical as a war policy. I wanted to look at the moral ambivalnec of even a just war, while we pursue an unjust war, betray the war time generation who gave us the welfare state and follow policies which, in some cases, are the reverse of WWII's "what we're fighting for" 3) I read a 1949 magazine article about the filing of the movie "The Wooden Horse" - using former POW's as extras. I wanted to know why someone would go back in that way and what would happen when they did. Other people's ideas of what male or female people should write or what age they should be... all those things don't really interest me. If an idea arrives, it's my job to serve it as well as possible - to prevent the ideas behind it from going elsewhere.

Do let us know what you think of the book and the author's answers by adding a comment. If you haven't read it yet, you can buy a copy of "Day" from Mr B's by clicking HERE.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Ask the Author - Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition)

Patrick Gale - Notes from an Exhibition

Mr B's Marvellous Monday Book Group met to discuss "Notes from an Exhibition" on 3rd March, 2008. Afterwards Mr B had a chat with Patrick by e-mail to get his thoughts on some of the questions that were raised that evening:

Mr B - Is Anthony intended to be an idealistic character to contrast with a family full of individuals who mostly seem to be flawed in one way or another?

Patrick Gale - Oh I’d be very wary of idealistic character portrayal because it wouldn’t rest easily in a realistic setting. However Anthony is an idealist and, as such, flawed as well though the flaws are harder to spot perhaps. As I see it his big weakness is Rachel. His mother died – the thickly veiled implication being that it was suicide brought on by depression – when he was still young and I imagined that the boy of such a woman would grow up needing to redeem his failure to save her by striving to save women like her. In short, he’d have a weakness for damaged femininity. But he ends by putting his wife before his children, which I think is a pretty big flaw, and he should feel very guilty indeed for the way in which he has failed Morwenna. It’s often the way, though, that people who are essentially kind and gentle appear relatively perfect alongside their noisier, more self-consciously flawed neighbours! Like Petroc’s, by the way, his Quakerism is instinctive whereas Garfield’s tends to be dutiful, which is why Anthony seems genuinely good whereas poor Garfield emerges as a bit of a prig and a hypocrite.

Mr B - Is the way that you build the story up in an abstract fashion (jumping in time and almost dipping into episodes in the characters’ lives) intended to reflect Rachel’s artwork? If that’s just us reading too much into it, then maybe the more open question is whether you had any particular reason or intention behind the choice of the book’s structure?

Patrick Gale - I knew from the start I wanted to structure it like this. My hope was to produce chapters that would be as self-contained as short stories but which would form a bigger image when placed alongside one another. I wasn’t so much aiming to echo Rachel’s art as to echo the way in which her art might be gathered together and displayed after her life, almost as pieces of brightly glowing evidence. (Funnily enough, though, the idea for the Notes tying it all together came very late and these were the last sections I wrote.) I’ve long believed that the best fiction tries to reveal an emotional truth and emotional truths are best arrived at from multiple “camera angles” or testimonies. I’ve done something similar, though with far less radical time schemes, in many of my earlier novels – something that reveals the heavy influence on me of the work of Iris Murdoch, especially when I was starting out. I like the idea that the reader alone is in a position to understand a situation fully, that the reader plays a sort of cross between god and a detective.

Mr B - Can you give us any insight into the symbolism of the stones and in particular the way they are thrown from the window? One stone is broken or damaged in some way….whose is that stone?

Patrick Gale - The stones start out as crudely representing the different family members for Petroc, with a hint that, with the sharp eye of childhood, he has seen truths about his family that might be uncomfortable. I wanted to imply that, following Petroc’s death, Rachel has instinctively gathered the stones about her as she has (usually) failed to gather her own loved ones. Her last painting sequence is a reflection of this; a final statement of deep knowledge and love. At the end, though, the stones become nothing more than weapons. I imagined in her final frenzy that her delusion that BGH was watching her or had come for her became unbearably frightening and that she had thrown the stones at “her” in self-defence – hence the broken window - and also thrown the bracelet-turned-hairclip in the hope that GBH would be appeased by it and leave her alone. As for who is the most damaged stone, that’s for the reader to decide!

Mr B - The book introduces us to lots of intriguing characters in some depth but leaves us to fill in the rest of their story from the views of others. Would you ever plan on revisiting any of the characters and developing them further?

Patrick Gale - Absolutely not! I left loads out on purpose because I thought that the more the reader had to join the dots, the more deeply they would find themselves involved or even implicated in the unfurling story. That said I’m finding them a very tough bunch of characters to leave behind me as I struggle to start another novel about completely different people. In the past I’ve often revisited characters but rarely to do more than grant a playful glimpse of their “lives” continuing in the background of someone else’s story. An amusing exception is Roly the sculptor who first appeared in my very first novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork. I’d always felt he was a wafer thin sex symbol and needed fleshing out. So I brought him back, older and wiser, in Rough Music, only to find he was still a wafer thin sex symbol. I fear this speaks volumes about the fragile relationship between sexiness and genuine knowledge of a person!

Mr B - There was much discussion about the ending and what made you end with Petroc. Given the great “jigsaw” structure you chose for the novel was it difficult to choose how to end it? Oh, and who killed Petroc? We had some conspiracy theories!

Patrick Gale - Funnily enough I wasn’t sure how I was going to “end” the novel – not least because I didn’t write the chapters in anything approaching either chronological order or the order in which they ultimately appeared – until I came to write the chapter in which the long lost sister comes to Penzance. Only then, having written what in effect is the book’s happy ending, did I sense that shouldn’t come at the end. On one level Petroc’s death is the novel’s dark heart, the event by which most of the other characters remain scarred for life. However I wanted to offer comfort and I wanted to show on a very basic level how Quakerism works. Petroc doesn’t know it’s the night of his death. For him, it’s the start of his adult life, and in the actually quite blissful and visionary minutes before his death, I wanted to show him achieving a vision of his family in which they were healed. As for how he died, he was struck by Spencer Young’s speeding car and flung against an old milk churn stand. I imagined that Spencer dropped Morwenna off at home in a hysterical state then speeded back to the party to find Troy and acquire an alibi but that Morwenna came clean and gave evidence against him for driving under the influence of drink and drugs and for doing a hit-and-run on her brother. Spencer did time in prison on the evidence which her testimony brought to light but she has continued to blame herself, and Rachel has blamed her too. I started to spell all this out then realized it was really quite dulll – at least, it belonged to a different sort of novel. What mattered to me was the damage, not how it was arrived at…

Mr B - Oh and one final one from me. Although the book is all about Rachel it struck me that it was really about parentage/inheritance (you seem to hint clearly which children have inherited what characteristics from whom and there are lots of “illegitimate” children around!). Was that a major aim or was the primary aim to explore this remarkable character and the more obvious themes of the Quaker religion and the impact of an illness like Rachel’s? (By the way my conspiracy theory is that by having Garfield and his wife finally conceive shortly after his trip away you’re hinting to us that this may be yet another illegitimate child on its way! Any comments?)

Patrick Gale - Oh yes. It’s very much about inheritance, with the considerable worth of Rachel’s unsold art balanced out by the heavy inheritance of guilt, mental illness and damage the children get from her. In a funny sort of way I didn’t intend the book to be just about Rachel. It was meant to be about the family as a whole and what makes a family and whether legitimacy matters more than parenting and so on. It was just that Rachel’s character was so vast and noisy that she sort of took over. I don’t tend to think in terms of themes when I’m writing, though. I just concentrate on character and story and themes seem to emerge from that. Nothing sinister about Garfield and Lizzy’s impending baby. I merely imagined that his night of, erm, instruction in Oxford greatly improved his sexual technique which in turn improved relations between him and Lizzy etc etc.

Let us know what you think of the book/Patrick's answers by adding a comment.
If you haven't read it yet, you can buy a copy of Patrick's book from Mr B's by clicking HERE

The World Really Doesn't Need Another Blog

I think I read somewhere that it's been estimated that if blogs keep appearing at current rates by 2014 the internet will be full and we'll all have to go back to talking to one another. Still, here's another one. We feel justified in creating it because it's the ideal forum for our new "Ask the Author" thingummy.

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights has two book groups - the Marvellous Monday Book Group and the Tremendous Tuesday Book Group - which each meet every 5 or 6 weeks at the bookshop at 14/15 John St in Bath. The books that we read are chosen by the members and the membership is open. You can read all about the groups and join them by clicking here.

Where possible we've now started putting a few questions to the authors of the books that the Book Groups read. The questions are things that come up at the Book Group meetings. By posting the questions and author answers those in the Book Group, those who couldn't make the meeting, those who are waiting for an improvement in the housing market so they can move to Bath to be nearer Mr B's and its book groups and anyone else in the big wide world, can read what the author had to say and, if they wish, continue discussing the book too.

Hope you like the idea. The first "Ask the Author" post is on its way!