06:April, May, June 2016

April 4th, 2016

Welles 3rd Man

I’m sure you will have seen Orson Welles in The Third Man and perhaps you’ll remember that, when you saw it for the first time, you thought: “Where is Orson Welles?  I thought he was in this film.”  His delayed entrance is famous, not only for that brilliant first shot of him, the face only, the knowing grin, Welles caught in a momentary flash of light as he hid in a dark doorway – not only for that but also for the delay: when would the man appear?  The film was half over, more than half; we were well into the story; surely we had forgotten Orson Welles?  But no.  Of course not. Not only because he was Orson Welles but because the other characters couldn’t stop harping on about him.  Harry Lime: wouldn’t he be the third man?

In my book I find I have created the same effect.  Where is Jack, the missing brother?  People keep saying he won’t turn up, that he doesn’t belong, that we needn’t even think about him – but as in the film, the others do keep harping on.  I was surprised.  I had thought I’d done little more than mention him occasionally so the name would register but that you, the reader (you and the other one million readers I confidently anticipate), would not expect him to appear.  Now I find that, like Orson Welles, the character never seen is the one we most expect to meet.  He must appear, we feel.  Surely?


April 18th, 2016

Many an actor prefers to play a cameo role than to star (especially if the star part is the one most actors loath, the juvenile lead: good-looking, decent – and uninteresting).  So often the smaller part steals the film: Orson Welles in The Third Man, as I mentioned last time – or Alida Valli in that same film.  She eclipsed Trevor Howard, for goodness sake.  Or think of Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil: she was acting against Welles and had barely a dozen lines.  They were two giants, face to face.

Many authors know the strange sensation of creating a minor character – sometimes an afterthought, a chance meeting along the road – and being taken over immediately by one’s own dream.  In most of my books there is someone (I could name them but I shan’t bore you) who leaps from the page into my arms.  (Or who, as was the case with Little Ticky, was so disgusting I had to bring him back to life in my next book.)

This time I have three contenders for author’s favourite (all women, but who else would I want in my arms?) and of the three I’m sure it’s Wanda who’ll take the prize.  She’s Lithuanian, in her mid-thirties, recently married to a man of sixty-five.  Surely she’s a gold-digger?  Surely you can’t like her?  But you do.  Well, I do.  She’s refreshingly candid about her marriage:


I am right to marry him.  We made a bargain, he and I: he wants what I can give, and I want what he has.  What’s wrong with that?  Fair trade.  I am not a fortune hunter or a money-grabbing bitch.  I am a sensible girl from Kaunas, a good girl, good to Charlie.  I look after him.  You bet!

“Look after your assets,” Charlie says.  Is message understood!

May 2nd, 2016

I have a soft spot for Wanda but no one, I guess, will fall for Jessica.  She’s a city girl in her forties; she works in advertising and feels out of place in this remote rural hotel:

I’ve read letters in the Mail bleating on that London is a different country and that Londoners have no idea how the other half lives, we live on a different planet, and wouldn’t it be better for the whole country if London were hived off and made into a separate independent state, with our own government and our own money and nothing to do with people in the rest of the country, except that we might let them share the royal family and come to visit us like tourists.  Which they are.

They could have state visits, like Australia.  Well, bring it on.  Let London be an island state in the middle of the country, I say, like the Vatican in Rome.  We could have a Pope-mobile – though we’ve got one somewhere, haven’t we, that glass stagecoach from the coronation?  Of course Windsor and Balmoral are outside London (I think) but they could be like foreign consulates.  That would work.  The provinces could become Dominions of the Realm, like Canada, except smaller, and not so far.

May 23rd, 2016

(c) Messum's (Dr Jane Hamilton); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Just back from holiday and, as I am not one of those writers who can’t let a day go by without writing, I have made precisely no progress on the book.  I have barely thought about it, and such thoughts as I did have (“Why am I writing this?”  “Why do I write at all?”  “What was I writing anyway?”) have made no material contribution to the masterpiece.  Indeed, as I write this now (Monday morning) nothing has changed.  So, to add to the few idle questions I asked myself on holiday, I should add: “Why am I bothering with a diary entry when I should be writing the book?” or ‘engaging with the text’ as someone once put it (a self-styled critic, not a writer – can’t you tell?).

Could this be nothing more than yet another diversionary tactic?  In how many ways can a writer put off writing?  Or is what I’m doing writing?

Enough.  I must get on.

June 6th, 2016:

Should I worry that I like writing this book?  Am I too uncritical?  Well, I do like it; I can’t deny that, and why should I?  It’s a happy book for the most part – though the characters aren’t.  They are neither happy nor commendable; two or three of them are monsters but, just as actors like to play villains, I like to write them.

This is a comic book (and, rather like this paragraph, it is full of semi-colons; I like semi-colons; I find them useful) – so does writing comedy make me happy?  Comics and comic writers are supposed to be misanthropes, but I like to laugh or, at the very least, to smile.  I prefer sunshine to rain.  (Though it rains solidly for the first half of this book, which just shows how fickle I am.)  The book makes me smile – whereas writing some of my other books made me tremble.  I smile because I enjoy what I write.  I enjoy the wicked and self-deceiving characters, I enjoy their lies, and I love the slow tantalising build-up to characters held off-stage, two of whom seem almost more vivid than those speaking to us from the page, and who are so vibrant (I hope) that you can’t wait for them to appear.

Or do I kid myself?  When writing some of my other books I have agonised over details of plot, description or character, telling myself that I haven’t quite got them – but with this book I feel I have.  They are real.  They exist for me.  I am still wrestling with the prose, as one always does when rewriting, and occasionally I stumble across sentences and phrases that make me wince.  But I correct them, and as the point of correction is to improve, I feel I am only making a good book better.

This really does sound dangerously complacent.  Am I right or am I wrong?

June 27th, 2016 (after a short holiday)

I’m more surprised than I ought to be at how many changes I make typing up my ‘perfect’ text.  The handwritten version has been revised and scrawled over so many times and has been given so many inserts and repositionings that I couldn’t dream of handing it to a typist: only I can hope to decipher it.  But the text was supposed to be perfect, and the last time I read it through it did seem perfect: did it not scan, run fluently and carry no excess weight?  Yet now in typing up I amend my sentences, I trim and polish and add the occasional wry joke.  So it seems my finished handwritten text was not as perfect as I had thought.  The many handwritten changes, worthwhile as they were, were not rewriting; they were amendments.  To rewrite you have to type the text afresh.

I cannot believe that writers (most writers nowadays) who type directly onto screen and make their  amendments that way are doing as thorough a job as they would if they physically rewrote every word.  When you scan a text by eye it’s not the same as reading it aloud.  (Many writers do that, I know, and I do too.)  But to rewrite, literally to laboriously rewrite every word is to subject the text to a deeper scrutiny, from which it benefits.  Yes, the task can be tedious, but whoever said writing was easy?  Not a writer.

Musicians worth their salt do not run through the notes a few times till they’ve ‘got them off’; they go over those notes again and again.  They play each movement top to tail and dwell on the tricky passages.  They are their own most demanding critic.  They play the piece time and time again – until surely it must be ready?  But no.  A piece of work is never perfect; it can always be improved.  So I must run through the whole thing again.  Every passage.  Every single word.