A Writer’s Life: Nuns, Bats & A Visit To Estonia
They say writers are planners or gardeners, ie. that they either blueprint every last detail of a novel or throw a handful of seeds at the ground to see what will grow. I’m very much the latter, but after I can see what’s coming up, judicious pruning and killing off of weak ideas leaves me with a plan.
I’m at the early stage of a new novel this January, having delivered one over Christmas, and am now in the seeding process. This involves talking to people and walking around London visiting odd locations and absorbing as many stories as is humanly possible in four weeks.
I hit the theatre at a rate of a play a night – there’s so much good fringe to see at this time of year, so I drafted in a slew of female theatre-buddies to accompany me to a week of high-density entertainment. There’s method in this madness; I’m trying to see how authors get around certain comedic situations, so while I’m seeing serious drama next month, I’m currently figuring out why some comedic shows work and others don’t.
One of the highlights of the week was the revival of ‘Bat Boy’, upping the surreal scale to eleven; it’s not every play that features a burning slaughterhouse and gang-rape by bats. When I saw the show before at London’s very own jinxed Theatre Of Doom, the Shaftesbury, it was a failure as the Rocky Horror-style shenanigans onstage mismatched with the blue-rinses in the shocked audience. Now the comedy has been broadened and darkened, and is playing under a railway arch in a more natural home, with smart video graphics. You have to keep comedy in the right place and keep it separate from the serious parts, otherwise they’ll cross-contaminate. A good lesson to apply to any novel.
Earlier in the week I saw ‘The Grand Tour’, about a Polish officer and a Jew travelling through Nazi Germany, with nuns and circus performers and a map-styled set that constantly unfolded itself. So many bright ideas, tucked upstairs in an Earl’s Court pub. The sheer energy and wealth of talented actors in this city is unbelievable. Fringe productions pay poorly and are staffed with unpaid interns, but the range of clever thinking on display is staggering and new shows are impossible to keep pace with.
Publishing seems more calculated and staid, less thrown-at-the-wall – Penguin just sent me their new crime novels, both involving torture and serial killing, and I have little enthusiasm for reading them. Maybe they’ll turn out to be original, who knows? But on the surface, they look like everything else. Of course that’s what many people want, more of the same. And that’s certainly what they get on TV and in most films.
But I have to seek out the unusual – it’s part of my remit. So I’m reading three very odd fiction novels and one non-fiction account simultaneously at the moment. I’m not really watching TV as there’s little time left to do so and not much that appeals. Another big new show about this thing Americans call The Rapture? Who on earth is it for? Nobody in this country, to be sure.Maybe it’s well written, though – I’ll watch one episode to try. And I’m writing every day – scraps of ideas, scenes, short stories, anything that might throw light on a character, a situation, a plot twist, a location.
So, a lot of seeds are about to be chucked out there. Next comes the first draft, which will give me an idea of the themes and how to proceed to the main meat of the process, draft two. I expect to be finished by the end of May. Fitting around this is another book launch, some short pieces I offered to write as favours, my weekly newspaper column and various public readings, festivals and events I said I’d attend. Meanwhile, I’m heading for Tallinn in Estonia this weekend, where it will be minus 12 – it looks like a great place for the opening of my book. Hmm, can I put this trip down to research?