The Secret Life Of Objects
Objects. You only have to use them. We writers have to describe them, over and over again.
After a while you start to run out of ways to describe a table or a coat or a drink or rain. Weather conditions crop up in every book, and colours are so frequently required that you end up rummaging through old Pantone volumes looking for new ways of describing certain shades. Like playwrights, we only give our characters cigarettes, pipes, forks and pencils because they’re something they can do with their hands. But by setting books in London I never run out of odd new objects or locations.
We have a similar problem with locations. Most crime novels consist of a series of meetings, so where do you set all these confrontations? In cafes, pubs, shops, parks, streets – and then what? In fairgrounds, derelict concentration camps, abandoned zoos? Almost every noir cop film I’ve ever seen has a scene set at the docks, or at an abandoned factory site, or in a car park, or in a field with a single straight road.
Barbara Broccoli once told me; ‘You know what we hate in 007 scripts? Corridors. The writers put them in so that a chunk of exposition can take place while Bond walks, and we have to build it. We put in working lights and wall panels and we tile the floors and add doors, and corridors are the first thing directors always cut.’
Of course, if you only keep in essential details you can end up losing any sense of reality in your story, so we add the kind of observations you make when you enter someone’s home. Take cushions. What the hell are they for? Most furniture is designed to function without one, but cushions are among the first things everyone adds to a home. They’re colourful, affordable, bright. Objects are great for signifying something about your character. Objects will tell you a lot about a person, whether they’re sloppy or fastidious, lonely or desperate for some peace and quiet. By displaying your taste you reveal yourself; an ugly object on display may hold a memory or merely show that you have unusual taste.
When I was looking for a home in France, I kept going into a certain type of house owned by an older woman. Beautifully furnished, but not for five years, with odd additions; a handrail over the bath, sometimes a stairlift. They told me that a married couple had moved here to be in their French dream home after retirement, then the husband had became infirm and finally died, and now the wife was selling. All this without anyone speaking.
The plays of Harold Pinter are identifiable by their objects. If there are teacups it’s ‘The Birthday Party’, if there are glasses of scotch it’s ‘No-Man’s Land’. I have trouble identifying character traits from kitchens in American films because to me they all look identical. There was a terrific little film around recently called ‘Freehold’, about a young estate agent living in a cramped flat. He can all he’s a fastidious Londoner from his daily routine., plucking his eyebrows and going through complex hygiene rituals, but he stacks his dirty crockery into ever-higher pyramids beside the sink, and he has a La-Z-boy set before a video screen. His life’s in trouble.
So the next time you consider buying a cushion, think what it says about you.