Greetings all, our current interview is with:
Jim Murdoch, a Scottish writer living just outside Glasgow, is the character Beckett never got around to writing. His poetry appeared regularly in small press magazines during the seventies and eighties. In the nineties he turned to prose-writing and has since completed five novels, two plays and a collection of short stories. In his blog, The Truth About Lies, he discusses the art and science of writing, his own and that of other authors, and muses at length about his lifelong fascination with the perversity of language. Veering from the nostalgic to the acerbic, his blog will amuse anyone with a love of literature.
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- What genre(s) do you write? Why do you write the stories that you write?
I don’t consider myself a genre writer. In fact until I started reviewing books online I read next to no genre fiction at all bar a little science fiction.
How to describe my style of writing then? This quote from the author Kay Sexton, talking about the first novel probably nails it:
“[T]his is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not ‘hard’ enough to be specific, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect, is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. […] But I can recommend that you try it — if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.”
She did slightly better with the sequel:
“I tried to come up with one of those pithy one-liners that you are supposed to use to encapsulate a project for the movie industry (which is popularly supposed not to be able to cope with more than a sentence of information at a time) and what I decided on was Alan Bennett meets Douglas Adams! […] I loved it.”
- When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing poetry when I went to Secondary School (which would have made me about twelve) and I continued writing little apart from poetry for the next twenty years. I had no great difficulty in getting the stuff published in small press magazines in the UK (and even a few in the States) but I never thought of myself as a writer-with-a-capital-w. I believed that I was a poet at heart but I followed a career path that allowed no real time time for anything else. Even though I didn’t feel that poetry was a hobby, that was how I treated it. Wanting to be a writer was never a consideration. I was savvy enough to realise that writing didn’t pay the bills. The thing is the writing never went away and one day I realised I’d become one. It’s like trying to pinpoint the day you stopped being a boy and became a man. At heart I’ll always be a boy and at heart I’ll always doubt that I’m a real writer.
- Who or what was your inspiration for writing?
I was sitting in a cold classroom on a dreich Tuesday afternoon. Our teacher handed out roneoed copies of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’. The class groaned en masse – poetry was not our favourite subject. I had found little in the poetry I’d been exposed to at Primary School to make me think this might be something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But as the poem was opened up to us I started to realise that this was something different. There were no similes, no metaphors, no alliteration, no onomatopoeia, no babbling brooks, no blokes sitting in fields full of daisies or wandering off down to the sea. Suddenly I realised what poetry was and all the rest was window-dressing. That was the start.
The thing is what got to me about that poem is what I’m still exploring as a writer forty years later: the human condition. That doesn’t mean I’ve never written a poem about nature in my life but they’re few and far between. People are what fascinate me.
- What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Five years ago the answer to that question would have been: work. I worked myself into the ground on a regular basis resulting in four major breakdowns throughout my life. The last one was by far the worse and I’ve now quit working full time. Now my job is writing. When I’m not reading or writing I’m usually fit for nothing else apart from watching TV. I don’t see that as a bad thing though. I’m not one of these writers who say you need to read, read, read and then read some more. I think that you can learn a great deal about storytelling from TV and from bad TV as well as good. All a crime writer needs to do so see what not to do is watch an episode or two of Castle.
Red–I had to laugh at this comment, for as much as I enjoy watching Castle from time to time, absolutely have to agree with you, as a former law enforcement officer: definitely some glaring “creative license” takes place in the series.
- Where do you hang out online? Website URL, author groups, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc?
I’m something of an antisocial pig. I have to work hard to ‘hang out’ as you call it. I do have a Facebook account and I try to keep up appearances but although I joined a few author groups like Zoetrope I’ve never found they did more that use up huge amounts of time. I prefer to concentrate my time on blogging – writing my own and commenting on others – and building up relationships that way.
Red–I can wholeheartedly agree with this perspective when it works for the person. I will admit I spent more time initially spending too much time, I believe, with endeavoring to interact with others to the detriment of my writing…among other things. It’s nice to find the balance that works for the individual.
- What books are currently on your nightstand?
I get a lot of review copies sent to me. More than I can handle and my to-read shelf is always full. But at the moment I’m slogging my way through the 1050-page long The Instructions by Adam Leven. Tomes are not my preferred reading matter. I’d rather sit down with six or seven novellas that one epic. I have never read War and Peace.
- Do you remember the first novel you read?
No. I was not a voracious reader as a child. My parents never read and although I was never discouraged from reading neither was I especially encouraged. I obviously got taught to read at school but the first novel I can remember ever reading was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I have little doubt it wasn’t the first but I would have been about eight years old then so it would certainly have been one of the first. I did go to the library regularly but the only novel I can recall from that time was Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne.
I have a special place in my heart for the first book I read as an adult, i.e. the first book I bought with my own wages after leaving school. That was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I bought it in a newsagent off Burns Square in Ayr. It cost me 35p and I still own it.
Red–Solzhenitsyn is one of my favorite writers to read and keep their books. But then I would cite a number of Russian or Russian language writers to have contributed to my writing style. Yevtushenko was probably my favorite.
- What would readers like to know about you the individual?
Probably far more than I’d like to share. I’ve never found it helps to know too much about your heroes – not that I can imagine me as anyone’s hero but the principle applies. People being people will always manage to let you down. I knew nothing about Larkin for years until Andrew Motion’s biography was published and it seems he was quite an obnoxious man, racist, crude, selfish and misogynistic. I’m just boring. If you go to my website there’s an about me section that some people might find interesting but it’s more a way of avoiding saying much about myself because I don’t think there’s much to say.
- Who are your favourite authors and why?
Larkin I’ve already mentioned but the other two poets whose work I’ve really come to appreciate are William Carlos Williams and Charles Bukowski. What they have in common is that they are all plain speakers. They, as I’m very fond of saying, say what they have to say and get off the page.
As far as novelists go there are two who I’ve read every major work by: Samuel Beckett and Richard Brautigan, two very different authors but I would say what these two have in common is what the poets lack, the poetry of their prose.
On the whole I’m not a follower of people but there are individual novels that have had a lasting effect on me like Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar”, Camus’ “The Outsider”, Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Philip K Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly.”
Red–Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”…I’d seen the film, which was outstanding, in the 80s sometime, but didn’t read the book until a couple of years ago. It was beyond profound for me. I thought it was a great example of brilliant characterization and showing the evolution of a situation, a series of events in time without ‘telling’ it word by word.
- Name one thing that your readers would be surprised to know about you.
You know, I stared at this question for the longest time. I can tell you odd things about myself but I can’t think of anything where you’d go, “Wow! Really!” Maybe this will do. Although I’m Scottish I’ve never worn a kilt, never ate haggis as a kid and don’t have a Scottish accent.
- Where are you from originally? Family?
I was born in Glasgow. My parents are English, Lancashire to be precise. That explains the accent thing. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Scotland I never quite picked up the accent. And, of course, that pretty much explains the haggis and kilt thing too. See, it wasn’t that surprising when you know all the facts. I’m never shy to point out that I’m a Scottish writer but I wouldn’t say I’m obsessively nationalistic.
- Is there anything unique about your upbringing that you’d like to share with readers?
I think just the lack of books. My mother never even read women’s magazines and they never bought a daily paper. The only books I ever saw my dad read were reference books. He was a bit of a self-help freak back in the sixties and used to read How To guides but that was about it.
Your Writing Process
- Why do you write?
The facetious answer to that question is: Because I can’t not write. In all seriousness I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. I write to get to the bottom of things. I don’t write to entertain people. I don’t write to tell stories or even to sell books. I write to get stuff out of my system. In many respects the writing is what I chuck away or shed. If other people can do something with it afterwards then fine but I’m done with it.
Red–After reading that, I, too looked at it a long time because it was so very similar to my own thoughts about writing.
- What excites you about writing?
I’m not sure writing does excite me. Not any more than breathing excites me. I’m glad I can breathe without artificial assistance and I’m glad I can write with little difficulty. This poem goes some way to explain it:
The Art of Breathing
To find room for the new
you have to let go of
so to learn how to write
I had to forget how
and for a time I thought
I had to write to keep
which makes such perfect sense
but only if you’re a
20 November 1997
Writing – prose especially – is hard work. I’m glad when it’s done. I get a kick out of telling my wife that a book is ready for her to read but then she reads it, tells me it’s fine and then we get on with the next thing in hand. The poems are more likely to produce a feeling you might call excitement.
- What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I write fiction in clumps. Prolific I am not. That’s the fiction. These days I spend a lot more time writing non-fiction, articles and book reviews. And I do keep pretty regular hours. I start at about nine in the morning, write till noon, have lunch and then work through to 4:30 in the afternoon. After dinner I usually get in another hour. And that’s me pretty much seven days a week.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Quit. Or at least try and quit. If you find you don’t need to write that bad then do something else. If, like me, you find after a few weeks that there’s something missing in your life and the only thing that takes that ache away is scribbling on a scrap of paper then it’s time to think about taking this writing malarkey seriously.
At that stage what you have you realise is that you’re not very good and that you probably won’t be very good for quite some time. I wrote 452 poems before I found my voice. A handful of those I can still bear to read but the rest are crap. This is where reading becomes important but you need to change how you read. Larkin was once asked what he learned from studying the poetry of Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy and his rather exasperated response was:
Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.
I’m not sure that writing can be taught. Yes, there are techniques but unless you have some natural talent to draw upon you’ll never be anything other than a hobbyist. There are plenty of people who study music for example and who have the highest grades but how many Yehudi Menuhins, or Jacqueline du Prés are there? It’s not enough to get all the notes in the right order.
Red–Absolutely loved that advice. I might take a few more knocks but I’d say that advice very many writers need to try.
- What would you consider is your favourite part of a book to write? The beginning, the middle or the ending?
The beginning. I know that writers are supposed to have this fear of the blank page but, frankly, it’s never bothered me in the least. That doesn’t mean that I’m prolific because I’m not – five novels in twenty years is not prolific – but when I’ve decided that I have a subject that needs a novel-length treatment I can start very quickly. The middle is probably the hardest bit – that can be a bit of a chore – but once you realise how the book needs to end it’s just a matter of getting the words down on the page.
- Is there any other genre you have considered writing in?
I’ve always fancied writing science fiction. I have one (poor) science fiction poem to my name and that is it. There are a few nods to sci fi in “Living with the Truth” and “Stranger than Fiction” but that’s all. The problem with tackling something like, say, the dystopian novel is how do you follow Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World or any of a dozen great novels that have considered how bleak Man’s future might be? So I think about it, but not seriously.
- Do you listen to music or have another form of inspiration when you are writing?
I play music constantly. Just now I’m listening to Piano Concerto No 4 by Alexander Tcherpnin. I tend to stick to classical composer and film soundtracks. Vocal music is hard to write over although when I was young I used to and I thought nothing of working over Deep Purple or Pink Floyd. My favourite composers these days are probably Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass who is also a wonderful soundtrack composer and his score to The Hours ranks among my all time top ten pieces of music.
- Most people envision an author’s life as being really glamorous. What’s the most unglamorous thing that you’ve done in the past week?
I sit in a chair and type. I get up, use the bathroom, make a coffee, sit back down and type. I have lunch, sit down and type until my next coffee break. Sometimes I’ll go and see what the postman has delivered or take out the recycling. There is nothing even remotely glamorous about my life. And if that’s something that is at the top of your list of reasons for wanting to write or act or model or any of a dozen different careers that people think of as glamorous then think again. The most exciting thing I did this week was have lunch with my daughter in Glasgow.
- How long does it take you to finish a book from start to submission?
You can do the sums yourself: twenty years divided by five books equal four years but that is assuming that there is such a thing as a book. No two books have been the same. Just because you’ve written one novel don’t imagine that a) you will have a second in you and that b) it will be as easy or hard as the first. If I rattled out stories then I’m sure that a novel a year is perfectly doable but I’m not that kind of novelist which is why I’ve been in no desperate rush to start my sixth novel because I know I’m going to be struggling with the bugger for the next three years or longer. I’ll regret having decided on that particular project, I’ll be convinced that I’ll never finish it and even if I do it’ll have been a total waste of time. No, I don’t’ start a new book lightly.
- Do you prefer writing series books over non series or does it matter?
I never set out to write any kind of novel in the first place. I’d been suffering from writer’s block – I hadn’t written a poem in three years – and so, out of desperation, I sat down and tried to write something, anything. As it happened when I stopped I had a novel and at the end of three months I had a second. It took me five years to polish them but the hard work was done. The thing about that first novel though was I thought that that was going to be it, the one novel we’re all supposed to have in us and so I deliberately ended it in such a way that no sequel was possible. It was only because people badgered me for more that I even considered writing another and that it turned out to be a sequel was as much a surprise to me as anyone. But on the whole, no, I’m not interested in series and have no plans to do anything more with any of the characters I’ve written about so far.
- What would you like readers to know about you the writer?
That I’m a serious writer. I may use humour to make my points on occasion but not to lose sight that I have a point to make. When he reviewed Living with the Truth the poet Dave King had this to say:
“It is a serious book that pretends it is no such thing, and a humorous book that does not care who knows it — a combination which I find particularly attractive. The seriousness runs below the slightly acerbic wit and sarcasm, but not invisibly so; it shows in the same way a bone structure shows in the shape of a face. The net result is a gentle and humane portrait of humanity.”
- What is the best and worst writing advice you have ever received?
The thing is I’ve never actually received much advice in my life. I started writing before the Internet and there were no other writers living anywhere near me. The odd editor might scribble a few words of encouragement on the back of his rejection slip but that was about it. I was on my own and I stayed on my own until about fifteen years ago when I first logged onto Lycos and typed in the word ‘poetry’.
Since then I’ve seen plenty of people offer advice, much of it well intentioned, but, looking back, I’m glad there was no one to give me any and all I could do is read book and wonder, as Larkin put it, “could I do that?”
- Do you have a system for writing?
Start at the beginning and keep going until you’ve said all you have to say. Again, I’m being facetious but I’ve never started a book yet where I knew where I was going. What’s the point in writing a book where you know how everything’s going to pan out? My basic approach is to write a ‘thin version’ – basically get my protagonist to the end of the book intact – and then I go back and flesh out what needs it, grafting in details as necessary. I don’t do drafts. Only once have I scrapped what I’d written before and started again and that was with my last novel, Left. After the first 10,000 words I realised that the book was not going in the direction I had hoped – at least I wasn’t capable of pulling it off (always be aware of one’s limitations) and so I stopped and started from fresh. I don’t consider what I wrote after that a second draft. The first 10,000 words were simply a false start.
- Do you track work count or write a certain number of hours per day?
Not obsessively. It’s always interesting to see what you’ve written but with Word you have that information constantly available anyway. I never set myself a target. I write as much or as little as I find myself capable of in the time I have available. But then I’m not trying to finish a novel in a year or something. Often I’ll work on other projects and then come back to the novel after a few days or even weeks. I know that many other writers couldn’t do that – they’d lose their momentum – but I don’t seem to have that problem.
Red–Such is my non-schedule as well. I find I do write something every day such as on my blog, or when doing reviews, but for my own projects…I find I cannot and should not force them, they come to me of themselves. I regularly look over an idea, premise or partial manuscript, but if “It’s not coming, it’s not coming”, as it were.
- Have you ever had one of those profound “AH-HA!” moments while you were writing? Would you be willing to share it?
In every book there comes a point when the book makes sense to me. By that I mean I know why I’m writing it. In “Milligan and Murphy”, for example, the two titular characters – men in their forties who still live at home and have never left the village they were born in – find themselves running away from home and they can’t quite work out why. They ask a priest and the following is part of their conversation with him:
“Gentlemen,” he began and then thought to soften his message, “Boys … lads … not everything in this life is reasonable. It is easier when you’re talking about good things and bad things. You murder a man in cold blood, for example, and then you think to yourself, Self, did I do a good thing or a bad thing? And your self says to you, ‘Look up Exodus Chapter Twenty,’ and you do and there it is in black and white. It’s a lot harder when it comes to reasonable and unreasonable things.
“You’ll have heard it said that everything happens for a reason. Well, poppycock! Simply because someone makes a statement like that doesn’t make it any truer than my insisting that the moon is made out of green cheese which it may or may not be; I have no empirical evidence either way. Yes, God has His grand plan – I have to believe that (it’s more than my job’s worth not to) – but it will come to fruition despite what we do not because of it. Make no mistake, we are all spanners in God’s works, you and I and everyone else. That’s what free will is all about.
“People do unreasonable things all the time – and by that I mean things for no good reason at all – and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did however the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”
“Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.
“Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being after the fact.”
The emphases didn’t help.
Once I had written that exchange I understood what I was writing about. Up until then I thought I’d been writing Didi and Gogo: the Early Years.
- What was the most uplifting moment you’ve experienced during your writing career?
I don’t think ‘uplifting’ is the right word. I’ve written things that have made people cry. I watched a grown man cry when he read the poem I wrote about my mother , ‘Making Do’ and I know of at least one woman who cried both times she got to the end of “Living with the Truth.” A fellow poet when he read ‘The Art of Breathing’ printed out a copy and stuck it on the cork board beside his desk and he wrote me a thank you saying that I had managed to find the words to express how he felt about writing; words that had evaded him. That’s pretty satisfying.
- Your book is about to be sent into the reader world, what is one word that describes how you feel?
- How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
Five. The first. It’s got to be your first.
- Would you please list your books and their descriptions?
Living with the Truth
Picture, if you will, Jonathan Payne, probably the last person in the world you’d expect to be the lead character in anybody’s novel, a jaded bookseller nearing the end of a wasted life. We meet him alone in his flat in the seaside town of Rigby just waiting on Death to knock at his door.
But life has something else in store for poor Jonathan. Instead of Death he gets to spend an infuriating two days with the personification of truth who opens Jonathan’s eyes to not only what his life has become but what it might have been. He discovers what he’s missed out on, what other people are really thinking and the true nature of the universe which, as you might imagine, is nothing like he would have ever expected it to be.
By the end of the book, having learned far more about himself than he ever wanted to know, Jonathan finds out that it’s usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is.
Stranger than Fiction
The whole book takes place in a landscape generated by Jonathan’s memories of his past life. Everyone and everything is as he remembers it, not necessarily the way it was. In this pseudo-reality he has to face his mother and father, his past (presented as a film) and a conference made up of various Jonathans from alternative realities. Oh, and he gets to visit Truth’s home plane, where he gets to meet some of the other Powers who have had a hand in messing up life as he knew it.
The book ends with a final confrontation with the love of his life where he learns that you don’t always need to get answers.
The Whole Truth: An omnibus edition of the first two books. Available only as an ebook.
Milligan and Murphy
There are no reasons for unreasonable things. So the protagonists of this novel are told having found themselves setting out on an adventure that they really didn’t intend to. Like many people I have always had a great affection for the two lead characters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But have you ever wondered what Didi and Gogo were like when they were young and what led them to end up waiting for a man who will most likely never turn up? That’s basically the question I set out to answer here.
Milligan and Murphy are not Didi and Gogo — they are very much themselves — but after an unexpected encounter on the road out of the town they have spent their entire lives in, they suddenly find themselves with big questions to answer and they’re not very good with questions, big or small.
The More Things Change. A writer runs into God in a park and becomes a character in a novel of his own life. Sort of. It’s complicated.
Left. A woman returns home to clear out her father’s flat only to discover he was not the man she thought he was.
- When a new book comes out, are you nervous about how readers will react to it?
Of course. Nerves are normal. If my wife likes it, though, it really doesn’t matter that much if the rest of the world hates it, and I could live with myself if she hated it – I wouldn’t go and rewrite the damn thing – but you kinda expect your wife to like what you do.
- What can we look forward to in the upcoming months?
Not a lot of actual writing. One has to budget time for all the other stuff that you need to do when you decide you’re a writer, like doing interviews such as this (seriously, all you’ve had to do is read this; it took me hours to answer all these questions), and arranging for book reviews and generally keeping up appearances.
- Of all the books you have written, which would you consider your easiest to write? The hardest to write? The most fun to write?
Easiest: Living with the Truth
Most fun: Milligan and Murphy
- What story haven’t you written yet but would like to? Is there anything holding you back from writing it?
Left did not turn out to be the book I had intended. It was a book worth writing but not what I had hoped. The writing revealed my difficulty in accessing certain memories and feelings. I had intended the book to be about the father but what I ended up writing about was his daughter. Both, of course, were proxies for me.
At the moment I keep coming back to the idea of a walk around my home town. If I was to start off at the railway station and walk in an arc around the town I would pass so many significant places but they wouldn’t come chronologically and I’ve always fancied writing a novel that didn’t follow a straight line. That said I’m not fond of delving into my past. I would rather use the journey to create a template, an outline where I can embellish or simply rewrite the past. I know it would be an emotional journey and I’m not sure I need to go there. I’m pretty much done with my past.
Red–I find this comment to be particularly insightful, but it suggests you allowed the characters and story to evolve and ‘speak’ with their own voice. They were not subsumed by yours. I believe that’s certainly an important part to writing a really good book.
- What kind of research do you do for your books? Do you enjoy the research process?
The Internet is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It never existed when I wrote the first two books and so it was off to the library to check stuff. Nowadays it is just so wonderful the amount of information that is available. I do enjoy research. The problem is deciding just how much you need to do. It’s easy to get carried away.
- Do deadlines help or hinder your muse?
I don’t believe in muses so deadline have no effect on them. Inspiration is a good idea. If you don’t have a good idea then run with what you have. I don’t especially like deadlines. As far as my novels go they’re done when they’re done and I don’t talk much about them even to my wife until they’re finished. In fact after I’d finished “Left” I told my daughter over lunch one day and she said, “Oh, is that what it’s called? You never said.” That had only been its title for about three years.
- Do you outline your books or just start writing?
I never outline. So, if I do decide to go with this new project, it will be something new and new is good. Generally I just start with a character, place him or her in an awkward situation and watch them squirm. The book evolves naturally.
- What was your first published work and when was it published?
Discounting the poems that appeared in the school magazine? I think that would be my poem ‘Family Life’ which was published in the Aberdeen University magazine, Words for which I received the princely sum of £1.50. I guess the year would have been about 1976. I still have the cheque stub somewhere.
- If your book is available in print, how does it feel to hold a book that has your name on the cover? What is your favourite cover of all your paperbacks?
I was less excited about it than you might imagine. It was nice and all that but I didn’t sleep with it under the cover or anything. I actually found the whole thing a bit anticlimactic.
Red–That’s curious, as I understand that as well. I actually gave all the copies I had away. I never felt any particular excitement either, mostly because there were other stories I wanted to think about, and that one was finished so…no need to think on it further, per se.
- Is there something special you do to celebrate when one of your books is released?
No. I’m not much into celebrating. I told you, I’m boring.
- Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Apart from myself, no. When the Irish playwright Ken Armstrong reviewed Living with the Truth he wrote this:
“When Lady Diana gave her famous doe-eyed interview to BBC reporter Martin Bashir on the 20th November 1995, she indicated that ‘…there were three of us in this marriage’. In a somewhat similar fashion, there are also three people in this novel. “
That ‘third man’ is everywhere, he’s lurking behind the bookshelves, at the next table in the restaurant, across the aisle on the train.
That ‘Third Man’ is the writer, Jim.
Nowadays it seems that every single novel in the world requires the writer to be like a puppeteer, manipulating the characters quietly from behind or beneath, never showing himself or taking an active part.
Jim shows himself all over the place in his writing. He cannot resist providing knowing commentary on the proceedings as they proceed. If there’s a good cultural reference to be utilised and the characters of the book can’t handle it, never fear, Jim will get it in there himself.”
And this is by no means a criticism, in fact, I bloody love it. By deliberately putting himself forward as a succinct personality within his own book, Jim puts himself in the company of some of the writers I treasure the most – those who have fearlessly done the same. Writers like; Flann O’Brien, Tom Robbins and Spike Milligan. These men are present within their own books like puppeteers who have stood up from behind the striped curtain to play out in public with their own little Punch and Judy dolls.
Basically all the main characters in my books are some aspect of me. In “Left”, for example, I took my apparent inability to grieve over the loss of my parents and I made her real in order to examine her. I created a character with a schizoid personality someone who was cut off from her emotions and in “Living with the Truth” I projected myself forward in time twenty years and presented a worst case scenario, the kind of person I might have grown into if I had made certain choices or, since Jonathan is one of life’s watchers, if I had avoided making those choices.
All my characters’ first names begin with the letter J: Jonathan, Jim, John (both Milligan and Murphy are called John) and Jennifer.
- Is it hard coming up with names for your characters?
There are still plenty of names beginning with J and I don’t write that fast. As for all the others, no, not really. Milligan and Murphy was probably the most fun in that regard because also all the characters are Irish and that novel contains my favourite name for a character: Aghamore Ahern. Jonathan Payne get’s his surname because he’s a man who is in pain. Jim Valentine because of his self-centeredness.
- Have any of your characters ever haunted your dreams or woken you up during the night demanding attention?
No. In some respects my characters aren’t real. They exist on the page but beyond that, nothing. Beckett refrained from elaborating on the characters beyond what he had written in his plays. He once recalled when Sir Ralph Richardson “wanted the low-down on Pozzo, his home address and curriculum vitae, and seemed to make the forthcoming of this and similar information the condition of his condescending to illustrate the part of Vladimir … I told him that all I knew about Pozzo was in the text, that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” I have no idea about any of my characters beyond what you read on the page. I never write histories for any of them beyond what I absolutely need.
- Which of your stories would make a great movie? Who’d play the lead roles?
I’ve always imagined the first two books on the small screen rather than the big one. It’s also the only book where I have distinct pictures in my head of the two characters. Jonathan looks like the actor Arthur Lowe, now deceased, of course, but it wouldn’t be hard to get a rotund gentleman of a certain age and demeanour to play him and although I never mention it in the book, “Truth” was modelled on the actor Paul Nicholas who is now too old for the role but he wouldn’t be hard to cast. My wife has always pictured him as a young Eric Idle.
- Do you make a conscious decision to write a certain type of character with a certain occupation, or do the characters decide for themselves what they want to be?
Mostly it’s obvious. Jonathan had to be a bookseller, Jim needed to be a teacher, Milligan and Murphy needed to be layabouts and although for a long time I had Jennifer working in an office and then a charity shop as her character developed the most sensible thing seemed to be to have her as a housewife. That way she could satisfy her needs for solitude and order.
- What in your opinion makes good chemistry between your leading characters?
I grew up with double acts: Laurel and Hardy, Flannigan and Allen, Abbot and Costello when I was very young and then, in the sixties and seventies, duos like Mike and Bernie Winters, Pete and Dud, The Two Ronnies and my own personal heroes, Morecambe and Wise. (I have a copy of the statue of Eric Morecambe on the unit above the TV.) I’ve never written an antagonist but I have written foils. I said that you can learn a lot from watching TV and that is one thing I learned, about how people can play off each other.
- Is there a character from one of your books that resonates deeply with you?
I cannot not have a soft spot for Jonathan Payne. He’s my Arthur Dent, this poor sod whose life gets turned upside down when all he really wants to do is drop dead and be done with the lot of it. Truth gets all the good lines but without Jonathan to torment where would be the fun in any of it?
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Thanks Jim, for taking the time to answer all of these questions, but I must say, it’s actually given me pleasure to read your responses and absolutely would make me look up your books. I’d enjoy perceiving the author through his words in that way.
12 September 2011