You have been in the writing business for some time now. What would you say were your best and worst experiences?
Fortunately the best way outnumber the worst, and they’ve mostly come out of the experience of researching the novels. I do try to achieve an authentic sense of place in the writing and that’s always involved a lot of travel, meeting new people, and getting into situations that I’d never otherwise encounter.
Back in the early days, when I’d just gone freelance and I was dead broke, this would mostly involve backpacking around Europe or America. For The Boat House I went all over Western Karelia and into what was then Soviet Russia. These trips generated some very rare and vivid moments of epiphany, a fair number of them on railway station platforms at 3 o’clock in the morning.
When you’re out on your own like that, travelling with a purpose but full of uncertainties, it’s like you lose a few layers of skin and become very sharp and sensitised. That feeds back into the writing. I’d often find that the thoughts that I recorded or jotted down at those times would not only influence the entire tone of the book, but would often make it into the text almost verbatim.
Worst moments – I’d say they’ve been whenever I’ve been pushed off a project that I’d started from nothing and brought to within sight of completion. That’s happened to me about four times. You just feel sick and helpless when it happens. Only one of those projects went on to get made.
Would you say that your writing style has changed as you have become more experienced? In what ways?
I’m not entirely sure that it has. I can look at prose that I wrote at the beginning of my career and as far as the writing style is concerned, give or take a few infelicities, I’d be happy to have turned that stuff out last week. The actual voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.
I suppose that what changes is the quality of what you have to say, as opposed to the way you say it. That’s where things have definitely matured and evolved, I hope. I mean, I was first published in my mid-twenties, and I knew nothing about anything. Now I know nothing about a much greater range of subjects.
Apart from writing novels and short stories, you’ve had a lot of success in other areas – film, television and radio. What would you say are the pitfalls when moving into these areas? Can you give me some examples from your own experience? What frustrates you as a writer when dealing with these media?
The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t understand that will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist who doesn’t get it will write a script that can’t be shot.
You need to be aware of the need for a change in pace, not just in what you write, but in the way you work. Okay, so a story’s a story. But you spend a novel looking inside out from inside the characters, while in a screenplay everything’s determined by what you see them say and do.
You couldn’t have a more radical difference between the two forms. When prose is described as cinematic, it’s often anything but.
I suppose the most obvious difference is that for a novel you go up the mountain, brood for a long time, and come down with something that’s finished and complete. Whereas on a screen project you don’t get the final say on anything. What you get is everyone else’s notes, pretty much from day one. After a while it starts to feel like everyone including the office manager (it’s happened) gets the opportunity to have a say over what you do.
The writer, of course, never gets to change anyone else’s work.
Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow.