REPLYING TO JOE
Joe Evans is studying in the Upper Sixth at Wolverhampton Grammar School and is working on an extended project for his A-Level Year. He is writing short fiction and conducting a literary and political argument with Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, both writers he admires. He got in touch with me in October 2012 and asked if he could send me five questions. Here are Joe’s five questions and my answers.
Joe: Within the context of your writing, how do you go about the process of beginning a piece? Do you consciously try to formulate an idea, or do you wait for an idea to strike you before beginning?
Patricia: Like many other writers I have a stock of figures, you could call them characters, but they are closer to patterns, like patterns in a carpet or a tapestry, related themes, preoccupations or even shapes of stories, that remain among my possible subjects for fiction. Sometimes they remain in my notebooks, or my Journals, which I call my Blue Books, for years and years. Sometimes I use them. For example, my 2006 novel Miss Webster and Chérif began with the plot. I wanted to use a Shakespearian comic plot of doubles and mistaken identities. The source of the idea was Twelfth Night. Viola takes on her brother’s sex and a male identity to survive and to get what she wants in Orsino’s court. I started with Carmen, one of the minor characters, as my picaresque adventurer. She remained crucial to the plot. But very rapidly the character of Miss Webster displaced her and became central. Miss Webster was the character that had the most to learn and to gain from the action of the story. All Chérif wants is to acquire an education and to better himself.
I am very interested in that relationship, the connection between an older and a much younger person, who may or may not be related, and may be the same sex, or not. That relationship appears in many of my books. In Hallucinating Foucault (1996) the student falls under the spell of the writer, Paul Michel. Roehm may or may not be Toby’s father in The Deadly Space Between (2002), but he exerts a powerful influence over the boy. Roehm becomes Toby’s obscure object of desire. In The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge (2010) the Judge is much younger than the Composer she is hunting down. But the key relationship for me in that novel is between Gaëlle and the Judge. Gaëlle is the Judge’s sidekick, her Greffière, her recorder. They are very different women, but extraordinarily close. I wanted to write about women who work together. And work well, as close colleagues rather than rivals.
I am continually brooding about my writing, wondering what will surface, what will come next. But I don’t sit about, passive and vacant. I read, think, dig, make notes. There is far more there in my imaginaire that I want to write about than I will ever have time to bring to maturity. If you wait for inspiration you will die of a seizure before the inspiring breath appears. Finding your subject is part of the work.
Joe: Again, within the context of your experience, do you fully formulate an idea before starting to write? Or do plots and themes develop throughout the process?
Patricia: When writing a short story I usually work it all out in advance. Or at least have a very clear trajectory in mind. And for a long novel I still need to see the end fairly clearly, even if I am not sure how I am going to get there. I think that’s a practical necessity. Otherwise how can you control the release of information to the reader? How can you control the tension? How do you know when to bring forward a character who may have been standing in the shadows? If you have a plot, as opposed to a slower, more developing story, you need to keep hold of the reins. You can waste a lot of time if you don’t have a plan. On the other hand you do also have to be flexible, and prepared to bin shapes and forms that aren’t working for you. And you need to have a fine critical judgement to know when it’s not working and will never work.
I enjoy planning and brooding and imagining different scenes and voices. It’s part of the huge pleasure and difficulty of creating an imaginary world.
Joe: To what extent do you draw on personal experience in your writing? For example in relation to characters, locations and plots?
Patricia: Do I write out of or about my own life? Hardly at all. I am not an autobiographical writer. There are writers who do this and whose work I admire deeply, among them Tobias Wolff, Christopher Isherwood, D.H. Lawrence, and many, many poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, for starters. Wordsworth wrote our great national autobiographical epic! I am a passionate reader of Emily Dickinson. I draw on my reading.
My reading informs every level of my work. Writing isn’t made out of memory, experiences, or emotions you might have had, but out of language. You can only enrich your language and extend your knowledge by reading. My intellectual life is at the core of everything I write. Writing is not a natural thing to do. It is like creating music. You have to imagine what it will sound like. What key are you using? What scale of instruments are you working towards? Is it a symphony or a string quartet? And what is not there is as important as what is.
I sometimes like to use places I know well as locations. But I do also research places, or imagine them entirely. It all depends. When I worked on Miss Webster and Chérif I set some scenes in the Sahara Desert. I researched the desert, imagined every scene and wrote it all down. Then went there afterwards, after I had written the book, but before it was published. Just to check. I only had to change one thing, and that was the season of the wind.
In The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge there is a dramatic car journey from the South of France to the north side of Lac Leman or Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I drove that twice, to get it right. A journey through real places is a complex structure to imagine. But on the whole it is better to write from memory, which will usually edit out redundancy, leaving only the echoes that have the power to resonate with the reader. Or better still, to write from the imagination. I see many places that are entirely imaginary, but when I have imagined them once I remember them, and they become part of my memory, as if they had existed. This is very common with children’s reading. Most of us can remember places which do not exist and which we have never seen. It’s a miracle, a gift. Henry James said, ‘Observe, observe perpetually.’ And he’s right. But don’t write while you are observing, or you will simply be recording, like the Recording Angel. She never judges, simply records. Writing is a process of judgement and selection. Every writer is in the grip of the need to make decisions and to deal with the consequences of those decisions.
Joe: Do you have the same themes throughout your work? Or do you like to approach each project from a different thematic angle?
Patricia: Actually, I think that the answer is yes to both questions. I would talk about subjects rather then themes. As a visual artist would do. Most writers tackle much the same subjects throughout their writing lives. The subject may look different in different times and places. If the writer has a State-of-the-Nation agenda and is the kind of author who examines the processes of social and political change, the analysis may look very different, depending on the politics of the writer. Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell wrote novels of this kind in the mid-nineteenth century. My central preoccupations are metaphysical and political. And yes, I do have an agenda. As far as I am concerned I am fighting my corner. I am not simply telling you stories, I am arguing a case, and trying to persuade my readers to listen, whether they agree or not. But the story has to come first. If a reader does not care what happens, or how the characters transform their fates, and has no desire to turn the page, we may as well give up and go home. The old formula – make ’em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait- holds good as far as I am concerned, both as a writer and as a reader. For that encapsulates the two essential elements of good storytelling, tension and emotion.
I approach each project with different questions. If you, as a writer, are interested in language and form, and I am, both the method and the process will be different with each book.
Joe: Do you agree (with Kerouac and the Beat Generation) that freedom and liberation is the path to successful expression and that these are often stifled by a person’s environment or by ‘the bastards of this world’ (as Hunter S Thompson describes them)?
Patricia: Who are the ‘bastards of this world’? Their actual identities will change, depending on the times in which you live and who you are. Not everyone has the freedom to speak her mind. Some people, especially women, are too downtrodden and brainwashed to write from clear heads and passionate hearts. I have been extremely fortunate. I have always had a roof over my head and enough to eat. When Virginia Woolf said we needed a ‘room of our own’ and £500 a year, – add £25,000 or so to cope with inflation, - in order to be able to write, she put her finger on the truth. Solitude and money are essential. And I would add the key to the door of the room. I would also place a high value on knowledge and on education. I have already mentioned reading. The more you know, the more you have read, the greater the freedom you have to write, and write well.
All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2021