Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Real people are not an option.

I’m in a weird publishing frenzy at the moment. Stanley, needless to say, is constantly demanding attention, but the latest in my detective series, Shadow Selves, is also available now as an ebook on Amazon (UK and USA) and from Solstice Publishing. Not only that – today I received my author’s copies of Brilliant Essay, which appeared just before Christmas.

Shadow Selves was triggered by a visit to an operating theatre while an operation was in progress. It was arranged by Donnie Ross (Dr Dx to his online friends) and I’ve reproduced some details of the experience in the scene where Jack Carston, my DCI, visits the hospital to check their procedures. More interestingly, though, the whole book is set in and around the fictitious University of West Grampian. And why is that ‘more interesting’? Because I used to teach at a university here and the assumption (among some people) may well be that the people and things I describe may also be based on personal experiences. They’re not, except insofar as I know the general academic atmosphere, the demands and privileges of working in such an institution and the small p politics in which some teachers and researchers delight.

The people are certainly fictitious. Books always carry the careful ‘any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental’ disclaimer but I have to say that, even though you’ll find it in my books, it isn’t really needed. I may borrow how someone looks, or copy what he/she wears, but using a real person as a model just doesn’t work for me. I only tried it once, and I found that my awareness and knowledge of the actual person prevented my character from growing and being himself. Presumably (and it was certainly true in my case), a writer ‘uses’ a real model because there’s something special or unique about that person – he/she is wonderful or despicable. The real person I chose was the latter but he wasn’t my character. In the end, I had to free the character and let his nastiness develop in the way he wanted to express and live it. The result was that he turned out to be more charismatic (in a horrible way) than the real guy. But I wouldn’t want to spend too much time with either of them.

So anyone reading Shadow Selves and expecting to recognise x, y or z will be disappointed. What I hope they will get, though, is a sense of the strange world of academia – a rarefied place where high culture and low cunning co-exist and some individuals continue to be blissfully unaware of how privileged they are to be safe in their ivory tower. Oh, and they’ll get a couple of deaths, a stalker and a case of sexual harassment.

OK Stanley, be quiet. I’m coming.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Stanley - Genesis

I once had to fake a picture of the village in which Stanley was born because the posting was about snow and there wasn’t any. This picture is legitimate, however. I’m spending a couple of days at his birthplace (and no doubt soon to be shrine) so it seems apt to say a bit about him.

I’ve no idea whether anyone’s going to buy or read the Stanley stories but, for me, he’s taken on a life of his own. I ought to be treating him as a commercial proposition, and I will, of course, but even as I do so, he’ll be there as a presence, casting a sceptical eye over and shaking his head at my efforts.

I’ve mentioned before how some ideas have been generated by the early morning arrival in my bed of grandchildren, bright, wide-awake and wanting to be entertained. When I’m clever, I can get them to do their own inventing (such as when Tracey the lion took the part of Goldilocks in Tracey the Lion and the Three Giraffes), but sometimes, a riff starts and it’s easy for me to pursue it.

Stanley started as one of these. It was about the same time as I started describing the life and family of a giant about whom I can’t remember much now except that his wife played rugby. That family and more importantly, Stanley, grew from a technique I’ve mentioned in other contexts – that is, putting together things that are not normally associated with one another. My blog Searching for something other than the grooves expanded on this idea – blackbirds with vertigo, and so on.

So that morning, we were talking about fairies and, in order to provoke my two listeners, I said that some of them were different from the dingly dell, sparkly, Disneyesque creatures which were so familiar in their books. They wanted examples and, starting from the premise that not even the greatest optimist in the world can be happy ALL the time, I suggested that there were miserable, grumpy fairies. And, as the demands for more detailed explanations continued, the figure of Stanley began to form. He was everything fairies aren’t – male, with an unfairy name, a predisposition towards melancholy and a pathological dislike of every normal fairy association. Being such an outsider, he was also pretty aggressive in defending his chosen status, and, as a result, the person in whose bedroom he lived (i.e. me, in the persona of Jack Rosse), had to be extra-tolerant and all the things Stanley wasn’t, and the two became a double-act.

This all sounds too analytical and too deliberate. In fact, it was just me answering questions about this Stanley creature who, as more details emerged, took over so much that it was obvious that he would refuse to tick any of the usual fairy boxes. But why, when I got back home, did I bother to write a story about him? I’ve no idea. Tracey the Lion and the rugby-playing giant’s wife didn’t get their stories written down, so why Stanley? Maybe it’s because, having established him as a ‘person’, I was tempted to put him into various contexts to demonstrate his differences. And, once the first story was told, several others suggested themselves. So far, there are seven of them. The first, Stanley Moves In, is in fact the most recent one. I wrote it in response to the publisher’s query (based on what she knew her two young sons would ask), about how Stanley came to be living in my bedroom. And, so far, there are six more.

But who are they for? What’s the age range of the target readership? That should be easy, but Stanley makes sure that it’s not. It’s obviously for kids from maybe 4 to 10, but friends who’ve read them suggest that, in a lightweight way, he’s attractive (if that’s the right word) to adults, too. (And it’s true that, when he goes on holiday to France, a French counterpart does ‘explain’ his condition to him in ‘philosophical’ terms.)

But all this ‘explaining’ does nothing but make the whole thing sound pretentious and planned. I haven’t written this way about any of my other books, so why write about a kids’ story? I think because, the ‘reality’ for me of such an unreal character demonstrates again what a strange business writing is and what a perverse pleasure we get out of it. It doesn’t matter that it’s a ‘trivial’ story for ‘kids’ – for me it’s as absorbing to get involved in as any ‘serious’ stories. We make our worlds, we make other people and other things, and they’re as much part of our reality as the feel of the keyboard under my fingers now or the irritating beauty of the deep snow I see through the window. Stanley, like my figurehead carver, my policeman, or my murder victims, is a fact. Of course I don’t believe in fairies, but I believe in Stanley.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Stanley in his own words

I'll write about the background to and genesis of Stanley some time soon but, since he's now public (in e-form at least), I'm giving him this guest spot to speak for himself. This is the trailer for the first story in which he appears - Stanley Moves In.

He had full editorial control over script and images.

Having him sit for the portraits must have been very trying for Melanie Chadwick, the illustrator, but she has plenty of patience.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Searching for something other than the grooves.

Naturally enough, I want people to read my blogs. I also want them to read my books. But there are millions of blogs (and books) competing for readers, so you have to offer something different. If I’d called this posting ‘How to write a best seller in a day’ I’d probably be sued for whatever the incomprehensible legal term for perpetrating misleading labels is but I’d also get more hits than the rest of my postings put together.

I know that’s obvious but it’s confirmed by the search terms that lead people here. There was me thinking it’s my charisma, charm and all those other qualities I have in such abundance but, mostly, it’s people googling ‘what makes a good novel?’ That’s the title I gave to a posting in September 2009, and it’s the one which crops up most frequently (by a very long way) in the stats. Don’t ask me what I said in it because if I wrote another one with the same title now I’d probably list completely different things.

So, that’s the first point. The second (and I’ll bring the two together in a moment) is that I was thinking of writing a blog about how ideas, stories, blog postings can be triggered just by linking two ideas which don’t belong together. You’ll probably think I need to get out more when I tell you that I thought of that when I was watching some blackbirds clinging onto very bendy stems of pyracantha plants in our garden and reaching for the berries. And I wondered what it would be like to be a blackbird with vertigo.

I know, I know – stupid idea because any branch of the blackbird family with vertigo would have died out, either from natural selection or from plummeting out of trees. But already, I’ve got 64 words out of that and you can see how just thinking of the impossibility of the conjunction of those two things already sets the mind off on a thread it would never have conceived of ordinarily. And you’d have to look at the nature and consequences of vertigo as well as the preferred lifestyle of the blackbird (or any bird) in a fresh way.

It’s like when I wrote that blog a while back about wondering what communities of pills and tablets do in their jars while they’re waiting for you to open them for your daily dose of whatever it is. The juxtaposition there is inanimate objects and consciousness. And it’s easy to do. Think of a relatively rare and/or specific adjective – say, bewildering or existential – and link it with a noun it would never normally qualify. A bewildering cauliflower. An existential flea. You see, you’ve got two things there which need thinking about, which get the creative juices flowing. (Actually ‘creative’ and ‘juices’ is a strange combination, too, and could produce some interesting wee stories.)

Now, to bring the two points together, back in August one of the blogs had a question for its title – ‘What does the dog mean?’ And one visitor was led to that because he or she had searched for ‘What does a dog signify?’ Think about it. What does a dog signify? I can write that owning a dog signifies something about the owner or his/her society. I can say it depends on the dog. Does each dog signify something different? Does the significance of an Airedale match that of a Shih Tzu? (Yes, of course, I chose that one deliberately.) It’s a legitimate question but the actual wording of it is interesting.

As an absurdist, I don’t think anything signifies anything. For me, everything is accidental, contingent. Remember what Macbeth came to realise – that even life itself ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. So what hope is there for a mere dog? But it’s great fun playing with words in this way and I’d love to hear your answers to the question.

So, what does a dog signify?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The grooves - a P S

This is a mini-blog prompted by the excellent observation by sofisticos that it’s not just geography that affects humour but time, too. Read his example – it’s a great insight into the complexities of ‘foreign’ humour.

But the reason it provoked this P.S. is that, in the original lecture I gave in the USA, I also told a joke connected with Russia. The idea was to show the universal nature of comedy. It was told to me by a friend who taught Russian. He was trying to explain ‘British humour’ to a Russian assistant at his school and he told her the following joke:

A man has been to a business meeting in London and, afterwards, is invited by a one of his hosts to play a round of golf at his club before catching his plane. The host lends him some clubs, they have a good round, but it’s hot and, afterwards, he just has time for a quick shower. The trouble is, he only has a small golf towel. (They’re about 18 inches square.) Nonetheless, he rushes into the showers, washes himself and, just as he’s getting ready to leave, he hears women’s voices. In his hurry, he’s obviously made a mistake and come into the wrong shower room. But he can’t wait for them to go, he has a plane to catch. So he has to go out past them. But he only has the small towel, big enough to cover his private parts or his face, but not both. The possible embarrassment causes him to choose the second option. So he holds the towel to his face and rushes out past the three shocked women.
When he’s disappeared, the first woman says ‘How disgusting, but at least it wasn’t my husband.’
The second one agrees. ‘You’re right, it wasn’t your husband.’
And the third one says ‘He wasn’t even a member of the club’.

The reason I used this joke was that the Russian assistant then told my friend ‘Yes, I’ve heard that one, except that in Russia the punchline is “He doesn’t even live in the village”’.

I should add that, among the learned questions I was asked by audience members after the lecture, one was ‘Where did you hear that joke?’ It was put to me by a woman who I could imagine as one of the three in the shower room. So perhaps it wasn’t a joke, but a true story.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Looking for the Grooves

This is a version of a lecture I had to give in the USA. It was linked with the fact that I’d been commissioned by the Theater Department of the University of Rhode Island to translate three plays by Molière. His plays, written for audiences in 17th century France, are still funny in France and elsewhere. So, for the lecture I chose to talk about humour in translation. I used the theme and ideas in a guest blog I did for Scary a while ago, but this is a much shortened (and updated) version of the lecture itself.

Words are weird. They’re not just labels we stick on objective ‘truths’; they actually create them. We all know that the Inuit have many terms for snow, each one identifying a separate ‘thing’. But why do Russians have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours? And what about Ionesco’s claim that the Spanish for Paris is Madrid, the Italian for London is Rome, and so on? And is a ‘horse’ the same as a ‘pferd’, a ‘cheval’, an ‘equus’ or a ‘hippos’?

So language is tricky. But humour’s worse.

Its original meaning, from the Latin humorem, was moisture. That’s helpful, isn’t it? Well, maybe the psychologists can help. According to one, in an article called Functions of humor in conversation: conceptualisation and measurement, ‘humor appears to be a facilitative form of communication that fulfils interpersonal functions’.

Hmmmm, even ‘moisture’ was more useful than that.

Another suggests that ‘the amount of humour is a monotonic inverted U function of the time and effort required for interpretation and re-interpretation’. Isn’t it great when academics explain the world for us?

Arthur Koestler had a better idea. He called it bisociation. Usually, we experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. With bisocation, though, you get a second, totally different context. When you hear ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’, you know exactly what’s going on. There’s just one frame of reference. But Groucho Marx has a different take on it. His version is ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’.

And there’s a third element to put in the mix – culture. Whether we like it (or agree with it) or not, there’s some truth in the idea of national stereotypes, and what makes people laugh is strikingly different in different countries. (I frequently feel the need to point out that something I’ve said or written is an example of British humour because if that’s not clear, it may seem not funny but offensive.)

The beauty of humour in translation is that it can create a comic effect which transcends cultures. Take the language school in Spain which was trying to attract English students to its courses. It sent a circular letter to British universities saying: ‘The pryces are totality accesibles by your students can to displace to Spain, in order to study in situ all our wonders. If any teachers will be intereted in amplify this activity, can to write us, and only too happy delighted, we enlarge details about itinerarys, pretext, loams’.

Or how about this, from a brochure inviting tourists to visit the Cévennes? ‘The development of the Alps and Pyrenees have drived the Mediterranean limestone against The Central Massif. Pleated and crackled, these sedimental masses were mould, chased into deep mysterious grooves. Absorbed by the cracks and engraves, the rock dissolved and became undermined. The wild and furious waters had groved a fantastic underground univers, and Man settlled down in this country of legends looking for the grooves.’

You see? Translation creates a language and a type of humour free from any specific culture. Words are elusive and unreliable. They define us along with our cultural stereotypes. But when they’re used in what seems a haphazard way, or they carry baffling echoes of the language from which they’ve been translated, they actually increase the possibility of experiencing Koestler’s bisociation – but in an area beyond language and culture alike.

We just need to keep looking for the grooves.