For this book Miller interviewed 100 households that lived in a London street. This book is a selection of about 30 portraits he wrote from these interviews. His focus is on how these people define themselves by their possessions and draw comfort from them. Miller is not suggesting that we are slaves to consumerist urges; the analysis is more subtle than that – our belongings are parts of our paralanguage as much as gestures and clothes.

 I’m reading it to better understand people’s relationship with things they collect, horde or just don’t throw away. This will inform my writing on Wainwright Caspinal and his collection.  So far it has been a little disappointing. I’m only a little way through the book, but most of the portraits have been a little too affirmative and read like a TV psychologist telling their viewers what they want to hear. The most interesting portrait was about a man who seemed to own nothing, as the absence of things raised important questions about how possessions affect our lives and a symbolic of experience. Maybe I’m just looking for too much misery as this would better suit Wainwright and my story.

This last week I’ve doing some research into human trafficking and cults. An important feature to be introduced to my story is a human trafficking group that masquerades as a religious cult. I have it in my mind that the cult, disbanded in the ‘present day’ of the novel, was based in the Sinai desert. It’s such a desolate, barren place that seems perfect for this group to hide away and do horrible things. 

 I want to base the group in Africa as it suits the purposes of my story that we still tend to find aspects of African culture intriguing. However, I walk a fine line between evoking mysterious and uncanny responses and a simple tabloid revulsion towards perceived immorality and ‘uncivilised’ behaviour.

 We read news stories about massacres and brutality in Africa or we see films like Blood Diamond that portray more inhumane acts and we start to associate continent with violence and corruption.  For example, this story in The Independent about a dismembered body found in the Thames explains it as ‘African human sacrifice’ as if Africa is a country and not a diverse continent, like they practice human sacrifice from Rabat to Johannesburg.

Representation of Africa and other developing countries is a highly contentious issue. Africa especially is worn out from pictures of starving children and such like – all its cultural richness and history is lost. So I’ve been researching African history and culture to help me represent aspects of Africa with texture and depth. The recent BBC series ‘The Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ has been excellent in celebrating Africa’s history. Also Bruce Parry’s series Tribe is very good.

Africa sets a challenge to think beyond the common images thrown at it, and I have to admit it can be easy to fall in line with some tired old idea about Africa, but I’m keeping a sharp and merciless eye out for any such occurences.

When Libby Day was 9 years old she witnessed the slaughtering of her mother and 2 sisters. Or at least she hid in a cupboard whilst they were killed. The main suspect for the murder was Ben her older brother and it’s Libby’s testimony that sees him sentenced to life in prison.

 ‘Dark Places’ tells 2 stories: Libby Day, now thirty something, discovering what really happened the night her family were murdered, and the actual events of that night told from the perspective of Libby’s mother, Patty, and her brother.

 Libby’s chapters are separated by chapters set the day of murder – these then alternate between Patty and Ben’s perspectives.

 Flynn skilfully weaves the different threads into a well paced and twisting narrative that’s very satisfying. She’s got the page turning mechanics down to a fine art. The chapters articulate with absolute control so that the 2 time zones inform each other. Questions raised in the present timeline are resolved in the past and visa versa. Furthermore tension is developed without characters ever having to behave unnaturally – no characters leave a room enigmatically so they don’t have to answer important questions.

 I’ll have to admit to not entirely buying into the final big twist – that Flynn hadn’t led me to the point at which the character concerned would make the decision they do. That said it was by no means an unreasonable stretch. It’s still a great book and well worth seeking out.

I’m taking a break from writing the novel to research style, subject matter and the publishing market, primarily. I will be posting some of my thoughts and findings here over the next couple of months.

Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’

February 25, 2010

I’ve been doing some research into objects, strange collections and general weirdness to get a better feel for Anthony’s world. As part of this research I’ve been reading Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’. ‘The Uncanny’ is an essay he wrote in 1919 in which he explores why some strange events and occurrences can unsettle us, with a particular focus on literature.

 Freud concludes that the uncanny is derived from two things. Firstly, from primitive superstitions that we no longer believe in, suddenly seeming possible – our primitive instincts lay just beneath the surface waiting for such things to be proven real. Secondly, uncanny feelings can be caused by the resurfacing of repressed infantile complexes such as fear of the father or castration complex (see below).

 It’s been a while since I’ve read any Freud and the years have been a little reductive – it’s all about sex and wanting to kill my father (or does he want to kill me?) So it’s been good to revisit.

 His prose style is sometimes a little difficult. He has a tendency to make assertions about one thing meaning something else and we’ll have to just take his work for it: ‘The study of dreams fantasies and myths has taught us also that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind is quite often a substitute for the fear of castration.’ (p139) Of course, he has the weight of the greater part of 20th century criticism behind him so we do take his word for it. Which is just as well because I’ve already got a shrunken head with burnt out eyes in my novel – just the unconscious mind at work, though I’m still pretty sure my father never tried to castrate me.

 Freud goes on to state that to achieve the uncanny in a literary work the writer must create a world that simulates reality so that the reader’s mind reacts to unusual occurrences with the same reaction it would in real life.   

                 “In a sense then he [the writer] betrays us to a superstition we thought we had surmounted; he tricks us by promising everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences.” (p157)

 So when strange things happen in a fairytale we are not disturbed by it as it’s just what we expect – fairy tales are set in strange worlds in which strange things happen. But if we are to be disturbed by something then the uncanny needs to be contrasted with normality. 

 Currently, I don’t intend to have anything of the supernatural manifest itself in my story. In fact my intention is to demystify curios by representing them as cultural artefacts rather than arcane things used in savage rituals.

 If I’m honest Freud’s essay has given me plenty to think about, but I’m still not exactly sure how or to what extent I’ll be incorporating what he has to say. Psychoanalysts might argue that I’ll be incorporating his theories whether I like it or not.

 Quotes taken from the 2003 Penguin edition of ‘The Uncanny’.

Writing locations

February 13, 2010

Perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting this but I have been finding Google’s street views very useful. Maybe a bit of background information might help to excuse me.

Chapter 2 (that starts a new narrative thread as explained in the previous post) is set in New York. Mostly it consists of 2 conversations that Anthony has on his mobile phone in the back of a cab. There are a few contextualising descriptions of the city throughout the chapter. I wanted to open out the locations of this narrative thread at an early stage so that when Anthony travels to Venice and Egypt later in the thread it won’t feel like such a jump.

New York is the ideal location as it represents a focal point of cultural diversification (that’s also outside Europe). Unfortunately, I’ve never been there. Of course, it’s somewhere that is familiar to most of us through its numerous portrayals in film, television and literature – something else that makes it a great location, as readers have their own negotiated perception of the city, so it only needs to be described in brief snap-shots that don’t interrupt the pace of the story.

 However, it is also a city steeped in stereotypical representations, such as the ubiquitous loud-mouth New York cabbie or references to its numerous iconic landmarks. To help me convey New York in an interesting way I have been exploring some of its literary representations such as ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘American Psycho’. I then used Google’s street view to get a sense of place and tone, and to locate a specific setting in New York. You really can spend hours just touring around.

 Here’s one of the snap-shots from Chapter 2 of ‘The Curious Collection of Wainwright Caspinal’:

 I was sat in the back of a cab on East River Drive. Generic New York where concrete walls and tower blocks hide its Art Deco beauty. Across the water the Triborough Bridge was just a faint outline in the fading evening light. A quiet, Indian-looking man drove the taxi, crouching forward over the steering wheel with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, calm in the crawling traffic.

 Always interested in your thoughts.

The novel uses three different narrative timelines. The first chapter describes the novel’s present, the second describes about 6 months earlier, and the third describes an incident from the protagonist’s childhood (the night of the house fire in which his grandfather dies). The next chapter goes back to the present and the cycle repeats throughout the novel. There are some great American shows at the moment that use similar techniques to great effect, Lost is one that springs to mind. 

 I’m writing the second chapter and so am grappling with the interplay between the three timelines. Each timeline will inform events in the others – generally questions and ideas raised in one timeline will be answered or at least furthered. For example, in the first chapter the protagonist fakes a break-in to the mansion-house; in the second chapter (set 6 months earlier) we are given a snippet of information about why he faked the break-in. It has to be just enough to prevent confusion but raise a few more questions.

 Making sure the timelines fit together feels like playing an intricate Chinese puzzle. Sometimes it feels more like playing Kerplunk – as you mess around with one thread you’ve constantly got your eye on how the rest of the thing will be affected. I had better end this analogy here before I start writing about marbles dropping.

 Stephen King talks about the ‘boys in the basement’ as that part of your sub conscious where stories develop beyond your awareness. I have always been a believer in this description of the creative process. It amazes me how seemingly disparate things suddenly come together, seemingly incidental details from one thread suddenly become vital reference points for an earlier thread – like those boys had it in mind all along.

 I’m not one for having conversations with my characters like some writers talk about. Certainly lines of theirs will come to me and these lines may then develop into exchanges between characters. I reckon it’s just more of the boys’ work behind the scenes

fun with plotting

November 22, 2009

 I love the way this book is keeping me guessing.  For example, whilst mapping out the plot in the last few months it has changed almost completely from the initial idea. Initially the book was about the protagonist, Taylor, visiting Caspinal house to value the estate and then discovering a book of confessional poetry written by Nathaniel Caspinal, when he was young, that would later reveal the ‘dark secrets of the Caspinal family’. This idea was entitled ‘The Rhythmical Workings of Nathaniel Caspinal’. My principal concern with this initial plot outline was the protagonist’s lack of motive for wanting to discover the ‘dark secrets’; he had nothing really at stake. Essentially, he was exploring the Caspinal family secrets to simply satisfy his curiosity. 

 In response to this problem I created Taylor’s grandfather. The Caspinal family, specifically Wainwright, were to have wronged Taylor’s grandfather in some way. Taylor attempting to redress this injustice thereby had an ulterior motive for exploring the Caspinal family and collection. To raise the stakes further I escalated this injustice to suspicion of Wainwright having murdered the grandfather. However, this addition that was simply to provide greater motivation for the protagonist had a massive impact on the entire plot and brought about dramatic changes. Firstly, it drew a greater focus on Wainwright Caspinal. And secondly, it foregrounded the collection because the story became more about getting to know Wainwright and it is through the collection that we come to understand him.

I now had two similar devices through which we got to know characters – Nathaniel’s book of poems and Wainwright’s collection. As Wainwright took greater prominence in the story finding out about Nathaniel through the poetry book became a redundant plot-line. Additionally, the collection as a topography of Wainwright’s mind just seemed like such a more interesting idea. The discovery of a poetry book was also a little too reminiscent of A S Byatt’s ‘Possession’. As a result of these changes the poetry book is no longer part of the story and the story itself is now entitled ‘The Curious Collection of Wainwright Caspinal’.

 And before I know it, Taylor is staging a break-in to Caspinal house so that he can get a longer look at the collection, but more about that in the next instalment.

Hello everbody

October 24, 2009

I have recently started to write a novel currently titled ‘The Curious Collection of Wainwright Caspinal’.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an opportunity for me to reflect on the process of writing this novel and to make contact with other people doing similar things.

Here’s a brief outline of the story as it currently stands:

The discovery of a strange and unique artefact leads John Taylor, a specialist in such things, to Caspinal house and the mythical Caspinal collection. Taylor hopes to find the answer to who started a fire, when he was young, that killed his grandfather and nearly killed him. An obsessive collector, Wainwright Caspinal tried to understand humanity by amassing what it produced and consumed at its furthest fringes; the collection represents a topography of the dark edges of the human psyche. But Caspinal house is now home to the reclusive Nathaniel Caspinal, Wainwright’s oldest son, and all he wants is to be left alone and keep his secrets hidden.

This now leads into the first problem that I’m having. Publishers are keen to know what other successful novels yours is like, and at the moment I haven’t found one that fits comfortably with mine. I’m currently pitching it as similar to Iain Banks’ Complicity with which it shares some similar narrative devices and stylistic features, but loosely, and besides Complicity was written about 16 years ago. I have a stack of other books to read that could also be possible candidates, next on the list is Peter Carey’s Theft: a love story

What I’m not saying is my idea is totally original and there’s nothing else out there like it – God no. This would be terrible, what I’m worried about is that there aren’t any successful contemporary novels like this out there – maybe novels like this aren’t successful or even being published.

Anyway if there’s anything in the above blurb that reminds you of something you read recently then I’d love to know.