Monday, 23 May 2011

In Which I Name Ryan Giggs - Charlie Butler


Occasionally people ask me which aspect of my writing I’m most proud of. Is it the flawless characterization? The wonderfully-observed descriptive passages? The dialogue that tangoes off the page? The plots, as artfully constructed as the Daedalian labyrinth? Or some alchemic combination of all the above?
Oddly enough, the stroke I remember with the greatest pride is one that passes most readers by. It occurs in my first published book, The Darkling. The Darkling was published in 1997 (in the same month as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as I like to remind people with a gloomy starward shaking of the fist), but was written some years earlier, and it was in 1992 that I had to face up to the tricky problem of what to call Jamie’s pet gecko.
Jamie was the younger brother of my heroine and narrator, Petra McCoy. His own part in the story is relatively minor, and that of his pet lizard smaller still, but it needed a name, and I knew that (given Jamie’s character) its name was likely to celebrate a Manchester United leftwinger. But which one? At the time, two young players were making headlines for United in that position, both alike in crossing and scoring power, both given to gecko-ish bursts of furious pace. One was Lee Sharpe, who had made the No. 11 shirt his own during the 1990-91 season, notably by scoring a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup. At 21, Sharpe was a talented player who clearly had a long and illustrious career ahead of him. The other contender was even younger, but his coltish legs were bringing him up fast on the rails. This was the teenaged Ryan Giggs.
The choice mattered, because I wanted (as far as possible) to future-proof my book. Future-proofing is a perennial challenge for children’s writers, who generally try as hard as any Nivea ad to fight the signs of aging. Technology (Dial-up internet? Puhleeze!); clothes (Ray-Ban Aviators? Really?); bands and film stars (Kurt Cobain? River Phoenix? You’ve got to be kidding me!); and slang (Could I be any more 1990s?) – all are familiar adversaries. There are several ways around them, more or less effective. For many years children in books could be fitted out in blue jeans in the justified confidence that denim would always be in fashion – or at least not jarringly out. You could invent your own slang or song lyrics. Or you could take the route I did, and bet on longevity.
I almost called that gecko Sharpe instead of Giggs, I really did. Had I done so, perhaps Lee Sharpe’s career would have prospered. In the event, following this proof of my lack of faith it went into a fairly precipitous decline, hastened by illness and injury. Sharpe soon moved from Manchester United to Leeds, then on to Bradford, Grimsby and Exeter City before ending his playing career in 2003 at Grindavik in Iceland. Ryan Giggs, by contrast, has just won his twelfth Premier League title with United, and in 2011 is still a regular on the first team. At the end of January, he was voted the club's greatest ever player.
So, I’m very glad I named the gecko after Giggs, and think it reflects well on me both as a writer and as a pundit. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling more of a kinship with Lee Sharpe. Perhaps I should have named Jamie’s lizard Rowling, after all?

21 comments:

Keren David said...

This post is sheer genius. In so many ways.

Stroppy Author said...

I hope RG has thanked you for this boost to his career!

Penny Dolan said...

Good to know the reasons behind your decision, Charlie.

Michael Malone said...

Enjoyed this immensely.
(and you managed to avoid breaking any super-injunctions - bravo!)

Charlie Butler said...

Michael, I'm sure I've no idea to what you are referring...

Rosalie Warren said...

Very very very funny! Thank you for a much needed laugh. Brilliant. And well done on the foresight, too.

heleninwales said...

I can't think why the name of your character's gecko should suddenly spring to mind. :)

But you certainly backed the right player when it came to longevity and ability to keep his name in the public eye.

John Dougherty said...

Brilliant, Charlie. IMO, genuinely brilliant.

Katherine Langrish said...

And, even more important,'Giggs' is a far better name for a gecko than 'Sharpe'...

John Dougherty said...

Yes, although 'Sharpe' would be a better name for a hedgehog.

adele said...

Terrific stuff! Giggsy is a superstar and a huge help to Manchester United in becoming 19 times the Premiership Champions! Hurray! The timing of this post is...well. Timely!

Charlie Butler said...

Adele, I agree, Giggs is a rightly-renowned sportsman, whether playing at home or away.

http://youtu.be/ajbiDM8nVHQ

Leila said...

hilarious :)

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Brilliant.

Ellen Renner said...

Very funny. Henceforth, I'll always associate you with geckos.

But more seriously, is future proofing really something to strive for when setting fiction in a supposed 'now'? Shouldn't books reflect the times in which they were written? Surely future-proofing is an impossible task, anyway. The best you can hope for is postponement. We are where and when we are.

Charlie Butler said...

Thanks for your comment, Ellen. Obviously I had no idea when I posted this that subsequent events would make it look so... topical - but the question of future-proofing is an interesting one.

I don't think books "should" reflect the times in which they're written, in the sense of its being a moral obligation, but I do think they're likely to do so willy nilly. I suppose the question is whether (or how far) authors are justified in trying to disguise that fact, in an effort to extend their books' appeal over time.

In my opinion it depends very much on the particular book, and also upon genre. Some YA books especially trade on their supposed intimacy with the Zeitgeist, whereas for others it's less of an issue. We can of course claim that the latter group is preferable because it's appealing to "timeless values" or "eternal verities" which are relevant to every generation, but while I applaud that I don't think it's the only legitimate function of fiction, and for certain readers in certain circumstances it may not even be the most valuable.

Personally I prefer to read about worlds that are different from my own, but other people want and/or need to see their own world reflected back at them by fiction, and I can easily see why they might. For such readers future-proofing is a sensible authorial strategy - although there's always a trade-off between the generic (denim, "pop song") and the specific (Daisy Dukes, Lady Gaga).

Ellen Renner said...

Yes, I see your point about authors' desire to not be trapped by too specific references to slang, technology, and that will of course depend partly on the sort of book they're trying to write. Books that depend for their plot on pop culture references are a special case, and have a definite shelf-life.

But in most cases I would hope that a strong story with brilliant characterisation would transcend period references: The Railway Children; Tom's Midnight Garden, The Way to Sattin Shore, Charlotte's Web, The Box of Delights ... you get my drift. I don't think those authors worried about 'future-proofing' so why are the current generation of writers so obsessed with it?

Charlie Butler said...

Well, I don't fundamentally disagree, though if we discount the books that depend on pop-culture references I don't know that many authors really are obsessed with future-proofing - so much as bearing it in mind, along with many other, perhaps more important, factors. Of course there is a whole genre of books - namely historical novels - in which out-of-date period references are what you pay your money for.

Of the titles you list, I'd demur only about Tom's Midnight Garden. There, the plot depends on the difference between "modern" Tom and "Victorian" Hatty and their worlds. But the gap between 1958, when the book was published, and our 2011 selves, is almost as great as that between Tom and Hatty. So a child reading it today has to perform a far more sophisticated task than its first readers, negotiating the alien nature of - say - measles and quarantine, and a TV-less flat, and figuring out how that's different from the 1880s as well as how both are different from now, and what Tom in those pre-internet days might be expected to know about trousers and the hemlines of a previous generation, and the theories of time fashionable at that date.

In other words, much as I love that book, I do think that time has changed its nature, and the reading task it presents, simply because that's its subject. Perhaps its even better than it was? But it's not the same.

Ellen Renner said...

Fascinating: hadn't thought about TMG like that; time-slip within time-slip. Must re-read with that in mind. And yes, regretted the word 'obsessed' as soon as I posted it! A very enjoyable discussion. Thanks, Charlie, and for a thoroughly enjoyable post. I even know a bit more about football now. (I had heard of Giggs, though.)

Lee said...

Future-proofing presupposes that someone's books will actually be read in the future!

Charlie Butler said...

We live in hope, Lee, we live in hope.