Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Real Me - Andrew Strong

Peter Carey, when asked how he writes, says he just writes and rewrites, discovering new threads as he goes along; when something new appears, it can change everything else in the book, so he begins again, writes and rewrites, and then, perhaps, discovers a new thread. And so on.

He doesn't so much write stories, as carve them out. And it’s words he likes, words and sentences, not the storytelling of 'and then and then and then...'. He works on a microscopic level. He lets the story take care of itself. I approve of that.

I've read a few of his books, I liked 'Oscar and Lucinda', and loved 'The True History of the Kelly Gang'. They had an organic, uncontrived feel, and were forever growing. His characters feel the same.

A few years ago I picked up James Wood's book 'The Broken Estate' in a tiny second hand book shop. I didn't know anything about Wood at the time. It looked a serious book, with essays on Virginia Woolf, Austen and Martin Amis. A serious, cheap book. I couldn't resist it.

I like Wood when he goes on about 'rounded characters'. I'll skip what he says and just ask you to think of someone you know well. What is it about them that you know? When you think of them are they any more or less real than a character in a good novel? I think we caricature even the people we know intimately: I'm certain we remember faces by a very few details - a big chin, a small nose, a slightly raised eyebrow. Couldn't our 'deeper knowledge' of people be the same, and more superficial than we might suppose?

And what about ourselves? What do I know about the 'real me'? I wonder sometimes when I hear people saying things like 'I want to discover my true self'; because I don't think there is a true self. I'm not even sure there's a self, at least nothing static, unchanging, like a portrait. So, when it comes to creating characters, instead of piling on detail after detail, a few brushstrokes should do it.

Which reminds me why I have trouble reading Henry James. He does tend to describe faces in so much detail his characters seem grotesque. When someone has an 'elongated top lip' or 'an aquiline nose like a ridge waving down' I begin to see something resembling a tortoise. And then before I can do anything about it the tortoise is chewing a piece of soggy old lettuce - even though James doesn't mention the lettuce - and I can't read any more. If Peter Carey was writing such a book, I’m sure he’d have started again, and written the adventures of that tortoise. As he hasn’t, I will.

I’ll create a tortoise character with a few brushstrokes, and when this character is up and running (well, you know what I mean) - let him open a door, or eat his lettuce, or take forever to go from one room to another; and watch him - he does it his own way. And in the middle of this, he'll look up and he'll say something; he might tell you he's looking for his spectacles, or his purpose in life, or that he’s growing a moustache, and I'll have the beginning of a whole new thread, a new story, a new series.


Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

"I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks....I like some description but not too much of that....Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle....Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice." Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday - as pointed out by Elmore Leonard, who was all about the story.

michelle lovric said...

I just finished Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America and it can be explained only by what you have written here!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Have been thinking about your post throughout the day. I find the 'Carey method' of writing currently the most satisfying and have returned to it for my story, Magic Moments and the dull bits in between.Publishers tend to like synopsis
Am intrigued by hooptedoodles

Jan Markley said...

I love the part about carving out the book - build it word by word. I just picked up Oscar and Lucinda (at a B&B I was staying in) and it is now on my to-be-read shelf.

AnneR said...

My tortoise (who is currently hibernating in the salad drawer of the fridge) will be very keen to read your new genre of tortoise-lit. Please advise when first title appears.

(I, too, write like this - and producing a synopsis is impossible until the book is finished!)

Josh Lacey said...

Have you read Bliss? His first novel. It's brilliant.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

And did you see the film Oscar and Lucinda? There is a scene when the glass building is being moved on a barge but in the movie because its being viewed over a hill, all you see is the building floating over the landscape. Magical... as is his writing.
'He doesn't somehow write stories as carve them out...' reminded me of getting excited one day when I discovered a beautiful whorl under my chisel while carving a bowl, my art teacher smiled knowingly and said 'Didn't you know... this is what art is about!'

Andrew Strong said...

The tortoise thing just appeared as I was writing the blog, but now I want to claim that I really meant what I wrote, that I'd been thinking about this for years... Josh - haven't read Bliss, but it's here, on one of my shelves, a bit yellowed. Noticed it was next to Carey's 'Wrong About Japan' - a lovely read, too, a simple tale of travelling east with his son. And Dianne, what you experienced with the chisel should be how we feel when we write, it has to be that way to keep it alive, fresh, real. Or am I being naive? (Anne - I've just written the fist draft of 'What Shelley Tortoise'..the reptile hero will be a poet, a romantic, he'll go off to fight in small wars etc...)