Monday, August 4, 2008

The highest species of uncertainty

This is Pickles. I don't know her at all. I found her on Flickr, her mother is an amazing photographer. I used this image as part of a power-point presentation on my novel, Precarious. (You'll find out why soon.)

Precarious is not set long ago and across the Strait like The Blue; it's contemporary and set in Eastbourne, NZ, where I live. So doubly precarious, I believe. This was the theme of a talk I gave yesterday as part of an Eastbourne writers' series hosted by a local church and here are some notes from it.

L. Precarius obtained by begging or prayer, depending on request or on the will of another, fr. Precari to pray, beg.
Oxford: held at the pleasure of another/uncertain; unstable
Adapted from Webster: it first signified "granted to entreaty," and, hence, "wholly dependent on the will of another." Thus it came to express the highest species of uncertainty.

The novel beginning ... in a nutshell
A dissatisfied woman, an Irish boyfriend, a builder father whose head was messed with by a fall, a concrete bridge where people fish, envy.

Writing The Blue - what I loved
THE THREE E’s: EPIC, ELEMENTAL AND ESCAPIST. Need to find this in the other E ‘EASTBOURNE’. Escapist is the hardest one to find as I work inside a novel set on my doorstep. Also worrying: will local people (it's a small community) think they see themselves and others? It even happened with The Blue, a local woman rang me convinced I'd written about her husband. Strangely many of the details of the two - the real man and the wholly invented character - were the same.

Stealing from real life
Of course I do it, every writer does. But I don't 'photograph' people and pop them in. I always transform their characteristics into fiction. For example, I listened to former whalers spotting whales on Arapawa Island for DOC. I took notes, but I didn't use their words, I used their joshing and competitiveness and knowledge, and transformed it. Some phrases eg. 'thar she blows' are used verbatim for obvious reasons. It is what Mark Doty calls getting to the 'emotional truth' of the thing.

One of my characters Owen, known as The Friar, has my grandfather's name and tattoos like he does, but he's not my grandad. Molly the old hen got her name from my mate Penny's old dog, but she's not a dog.

Graham Green on writing character
'No, one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use, what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge: minor ones may be photographed. ' (from an earlier post)

So I suppose local people should feel safe. Or at least, safer.

Writers have their preoccupations
Peter Carey said something about how he thought he'd written a number of different novels but he's recently discovered he's been writing the same thing all the time. The Precariousness of Life is one of my preoccupations. I didn’t know it when I started The Blue but I did by the end: Lilian falls (walking), Micky falls (harpoon), Gunner falls (sick). There are steep hills and cliffs, eggs are thrown and threaten to break, people fall from grace. Whaling is dangerous. The wider world is precarious: it's 1938, out of a depression, on the cusp of war. It's also a time of flight.

Wherever you look, things can change in the blink of an eye, what's solid can crumble, what's upright can fall. 'It all hangs by thread' says Lloyd Jones. But even as I say this I want to challenge it. To replace an image which stays with me (the 9/11 photograph of the Falling Man) with the image of Pickles above - not falling but flying. About to be caught. All tragedy, surely, redeemable.

Precarious, the novel, also deals with the slipperiness of identity, the precarious nature of who we are. Those who've read The Blue will know this is another (unexpected) preoccupation of mine.

Standing upright
Oh I had more to say: about a bridge that gives me a sense of the epic in the book, sculptures 'that make the fallen upright', a pohutukawa that clings to a rock face with convoluted roots, the importance of the sea. I finished the talk reading from an essay I wrote about Eastbourne two years ago called One Spring Day. Real people living real (brave) lives not fictional constructs. It ends with Isabel who is 100 and still upright, and who has some tips about how to achieve that: ' Eat three good meals a day, be kind, make the most of each day.'

Only a beginning
Precarious still has so many more pages to be written. Talking about it helped tidy up some of my convoluted thoughts and point me forward. I finished with the Salman Rushdie quote I had on an earlier post. 'Writing’s too hard, it just requires so much of you, and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you’re lucky you finish at the smart end. When you start out, you feel inadequate to the task. You don’t even understand the task.’

All that uncertainty. Better get on.

The Writers' Series
The other two writers who have spoken so far are Jill Harris and Les Molloy, both fascinating. To come are Ann Packer and Maggie Rainey-Smith. The talks are at 2.30pm at St Ronan's, Eastbourne, every Sunday. Thanks to St R's and Anne and Sandy.

Super Pickles photograph credit: Life in the Pumpkin Shell (Flickr).


Rachael King said...

Great post, mary, thanks. Nice to get into your writing brain like that.

Vanda Symon said...

I'd have loved to hear your talk - the series looks great.

You're very generous with your thoughts and imagery of your new book. I find it very hard to share too much about what I'm working on. I guess, writing crime, I worry I'll inadvertently give something away.

Great post.

Gondal-girl said...

lovely post Mary - I like the Graham Greene and Peter Carey, read once in Julia Cameron that we only have one theme we revisit over and over ( in different ways) all coming from the same writers' gene pool and experience

Sharon said...

Hi Mary, I mis-read your quote by Isabel the 100-year old and thought she recommended that you eat 3 males a day! Must pay more attention although it sounds like interesting advice! Thank you for these comments, I think the comment about talking about what you are writing clarifies where you are heading, just finding people to listen can sometimes be tricky!
All the best, Sharon Adamson

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Sharon! Actually, Isabel would be quite capable of suggesting the eating of three males a day! She's quite a hoot.

You're right, it's hard to find someone who will put up with endless talk about the state of a work-in-progress. I have a friend who is endlessly patient like that -- we go walking and talk about our work. I often come back stimulated and feeling like I can address something that was either a knotty problem or a fleeting idea.

Writers groups are good for this too if you can get together a group of like-minded writers who will put the time in to read and listen. But then you have to do the same....