Monday, March 30, 2009

The delights of Jekyll and Hyde

Here's my kitchen bench in the morning. A book, reading glasses, the Faber diary, a coffee in my favourite Fulmer cup and - just out of shot - a laptop for quick clearing of emails. I like to stand at the bench first thing as I do too much sitting the rest of the day. The sad thing is the rest of the day isn't going to hold the joys of novel-writing as I have too much paid work to do: poems and reviews to mark for the Massey Uni students I teach, an article for an Israeli newspaper about researching The Blue, and finishing off an essay for local lit mag JAAM which has its deadline tomorrow.

I love doing all these things but I love doing them on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or the weekend, but unfortunately deadlines - and a lack of focus on my part in the latter part of last week - mean it's got to be today, Monday.

At least I've had time for a little research for the novel today. It's the small book you can see in the photo - a clean 1963 Thomas Nelson edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - bought at a local book stall yesterday for a dollar. A dollar! I've never read it, and now I am writing a novel which explores the theme of the double, I keep falling over references to Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson's story is more about a divided self than a double, really, but in a strange way the double in literature is a divided self: two people who are the same and yet different, who aren't meant to be together by the laws of nature, and whose natures/personalities seep into and change each other.

Many fiction writers keep away from fiction that follows the same themes as their own, some even avoid fiction per se while they are writing. I personally find that whenever I hit a difficulty in my writing, reading a damned good novel gives me clues on how to deal with the problem and move on. Although I am still struggling with reading novels which use the same themes as mine - the seepage between one like thing and another can happen in fiction too often without the author realising - on the other hand, it can provide a richness in terms of reference and serve to push a writer off into other unexplored directions having seen the lie of the land. So I'm hoping for the latter with my one dollar book, but am still deciding if I can go the next step now and read Dostoevsky's The Double and Saramago's The Double.... Okay, so there is such a thing as too close...

Meanwhile, I am loving Stevenson. What fabulous story-telling, dense characterisation and atmosphere, carefully laid suspense. Here's what I've just read on the page over from the one shown in the photo:

[Background: An elderly man has just been murdered by Hyde in the street. A maid witnessed it. Mr. Utterson is a lawyer and the novel's point of view and a letter addressed to him was found on the body of the murder victim.]

This was brought to the lawyer the next morning before he was out of bed; and he had no sooner seen it, and been told the circumstances, than he shot out a solemn lip. "I shall say nothing till I have seen the body," said he; "this may be very serious. Have the kindness to wait while I dress." And with the same grave countenance he hurried through his breakfast and drove to the police station, whither the body had been carried. As soon as he came into the cell, he nodded.

"Yes," said he, "I recognize him. I am sorry to say that this is Sir Danvers Carew."

"Good God, sir," exclaimed the officer, "is it possible?" And the next moment his eye lighted up with professional ambition. "This will make a deal of noise, " he said. "And perhaps you can help us to the man." And he briefly narrated what the maid had seen, and showed the broken stick.

Mr Utterson had already quailed at the name of Hyde; but when the stick was laid before him, he could doubt no longer: broken and battered as it was, he recognized it for one that he had himself presented many years before to Henry Jekyll.

Excerpt from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson


Rachael King said...

I don't avoid fiction while writing - if I did that I would never read fiction again! I read fiction that is related to my novel, too, although in this case it's with purpose - intertextuality. But just as an example, I loved Novel About My Wife and I was struggling a bit with my own first person contemporary POV and reading someone who does it well gave me the boost I needed.

the best way to write well is to read read read, we all know that, right? So why do some writers stop reading when they are writing? Are they that easily influenced that they think they will steal someone's ideas?

Vanda Symon said...

I read a lot of crime fiction while writing, for research, and also for pure pleasure. I've had fun dabbling into older classics too, including enjoying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes - second hand book store finds. I love some of the expressions they used, like your quoted "shot out a solemn lip."

Did you shed a few tears when you got your Israeli copy of The Blue?

Mary McCallum said...

Yes, Rachael, I am with you there. Read, read, read so you can write, write, write. I don't understand literary abstinence at all. But I do understand wanting creative space around an idea and worrying about other similar work muddying the originality somehow. I can also see how authors fear their subconscious will retain what is read and spew it out later as original. Have you ever had that? Spooky stuff.

I agree, Vanda, the old expressions are rather delicious aren't they? They make me want to be more adventurous with my writing... And, no, I didn't cry at The Blue in Hebrew! I looked at it a lot, though - the way it opens back-to-front, how my name looks - and rather painfully thrust it into the arms of anyone who walked within 10 metres of the house. It's lovely.

Tania Roxborogh said...

Hi Mary
Ever since I submitted the final manuscript, I've been devouring books - and not just ones I have to read to review. The only one I WON'T read is the other sequel to Macbeth called Seed of Banquo - it's a five act play in blank verse. It came out in November and I've tasted the first scene (it's good) but the main character in my novel Fleance is a baddy in this play and I just couldn't bare anyone saying anything nasty about my Flea.

I also haven't read the Twighlight series or the Ken Follett stuff (one epic for YA and the other 11th Century - both genres are Banquo's Son) but, as I teach and mother teenagers, I don't need to cos I hear about them ALL the time. said...

This is a most interesting thread of thought and of course we must read and read and read (and then some more) to be able to write. There is a strange fear sometimes about our creative ideas being "original" and that they can be filched or plagiarised and perhaps they can, but I also quite like Bill Manhire's idea of the writer as the bricoluer ("scavaging tribal junk") - which is sort of what we do - we inhabit or read other novels to find the voices we admire and try to re-invent them in our own unique voice - and I think it's less the ideas we seek and more the exciting ways (as Mary describes) that other writers achieve this... it spurs us on to take risks "Risk! Risk Anything!" (our beloved KM)...

Inadvertantly, I think writers do uplift accidentally bits and pieces and I've experienced this (my own modestwork uplifted - or so it seemed at the time) and it felt terrible when it happened - and now with great distance, I can see it wasn't nearly as important or even as harmful as I thought at the time.

In fact, I was forced at one point to reinvent an aspect of a character to make this person seem different from what I perceived had been "filched" and I think it made me stronger as a writer and helped me see how what we sometimes claim with such intensity, does not always matter as much as we think.

I have gone on a bit...:)

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Tanya - It's interesting to see your limits too with reading while, and after, writing a novel. The feeling that some other works are just too close. I have to say I didn't know the Twilight series was in the Banquo's son genre, despite deep devotion to the series in my household!

Thanks for your comments, too, Maggie. I LOVE the idea of writers as scavengers of tribal junk - makes us sound funky. The nicking of ideas you're talking about here sounds like it's happening at the writing level which is extremely easy to do I think - and without writers meaning to do it. I've had a friend take a phrase of mine and make it a title of a book, and I've seen the odd phrase appear in my manuscript that seems to come from nowhere and then disgruntled writer friend points out I read it in his/her work once. It's that old scavenger mentality - which also doesn't always store away the provenance of the things that are 'found', then they all jumble together and change shape and it becomes impossible to do.

The truth is, every genuine writer puts together a story so differently and what appears the same to the victim (the one who is stolen from) seems very different to everyone else. I feel for you, though, with your experience - what a shock - that explains why you're so private about your works-in-progress now. said...

Oh, no, it wasn't that bad, it just felt bad at the time... to be fair, I think I took myself too seriously, and what I was trying to say, was what you are saying, that I now see it is a by-product of the reading/writing and mostly inadvertant.. and, if you are a good writer, then presumably, you have nothing to fear. But yes, I am quite private at first draft level. I think it's something about trying to hold on to some (perceived and possibly fanciful) mysterious alchemy that occurs between the head and the written page and if you speak of it or review it too frequently, you lose the magic... but of course, in truth, when you get an editor, they sprinkle fairy dust across your words and rearrange some sentences and delete your supposed best metaphor (ha ha)... so having input is marvellous... but perhaps not always at first draft level - still on first draft...sigh....