Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking a mouthful of teeth - the charm of Boock and Lowry

It's one of those treats you get when you help out at the Secondary School Writers Festival up at Victoria University: authors for teens, Paula Boock and Brigid Lowry, discussing writing characters in fiction. Both women were generous, frank and funny, and their panel discussion led by Linda Burgess was more like something you'd eavesdrop on in a cafe [if you could ignore the icream-sized mikes].

These two writers told the gathered-talented-young that they wrote everyday, both good stuff and bad stuff, and that's what being a writer was about: doing it. Lowry talked about how she entered her study in a 'dreamy' state and sat down without knowing where a story was going and 'just made it up.' She used that phrase a lot - 'making it up' - which had a delicious slightly naughty child feel to it. Which was how she was, really, despite her declared age of 54 or 56 or something like that.

Boock agreed that she was an instinctive writer, too, and went with where the story took her. Like Lowry, she often started with a character and worked from there, although sometimes she had in mind something she wanted to explore e.g. two young women falling in love ['Truth Dare or Promise'], and then looked around for characters to do that. Both women said they blend real people they know into their characters, including elements of themselves. And Boock - a screenwriter as well as a novelist - will go somewhere where she can 'act out' her characters to try on dialogue and see if it works.

The women talked about the embarrassing fall-out when a friend or family member recognises one of their traits in a character and assumes the whole character is them. This happened to Boock once when she took a mouthful of teeth from a friend - small white teeth that made for a charming smile - and planted them in a book. As Boock tells the story, she smiles in that way writers do which is a mix of charming, acquisitive and don't-mess-with-me. The subtext being: she needed the teeth and she took them, end of story. Both women said care needed to be taken, for sure, but at the same time the gathered-talented-young needed to understand that characters in fiction are fictional. Or, put more simply, they're made up.

And that, you understood from the conversation between two of our best writers for teenagers, is much more fun.


The Paradoxical Cat said...

"Characters in fiction are fictional" - seems obvious doesn't it? Now the kids know about it, perhaps they'll break this astonishing piece of news to some of the grumpy old men of NZ lit who haven't had this revelation yet...

Rachel Fenton said...

I love the idea of borrowing 'teeth' or whatever for a character, and for someone to recognise their teeth! Priceless! I recently showed my collection of short fiction to a relative and she started to make up 'memories' to account for some of the characters/events in the stories - couldn't believe I could have made up things which seemed so real! Very funny! I did borrow some eyes though! Just to get a different view.

Harvey Molloy said...

I'm going to try to get to the whole Festival next year as I greatly enjoyed the morning session for teachers this year.