ROBERT HARRIS AND THE POLITICAL NOVEL

Off last night to the LSE to see the author, Robert Harris, being interviewed by Peter Kemp (chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times) on the subject of The Political Novel. It was a very enjoyable event mainly because the rapport between the two men was a good one and because Harris is an amiable and amusing interviewee. Harris started out as a reporter with the BBC, working on Newsnight and Panorama, before becoming the political editor of The Observer. His first novel Fatherland was published in 1992 and was a huge bestseller. It’s a thriller set in an imagined future in which Germany has won the war, Hitler’s 75th birthday is coming up and no one knows anything about the Holocaust.

Here’s a summing up of some of the things discussed:

  • Political influences – being with his father as he heckled Alec Douglas-Home during the 1964 general election campaign and also being born close enough to the Second World War for it to be talked about all the time.
  • Difference between political journalism and fiction – political journalism is ‘all up front’ and fiction is about ‘hiding and concealment.’
  • On the writing of Fatherland – he said he started off writing twenty or thirty pages with lots of people in a room and then didn’t know what to do with them or how to get them out. He put the novel away for a year and then his agent wrote to him with a quote from American writer John Irving which stated that you must know what happens at the end before you start. He then went back to the novel and set off writing it from about five different points of view before deciding to settle on only one, the detective, because he was the most conflicted and therefore the most dramatic.
  • His experience of writing fiction – once he ‘went through the looking glass into his imagination’ and began writing fiction he felt there was no going back.
  • The pace of his novels – Kemp asked if that had to do with the speed with which he wrote. Harris replied that if he had one contract with his readers it was not to bore them and that the use of an urgent timescale was useful in that regard. He also pointed out that the great 19th century novels (Dickens, Trollope) were written under great time pressure.
  • Writing habits – he starts to write in January delivering the manuscript in June or July and then having the book published in September or October. He writes about a 1000 words a day gets up early and is done by lunch time. He talked about letting ‘the boys in the basement’ do some of the work. An expression used by Stephen King to describe the subconscious.
  • Influence of George Orwell  – he said that the book 1984 was the great argument for fiction because by inventing characters and creating an imaginary work Orwell created a work of imagination which will never date.   Non-fiction will always be rewritten i.e. someone at some point will write another history of Stalingrad, but fiction is imperishable. Amusingly he said that apparently Orwell thought that War and Peace was much too short that he could have stayed in that world created by Tolstoy for much longer.
  • His own favourite book – that was the one he was working on (his present one is on the Catholic Church) because it was ‘a perfect sphere of possibilities which had not yet crashed to earth.’
  • His favourite 19th century novel – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
  • On Anthony Trollope – the reason why there is no modern Trollope is because Britain simply isn’t as important in world politics anymore. When Trollope was writing, British politics was the fulcrum of the world and had the most powerful legislature in the world.

Harris is an interesting writer because he writes across a broad range of different time-frames and countries:alternative history detective novel (Fatherland), second world war Britain (Enigma) contemporary Russia (Archangel), contemporary Britain (The Ghost) the classical world (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator). He is so spectacularly bestselling he transcends branding. He said the book his publishers flinched at was Pompeii but that when it sold as well as Fatherland they didn’t mind. You have to sell a very great many books to earn that kind of freedom. Long may it continue. His most recent book is the third in his trilogy about Cicero called Dictator.

Personally, my favourite Robert Harris is The Ghost. It’s about a ghostwriter who is hired to write the memoirs of Britain’s former Prime Minister. It’s brilliant and apart from anything else it’s incredibly funny. If like me you have dark thoughts when you think of Tony Blair and the Iraq war, this is the book for you.

Have you read any Robert Harris books? What’s your favourite political novel? Or what have you read recently that you would describe as a political novel?

 

HOW TO RAISE A NOVELIST

This from The Notebooks of Henry James:

“I heard some time ago, that Anthony Trollope had a theory that a boy might be brought up to be a novelist as to any other trade. He brought up – or attempted to bring up – his own son on this principle, and the young man became a sheep-farmer, in Australia.”

January 22nd 1879

This made me laugh and I never thought I’d say that about Henry James. For some reason it also reminded me of attending a careers evening at my old school some time ago. It had coincided with me feeling rather dispirited about my writing life but I went because I had said I would and I thought it might do me good. It was a surreal experience but the main thing I came away with was that I spent more time talking to the parents who were there than the children and my impression was that the parents were curious and somewhat wistful on their own account about the writing life but eager for me to deter their children from pursuing it. The main reason being the difficulty and unlikelihood of them ever making much money at it.

Coming back to the Henry James quotation I wonder how Trollope raised his son? What would be the ideal upbringing for a child who you wanted to become a novelist. A traumatic childhood? That’s a cliché, surely but then there is the much repeated expression that happiness ‘writes white.’ In the scheme of things there must be as many novelists with perfectly happy childhoods as unhappy.  However what I would say is that every family has its silences, its secrets and its sorrows. Those still deep pools that we stand at the edge of and wonder about. Maybe if you’re a writer you’re compelled to dip your toe in, skim a stone across and see what rises. The stories you end up writing are part solace part explanation.

On the basis that children tend to rebel against parental expectations maybe the simple moral of this tale is that Trollope should have raised his son to be a sheep farmer and then he might have produced a writer!

On the subject of sheep farmers and writing I’m currently reading the most beautiful book The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I think it’s the book I’ve enjoyed most this year. Here is a man who is both a fantastic writer and a shepherd. One of the many things I like about the book is that it’s not about a man going on a journey, a narrative much overused by unimaginative TV producers. This is instead the story of a man who stayed put (other than a brief stint at Oxford) and did what his father and grandfather had done before him became a shepherd in the Lake District. Writing a compelling book about staying put is, to my mind, a much more difficult thing to do well and James does it very well indeed. I just love the book and don’t want it to end.

Now over to you. What were you raised to be? Did you defy parental expectations?Any suggestions as to how you would raise a child to be a novelist?

WRITING TIPS FROM A TROLLOPE!

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

I’m reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope. I should confess here that I am not a huge fan. Back in the day I ploughed through Can You Forgive Her and half of Phineas Finn but without a great deal of pleasure. However, like most writers,  I do like reading about other writers, so I thought I would give this a whirl. And I’m interested in Trollope because I know that he was both extraordinarily prolific and popular. I have to say it’s an unexpected scream of a book. The scream being more of the  ‘Halloween’ than the ‘ha ha’ variety. It was written seven years before he died and intended to be published posthumously and reads like the book of a man who has the most monstrous chip on his shoulder. Which is a little bit surprising because at that point he was so successful you’d have thought he might have lightened up a bit. It is also in some ways an utterly charmless book maybe because he knew it would be published after his death and therefore couldn’t be bothered to modify the tone of what he wrote.

In the introduction it is described as:

‘This queer bleak text-book of the mechanics and economics of novel writing.’

And that’s a pretty accurate description. However, I decided to read it as if it were a Victorian self-help book for writers, a sort of Writing Down The Bones, not that WDTB by Natalie Goldberg is in any way odd or bleak, quite the reverse, and it’s a book I absolutely love.

I read the last chapter (The Fruits of Diligence) first and in it he lists every book he ever wrote (45) and what he made from each one. The total amount was £70,000 which would be about £3,300,000 in today’s money.  He states he has not listed every book to be a show off but to encourage the young.

I’m not sure it has that effect on me but perhaps I’m not young enough!

Some of the most interesting material relates to his mother, who he obviously adored, although he comments of her she was “unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration.”   I know that feeling. A prolific writer herself, Frances Trollope, wrote like a demon getting up at four in the morning to do so and had taken up writing in her fifties to rescue the family from penury. Between the age of fifty and seventy-six she wrote 114 volumes. Trollope describes how even while she was nursing her husband and two children, who were to die of consumption, she kept writing.

‘The doctor’s vials and the ink bottle held equal places in my mother’s rooms.’

Depending on one’s point of view, this is chilling or admirable. What I find interesting is that he had a rôle model who would allow absolutely nothing to come in the way of her writing.

So what lessons can we glean from him? Has he got any tips? There must be some, mustn’t there? Surely this isn’t just a case of a grumpy old man settling scores? Incidentally, his assessment of Disraeli’s novels, (Disraeli was Prime Minister at the time he wrote the book), is absolutely poisonous.

Trollope had an absolutely ferocious work ethic. For each book he kept a diary and noted down the number of pages he wrote every week. The reason being that “if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour…”

He writes 250 words to a page. The number of pages he sets himself to write a week  is  between 20 (5000 words) and 40 (10000 words) but sometimes rises as high as 112 (28000 words). So this is a man who is spectacularly industrious, never misses a deadline and always delivers to the right length. In other words he is highly professional. He is not interested in the glamour of the hare, he is the tortoise who plods away and knows he will win in the end. He is also completely scornful of the idea of “waiting for inspiration.”

ON WAITING FOR THE MUSE: To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.

What else does he have to tell us?

ON CRITICS: Now I well know where I may look for a little instruction, where I may expect only greasy adulation, where I shall be cut up into mince-meat for the delight of those who love sharp invective.

Well, my own experience of being reviewed is that I could do with a bit more greasy adulation! Bring it on, in fact. Fortunately I’ve not experienced the mince-meat variety although one reviewer did, completely legitimately, point out that she thought it unlikely that Sam Falconer, my PI, would be willing to risk her life for another person’s chihuahua. The flaw in my plot was thus horribly exposed!

ON THE BITTERNESS OF FAILURE: The career (of a novelist) when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for success are often terrible. 

Oh dear, well that has a vaguely familiar ring to it. Trollope does also state that in the first ten years of his writing career he didn’t earn enough to buy the pens, inks and paper that he was using. Given that he ended up a multi-millionaire that is quite encouraging, isn’t it?

His best tips come in the form of Latin quotations:

ON WRITING PRACTICE: ‘Nulla dies sine linea’ – Let no day pass without a line being written.

ON PERSISTENCE: ‘Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo’  – A water drop hollows a stone not by force but by falling often.

So, there we have it. Write every day. Keep at it. And you too might turn into a grumpy old multi-millionaire just like Trollope.

Finally what does he have to say on plot and dialogue?

ON PLOTS: I am not sure that the construction of a perfected plot has been at any period within my power.

That’s a bit of a surprise. I’d have thought someone like Trollope would have been big on plot but he’s actually rather dismissive of them and in the process rather dismissive of poor Wilkie Collins!

ON DIALOGUE: No character should utter much above a dozen words at a breath.

Well, I’m sorry Anthony but that would be a bit bloody hard (my 12 words are up) to stick to so I’m definitely not doing that…

By the end of the book I actually felt quite sorry for him. He had a vile childhood in which he was mercilessly bullied at school. His father was hopeless and of him he said, “the touch of his hand seemed to create failure.” Yes, the book lacks charm but it is also quite bracing. A bit like a walk along the Norfolk coast on Boxing Day. You may lose all sensation in your face but you know you’re alive. This isn’t a man to wait for the muse to descend or to offer much sympathy to a stuck writer. His response would probably be to thrust a pen and ink bottle into your hand, place some paper in front of you and lock you in a room. Probably between five and seven in the morning. I can’t help feeling that he would thoroughly have approved of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because that was how he wrote all the time. This is how he ends:

Now I stretch out my hand, and from the further shore I bid adieu to all who have cared to read any among the many words I have written.

It’s actually made me curious to go back and read his novels. So which one shall I start with? Any advice gratefully received but I’d prefer one without too much hunting.