Friday, January 27, 2023

Body Parts - Essays on Life-Writing, by Hermione Lee

Having so admired Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, I was keen to hear - and thieve from - her insights more generally on the business of writing someone else's life. This collection of essays on the subject is, like her Fitzgerald book, full of illuminating, wry observation.

How brilliant, for example, to note Angela Thirkell's "blithe lack of sexual awareness" by quoting from a scene in The Brandons (1939) in which characters at a village fete take a ride on a merry-go-round made of wooden animals:

"'I knew it was you on the ostrich,' she [Lydia] said to Delia ... 'I say, someone's on my cock.'

'It's only my cousin Hilary,' said Delia. 'He won't mind changing, will you, Hilary...'

Mr Grant, really quite glad of an excuse to dismount, offered his cock to Lydia, who immediately flung a leg over it, explaining that she had put on a frock with pleats on purpose, as she always felt sick if she rode sideways...

... 'I know that once Lydia is on her cock nothing will get her off. I came here last year ... and she had thirteen rides." (Lee, p. 180, quoting Thirkell pp. 260-2)

This is all the more extraordinary when Lee then tells us that Thirkell was the mother of Colin Macinnes, author of Absolute Beginners (1959) and other bold works exploring sexuality and decadence. As a result, the quoted passage becomes something else, indicative of the clash between mother and son.

Lee quotes juicy bits from a number of other biographies, and like her I'm drawn to what she calls the "brutal, funny and helpful" advice given by the writer Colette to actress Marguerite Moreno:

"You lose most of your expressiveness when you write... Stick in a description of the decor, the guests, even the food... And try, oh my darling, to conceal from us that it bores the shit out of you to write." (Lee, p. 117, quoting Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh - A life of Collete (1999), p. 543)

Or there's the way she explains the shock that met Ellen Glasgow in the 1930s writing stories about degeneration, extramarital love and scientific arguments against religion etc, then quotes one of Glasgow's  characters - "failed philosopher, John Fincastle" - to get a sense of the impact on the author's own career.

"Nobody could earn a livelihood in America by thinking the wrong thoughts." (Lee, p. 124, quoting Glasgow's Vein of Iron (1935), p. 38)

Body Parts is peppered with this stuff. Even the briefest reference to Jane Porter's 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (p. 125) ignited my interest, prompting additional reading and connections - and perhaps a new project to lose myself in...

But what about things I'm writing now? Two essays in this collection, "Virginia Woolf's nose" at the start and "How to End It All" at the conclusion, address the ways that accounts of a person's death are often written to cast light or reflection on the life as a whole. Imagining the subject looking back over their lives is a a conceit, imposing neatness on what can be untidy ends. In fact it's not just death: lives are often untidy and inconsistent, and Lee is good on exploring that - how to address contradictory or outlier evidence, or the way a theory about someone's life can be repeated by biographers until it takes on the authority of "fact". Lee says,

"this process of cumulative reiteration happens all the time" (p. 135)

I'm mindful of that as I write my biography of David Whitaker - and also my book on his 1964 Doctor Who story, The Edge of Destruction, where I can see such reiteration in the "facts" about early Doctor Who. I'm not sure Lee provides answers to the knotty questions that she raises about how we go about telling a story without fictionalising real life - but I think that's the point. There is plenty to think about; she directs us towards the things to worry at.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Distant Echo, by Val McDermid

A young woman attacked and left for dead is found by four young students on their way home from a party. When she dies, suspicion falls on these four lads, and haunts them for the next 25 years...

For a long time I couldn't really stomach murder mysteries, real life too choker with its own mundane horror to take on any more. But my mum recommended this, the first to feature Karen Pirie who now has her own TV show, so I gave it a go. It's compulsive reading, full of real life and human frailty, and though I'd solved the case long before the end that only added to the mounting tension. 

In fact, lots of it is very tense. For several nights I dreamt of the simple, awful horror of a man being dropped down a well. There's lots of pain, physical and mental, that really hurts.

It's odd, given the TV series, that Karen Pirie has so little to do, even when present with evidence. She's a minor character here, not in the first half at all. I'm curious to see what happens next to make her the lead.

That one character's odd, even criminal behaviour is apparently down to him having been adopted is... well, I've read other stuff from the same period that takes a similar line. It's a bit crass. And the book concludes with a chapter in which two characters talk through all the outstanding plot threads, which isn't the most elegant way to finish what's otherwise been done so deftly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Return of Faraz Ali, by Aamina Ahmed

On Monday night I attended the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards 2023, having run the team behind the First Novel Award. Huge congratulations to Aamina Ahmed, who won for her brilliant novel The Return of Faraz Ali.

A police officer is sent to Lahore to cover up the murder of a young girl, and in doing so stirs up all kinds of history — some personal, some family, some national... We were spellbound by this haunting, tragic and beautifully told story.

Also shortlisted for the award were Braver by Deborah Jenkins -

Hazel, suffering from anxiety and OCD, forms an unlikely friendship with Harry, a troubled teen, and Virginia — a church minister facing a crisis. This warm, funny novel is also inspiring and very moving. A delight to read.

- and An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie:

Sayon dreams of escaping the “Ends” in Bristol and living in the big house his Mum once pointed out to him — but achieving his dream won’t be easy as he’s just killed someone. A gripping, richly told thriller full of life and character.

And there were lots and lots of very good novels which sadly didn't make the shortlist. Thanks to everyone who submitted novels to the award, and thanks to my amazing fellow judges (Martin Day, Tim Glencross, Merle Nygate, Qaisra Shahraz and Ceriann Taylor) for their hard graft in reading so many books in such a short space of time last year.

Friday, January 13, 2023

David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television

The lovely lot at Ten Acre Films have officially announced my forthcoming biography of David Whitaker, the original story editor of Doctor Who and a whole lot more besides.

David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television will be out in the second half of 2023. More details - a great wealth of more detail - to follow.

The book couldn't have happened without director Chris Chapman employing me as consultant and talking head on the documentary Looking for David, recently released on the Blu-ray collection of Doctor Who's second year of adventures.

I'm also grateful to the team at the official Doctor Who Magazine who've published some of my research into Whitaker and his world. And it all sprang from the research I did for my Black Archive book on The Evil of the Daleks, a 1967 Doctor Who story written by David Whitaker. My book on his 1964 story The Edge of Destruction for the same range will also be out later this year.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Doctor Who Magazine #586

The new issue of the official Doctor Who Magazine boasts an interview with Millie Gibson, who'll be joining the series as companion Ruby Sunday later this year, and the production team behind the new series. So it's a bit of a surprise to see my own gurning head in the midst of the editorial on page 3, where some nice things are said about Looking for David, the documentary about David Whitaker made by Chris Chapman and Toby Hadoke with some consulting and talking by me.

"Remarkable ... meticulously researched and ultimately poignant."

There's more praise for the documentary in Richard Unwin's review of the Doctor Who: The Collection - Season 2 (the Blu-ray box-set it's part of).

"... nothing short of extraordinary [with] jaw-dropping revelations provided by biographer Simon Guerrier".

So that's nice.

Elsewhere in the magazine, I lavish praise on the new edition of Doctor Who and the Daleks (the first ever Doctor Who novelisation, first published in 1964) which boasts 58 illustrations by Robert Hack and is a delight. I also slip in a couple of new facts about author David Whitaker, too. 

Plus, in "No Time to Die", Rhys Williams and I dig into the sets and production of missing 1965 episode The Traitors, with the sets recreated in CGI by Rhys with Gavin Rymill and Anthony Lamb. By chance, yesterday I realised that two elements of The Traitors may originate in something also written by Whitaker - but more on that in due course...

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman

I first read Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) and its sequel, Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000), around the time I went freelance in 2002, on the recommendation of  established writer friends. In those days, I was hungry for advice and hustled round asking questions. One writer recommended the accountant I'm still with, another suggested making a list of all the things I fancied writing so I could gradually tick them off, and someone else prodded me towards Goldman.

I've now been freelance for more than 20 years, bloodied but unbowed. And it's surprising how much that makes a difference to the text here. Goldman is a brilliant writer -- I only meant to check a detail and ended up being drawn in to read the whole thing. Plus I'm a big fan of his movies (here's a young, green me enthusing about The Ghost and the Darkness).

But what strikes me now is how fearsome Goldman is -- confident yes, his enthusiastic stage directions full of what he admits to as "hype" that no director could realise, but also strongly opinionated about other people and their work. It is waspish, gossipy and good fun, but I wouldn't relish working with Goldman. 

I've also got the confidence now to say he's dead wrong about the end of Excalibur (he says Percival not throwing the sword into the lake at the end, as instructed, is a waste of everyone's time rather than a vital part of the legend). He's wrong about the casting of Nanette Newman in The Stepford Wives (far more effective, I think, if the fantasy women are blousy, home-maker, mothering types than the Playboy bunnies Goldman favoured).

"NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING" he tells us, twice, in capital letters on page 39. But I think I've picked up a few scraps.

The book is full of practical advice that I still find very useful. In sharing his own short story then writing a screen adaptation of it, he asks a series of questions: "What's the story about?", "What's the story really about?", "What about time [ie setting and duration]?", "Who tells the story?", "Where does the story take place?", "What about the characters?" and "What must we cling to?" That all seems obvious, basic stuff -- until he talks through the process of applying them to the story. Following his path, I found myself picking over the paltry bones of an idea I had a while back -- and then filling pages of my notebook with how that might just work. 

That's what I got from Goldman, this time and before when I was starting out: a terrific spur.