Sunday, 12 February 2012
J is for JAMES CAMERON
Before writing a single word of a novel I like to think about it. Think about it, ponder it, reflect on it. During that time I’m not only plotting and developing the characters I’m also working out how the minutiae of the story connect. In my opinion a novel is a mesh of connections. The more of these connections there are, no matter how subtle, the stronger the finished book will be. With Afrika Reich this process took the best part of a year.
However, several months into the process, despite having an incipient plot, something was missing.
E.L. Doctorow, the American author, once wrote, ‘You have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write... it’s a writer’s dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions.’ And that was my problem. I didn’t have a voice, that elusive something shoehorns the story into a context. To put it another way, what type of book was I trying to write? What was the tone? Something stately, detached and methodical, a tale lit by the grey light of dawn? A narrative related entirely from the German perspective: a type of self-critique? What about a black comedy? I toyed with all these possibilities and more.
In the end the lightbulb moment came from an unexpected source. I was watching the DVD extras to Aliens which included an interview with the film’s writer/director JAMES CAMERON (complete with the most ghastly jumper you ever saw). In it, he described his film as ‘a dark adventure story with a warm human heart’. That was it! Afrika Reich would rumble with the Nazis’ malevolent, savage vision for the continent but the story itself would be carried by the relationships of friends, both old and new. It seems so obvious now but back then this was a genuine moment of revelation.
In the end my book combined elements of this and moved a considerable way from it, but Cameron’s words were the initial inspiration behind the tone of the narrative. I say ‘in the end’ because this reflects another, often overlooked element of writing a novel. It takes such a long time to complete one that both the person you are and the book you start with are different by the end. Even the act of writing the book – a process of discovery itself – morphs things. So whatever your initial vision, the best you can hope for is an interpretation of it. With a trilogy this dilemma is cubed... but that’s for another time.