By BRUCE DENNILL
Writing as therapy is a common enough phenomenon, but having a publisher die and an editor get fired right off the bat – as you do in Leaving Word, is pretty extreme. It’s fiction, sure, but do we need to talk?
There were a couple of issues and themes I was thinking about when I wanted to start working on a new book. One was to have the publishing industry as a backdrop. This is something that writers will have – often sub-optimal – experience of, particularly as everything moves to the digital space. I also wanted to look at the folly of freedom of plot. In fiction, there’s been a standard way of storytelling since the Greeks.
There’s a death at the beginning – like all crime fiction. Traditionally, you then unravel that event in various ways. But what if, maybe, the guy just…dies? That got things rolling for me. If there’s no evidence of foul play, how do you avoid an autopsy? Ok, so he’s Jewish, so he has to be buried immediately. And who is most familiar with the way plots work? Editors. So there’s one protagonist.
There was also another thread – what is art? I was able to explore that through the publisher’s brother. That thread was triggered by a trip to Amsterdam. I have some talented types in my family who took me along to an art museum, and instead of just walking the galleries as I had before, I hired the audio guide with the earphones and had the whole story unpacked for me; the plot behind the pictures.
All of this developed into the idea for Leaving Word. I mentioned it to my friend [playwright and author] Craig Higginson. “Great idea!” he said. “A meta-plot!” He even slapped me on the back. Then I told [scriptwriter and director] Craig Freimond about it and he says, “No! As an author, you’ll be drawn and quartered!” But I thought it was good to put everything together like this, in a way that means only the reader finds out the twist.
Ennui as a theme: most of your characters here have it or fear it, and the Los Angeles in which the action happens is draped in it. Was that a creative exploration or a realistic reflection.
It was an emergent property rather than a preconceived theme. My editor character is dealing with it because she’s lost her job. Most of the characters are aggressive and bewildered by the expectations placed on them. In Los Angeles, most people are trying to be famous. And often they’re hoping that fame will be a replacement for what they don’t have.
Leaving Word is literary fiction, without a linear here-to-there story. It’s a slice of the life of a woman going through a midlife crisis, with murder, sex and literature happening to overlap. How do you go about planning a book like this, particularly when an open ending allows for a continued character arc, if not a direct sequel?
All my books are like that. It’s not because it’s easier or more difficult to write in that way – it’s because I don’t know how to do it any other way. I tend to find themes, then the story coalesces around those and the characters. When you haven’t sculpted the plot, you often find yourself heading into brick walls – it’s like building a house without an architect. That happened often with this book. I had to go back and forth later as details changed. This was also not my usual genre – what turned out to be a murder mystery – so I could have pitched it differently up front. All of my books – in my head, anyway – allow for continuing characters. And if I have a huge commercial hit, I might want to keep going with some of them.
This books is also literature about literature; about the mechanics of books as much as it is about what inspires them.
Behind the production of a book and the lead-up to the launch, which is the pinnacle event, there’s a machine. It grinds slowly. First you get trusted people to read it, then things pick up as a publisher gets involved. It moves into second gear when an editor comes on board. This part is largely hidden from the public. Editors with a light touch hardly change a thing. Those with a heavy touch can make you re-write what feels like the whole book. It’s a love-hate relationship. It was interesting to enjoy an editor’s headspace here – being okay with not being in the spotlight, but also not being celebrated in any real way.
The publishing company in the book is trying to be all things to all people on all media platforms, and it’s not necessarily satisfying anyone. How do your own print creations and real book people compare?
I wanted to place the real changes in the publishing industry in focus. It’s not really possible to have a standalone book publishing company anymore, so publishers pile a whole bunch of things under one umbrella. I tried not to write about it with rancour. It’s a reality; it’s not the publishers’ fault. Kids prefer to look at their phones. The 300-page novel may end up as a quaint oddity. Books are a fine single malt, and now we’re competing with crack. As a writer, there’s a sadness, though I’m as much to blame as anyone else.