Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Author Interview

An Interview with Peter S. Brooks, by Dan Holloway

DH: Can you explain what synchronicity means to you? The word makes me think of the hippy teacher in ‘Heathers’. And the introduction to the film ‘Magnolia’.

PB: I haven’t seen ‘Heathers’ but yes, I suppose ‘Magnolia’ is dealing in that currency, though in a very particular Hollywood style. The opening of the film has a lot in common with one of those bathroom booklets, which I’m not averse to reading now and then. Lots of little anecdotes founded on a single notion: ‘… at the precise moment that…’ One of my favourites is the true story about the guy whose life was a bit of a mess and he threw himself off the roof of the Empire State Building shortly after it opened. He hadn’t gone far when some kind of updraught sucked him through an open window on the RCA Radio floor while a live news programme was going out. So the newsreader stuck a mike in his face. You can imagine it: ‘Tell me, what’s it like…’

I simply take synchronicity at its root, ‘same time’, and apply it to the broader weave of my storytelling. Most would agree it’s an inherently compelling topic and capable of being treated in many different ways. My own version in The Alchemy of Chance is built on the thesis that apparently random cosmic urges do in fact have a pulse, although I consider it my job merely to try and describe them, no more. I make a point of resisting any sense of predetermination, or a label. I mean fate, or destiny or god forbid, God. As Aurélie says: ‘Things just are.’

DH: It's a fascinating concept. But as an author how did you avoid falling into contrivance? Were you conscious of this as a potential danger?

PB: In one sense, all plot-design is contrivance, but I guess you’re refering to that moment when it creeps up to the edge of artifice. I was aware of the dangers and I became pretty obsessed with avoiding implausibility. In order to do that, I had to distinguish between the implausible and the unlikely. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, where perhaps anything goes, it’s an incredibly important aspect of our craft, even down to small matters of ‘staging’, narrating a character’s progress from A to B without unwittingly breaking a limb of theirs in the process. You don’t want an expert witness coming at you post-print with: ‘That simply could not have happened.’

On another level, I wanted to make sure that each encounter, each coincidence in time and space generated an echo of collective experience, an affirmative connection. ‘Yes. That’s just what happened to me.’ Or my cousin. Whoever. On their own, these kinds of coincidence are of limited utility, a part of the stock of material that we refer to for our stories. But I am drawn to the more complex notion of massed synchronicity and this is what the book is about. In my preface, I take a pretty serious mathematical stance on this and use the example of roulette. Forgetting the House, first time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing a red. Second time, there’s a 50:50 chance of throwing another red. And another, ad infinitum. All that we can say about the chances of throwing ten reds in a row is that it’s 50:50 each time (which is an axiom) and highly unlikely (which is an anecdote, though equally true). I happen to believe the universe works in the same way. I even thought about calling the book ‘Ten Consecutive Reds’.

DH: Does having a large ensemble cast make writing harder (keeping tabs of narrative arcs and the like) or easier (because you have to give up on graphs and trajectories and just get on with It)? To be filmic again, I can't help thinking of Robert Altman's The Player.

That’s interesting. I loved ‘The Player’, but the film that influenced me the most as I was coughing up this tale, was ‘Short Cuts’, where Altman uses originally unconnected Carver short stories as a springboard for a number of overlapping vignettes which all share a dénouement, a minor earthquake in Southern California.

As for the design, I thoroughly enjoyed that part of the process; so I guess it was easy. But I certainly couldn’t abandon ‘narrative arcs … graphs and trajectories’, as you put it. It’s essential to keep a handle on both the separate and the interlinked elements or else you never gain full control. Film-makers use storyboards of course, but this is writing as choreography, moving your main players around in relation to each other and to the broader scene. My way was to get myself a poster-sized artists’ sketchpad and a few pencils, and plot everything with boxes and bubbles, lines and arrows, dots and dashes. The result – to anyone else – was a mess, but I had to do that before I typed a word. Even then, I also had to set up a timeline spreadsheet, covering the main characters over the six months of the story, to the day, even down to the (real for that year) phases of the moon. Again, it’s down to plausibility. Perhaps I’m unnecessarily obsessed with it, but if I’m going to enter the world of Aurélie’s lunar cycles, for example, then I really should get it right. I can’t have her ovulating when she should be menstruating.

DH: How easy was it to write a blind character? Did you find yourself editing as you went, did you get into character before you started then stay there? Or did you let yourself get it all out and then edit for consistency? Did you find yourself "looking" at the world in different ways?

PN: Well I had to do some homework, that’s for sure. I interviewed a few blind people (though very informally, I must add), just to get a take on their take on their world. That was fascinating and instructive, but once I started, I was navigating by my own imagination, with the odd tip and anecdote thrown in subliminally.

One of the great things about writing a non-linear narrative with a multi-character cast is that when you’ve finished writing you can shift your chapters around with ease. I wrote all the Aurélie chapters in one sequence; so yes, I got fired up in character and let it all flow. Editing came later, when I’d completed the whole work. However, like many a writer before me, I allowed myself to get smitten by one of my characters. I think it shows; many have commented on it anyway. Aurélie would come to me, often in the car, usually late at night, and I’d look across at the empty seat and she’d be there with me as I drove through France. Many scenes came out of those moments, especially the ones where she sets off with Dafydd. It’s a form of madness, of course, but at least it’s only temporary.

Writing from the PoV of a blind person, with only non-visual predicates to hand, was a joy. It really stretched me and my outlook too. I found myself totally immersed in the senses for a while. And I’ll never go back. Whatever my next work is about – and it almost certainly won’t feature a blind person – I’ll be giving the non-visual senses much more say in the narration. I’m sure it was responsible for reinvigorating my lifelong love of food. And, looking back now, it corresponded to a point in my life when I took on new interests in horticulture and floriculture. I’d still hate to be blind though, that much I know. The other transformational thing for me was a reaffirmation of my attraction to people with handicaps. So often, their combination of vulnerability and openness seems to sum up the best of the human spirit.

DH: For someone of, er, my age, the 70s is a fascinating time, right at the edge of what I can remember. Do you see any aspects of historical fiction in the book, or is it just literary fiction set in the past?

Absolutely not. Rightly or wrongly, for me the term ‘historical fiction’ me doesn’t kick in until, say, World War 2. I regard the 70s as a while ago. I decided to set the book in that decade for two reasons: firstly, it was a time of great change for me, the arrival of adulthood I suppose. Above all, I was happy. I first went to France when I was 14 and I wanted to capture that intensely aromatic moment of being in another quite alien land. I decided to situate my wide-eyed innocence in the character of Hannah. I found I was able to plunder my memory bank with ease.

The second reason is to do with the modernisation of France. By setting this piece in the 70s, I found I’d created something of a requiem for a fast-dying culture, one whose time-distance co-ordinates would soon be ripped apart by TGVs, miles more autoroutes and cheap flights; whose metropolitan drains would finally be fixed, and – above all – whose momentary personal isolations would be removed, almost at a stroke, by the advent of the mobile phone and the internet. None of these stories could be the same today. Imagine Aurélie standing alone on that station platform. She’d have her mobie out like a shot

DH: Having grown up near the Mapa Mundi, mapmaking has always fascinated me, but did you ever feel you were treading a fine line between a great central metaphor for a "web of synchronicity" and hitting the reader over the head with the authorial preachy stick?

PB: When I started out on this, Aurélie came to me almost all in one go. She was blind of course, slightly eccentric and adventurous, a crazy astrologer with an odd byline in twinning. But the mapmaking came later. It just slipped in through the back door. And I think that’s because it’s one of my own ‘trainspotting’ quirks, which I’m a little hesitant to admit to. By including it as Aurélie’s original trade, her reason for getting up in the morning, it struck me as yet another loss from which I could have her recover.

There’s a clue in the story, when she’s playing tactile Scrabble with Dafydd, and she refers to the ancient power of graphic representation and analogues. I love them! They’re so quintessentially human. No animal could invent the clock or make a map.

Although, as I have said, the structure of the piece was carefully plotted, any idea of mapmaking as ‘a great central metaphor’ must have been subconcious. I simply didn’t plan it that way. It’s interesting that you posit this, because shortly after arriving on Authonomy, Radek – one of the finest reviewers up there – said about Alchemy:

‘This novel, about map making, is also a map in itself, a complex intricately drawn map. That chance has a design to it is of course the premise of pretty much every novel ever written.You though are drawing up a map of the map so to speak which is a fascinating and exciting idea.’

So it’s a meta-map. Which I like. But I honestly didn’t realise until it was pointed out.

Dan Holloway is author of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall; a spoken word performer, a founder member of Year Zero Writers; and curator of eight cuts gallery.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic interview, two of my favourite writers together, probing, elucidating, sharing ideas - absolutely loved this. A book I have longed to see on my bookshelf, so pleased to see how it has finally come together.
    As for 'I can’t have her ovulating when she should be menstruating.' well, quite! Details, the bane of a writer's life.
    Best wishes with the book, deserves all the success that comes its way.