A number of people have asked me some interesting questions in the last week or so, about my debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J. Questions like: “But is Phillip you?” And: “So what influenced you to write it?” They’ve evidently not read any of my blog posts. Cough-cough, grunt-grunt.
The interesting thing to come out of all this, though, was that it got me thinking, not so much about what influenced me to write it – that should be evident to people who know me – but more the influences whilst in the process of writing. And in this blog post, I’d like to briefly talk about such literary influences, conscious or otherwise, because…
… we are all plagiarists by nature. If we weren’t, we’d never know how to get from a to b… A to B. Sounds like ‘out of bed’.
Because I haven’t read the book for so long – and had no intention of ever rereading it – I found, when flicking through its pages, that I began to slow down somewhat, and before long I was reading involuntarily. What jumped off the page at given junctures were those literary influences, books I might have been reading at the time or those to have influenced me to the point of dictating the direction of my life.
A literary genre to truly impress me, when done correctly, is satire, narration from the viewpoint of an ‘alien’ looking in; one able to show human folly in all its morning glory. But it goes further than that: I’m talking about someone you wouldn’t consider to be an alien at all, at least physically, maybe even your average Joe. A human alien, then, on Earth.
And that’s where Camus’ L’Étranger comes in.
I believe there is an element of Meursault, Camus’ character, in Phillip, my narrator, in that he endeavours – if endeavours is the right word; he kind of struts along – to go about his life via his own route, only to fall at just about every hurdle. I feel sorry for Phillip, I can see that his heart’s in the right place, and why he sees life in a certain way, just as with Meursault. Neither of them will ‘play the game’. But although there’s no compromise, it isn’t through sheer crankiness or belligerence, quite the contrary: it’s because they simply don’t understand the game. Furthermore, they are also very much affected by the elements. The kind of effects the sun has on Meursault, you could say, is equivalent to the factory fumes Phillip must endure. And like Meursault, if more comically in Phillip’s case, you could imagine my narrator, too, killing his old boss completely in spite of himself, due to said elements… well, that and the fact that said boss won’t allow him to get his head down for an hour or two in a dark corner. Poor Phillip, he should go to bed at nights…
Another literary hero to appear in my five all-time favourites is Paul Baumer, from Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.
Now, another good title for this classic would have been The Outsider. Why? Because, for me, being an outsider is about making a conscious choice; it is someone, unlike Meursault especially, who refuses to ‘fit in’. Maybe Phillip is somewhere between the two.
Where Paul Baumer and Phillip Rowlings are very similar is that they feel they are each fighting a war alone; Phillip also witnesses, if a little less literally, young people dropping dead around him, and feels helpless. And when Phillip, by then an eighteen year old, flees from a hospital ward to the point of feeling that he could almost fly, well, I recall Baumer doing very much the same, having witnessed the passing away of a comrade…
For books I was reading at the time, as I recall – I did write it between 2002 and 05 – there was Alan Sillitoes’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his debut novel too.
Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s all but 1st-person narrator, is a hardened working class rebel, of the early 1960s variety; one of the ‘kitchen sink’ mob. He even gets a mention in Wood, Talc and Mr. J, for two reasons, as I see it; a, because his dad resembles him; and b, more importantly, because he yearns to resemble him also, physically, sartorially, and philosophically. Except that Phillip doesn’t seem quite up to it…
But yes, yet one more ‘outsider looking in’ type literary hero.
Another of my five books is a play: Shakespeare’s Henry IV part two.
‘However could you come up with that one!’ you might well say.
Well, forgive my audacity, but I see something very Falstafian in the relation between Phillip and his best friend Jed. Furthermore, without giving too much away, Phillip is eventually obliged to make a life-choice, with regard to Jed: that is, will Phillip follow him down an ever-darkening avenue; or will he endeavour to stick with the slightly lighter of the two?
But then, normally, Phillip would follow Jed into the Gates of Hell, and often feels as if he does – i.e., amid Jed’s very own Shakespearean escapades, believe it or not. I’m sure the Bard’s literary creation/recreation was a major influence in my writing some of these scenes, even if the majority of times the joke is on Phillip…
As a final influence – though there’ll no doubt be many more – I’m going to suggest Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s – emphasis on the book and not the film… and not that I’ve ever found anything remotely wrong with Audrey Hepburn…
One of my major influences in life, film-wise, has been the Nouvelle Vague, a genre of French cinema from the late 50s to the early 70s that I fell hopelessly in love with many moons ago, as well as, originally, and particularly, the ultimate mod icon Jean Seberg, in Jean-Luc Goddard’s À bout de souffle. It was a strange experience, a weird case of déjà vu, at least to see Seberg’s Patricia Franchini, if only on a physical level, out there, sartorially, Paris of all places… that short-cropped blond hair! Seemingly snatched from Truman’s novel; my literary, imaginary lover gone all cinematic – it shouldn’t be allowed… Then again.
But I’m not letting on to that influence, the part she plays in Wood, Talc and Mr. J. You goddit, you’ll have to read the book.
Funny, writing this: I’m now reminded of Dave Eggers’ copyright page, at the beginning of his A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius, of which he states: ‘This is a work of fiction, only that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so he had to fill in gaps as best he could.’
Your literary, soulful friend