Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Welcome to the edge of the world

I'm delighted to be hosting Elizabeth Baines today as part of her virtual tour to promote her book of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

Elizabeth is one of those writers who chooses each word with infinite care - as you're about to see as you read on. I'm also lucky enough to have met her in Real Life, and know her to be warm and generous-spirited - qualities that also show through in her writing.

So for today's tour I'm providing rum punch, plantain chips, guava cheese, sugar cakes and a large bowl of fruit. All of it virtual sadly ...

Hi and welcome, Elizabeth. Once you've got a full glass in your hand (yes, I know it's early but I want you to feel relaxed here) we can make a start. You're one of those rare talented writers who can turn their hand to almost anything. Could you talk a bit about the different process required

for writing full length novels, short stories and plays?


Wow. This is a huge question!


Let me see. Well, I’ve already talked on my visits to Dovegreyreader Scribbles and Sarah Salway’s blog about some of the differences for me between writing short stories and novels: the fact that a short story will arrive more as a single image or phrase and that novels arrive as more complex packages of ideas; the fact that novels feel like an ongoing forwards rush whereas short stories feel more like looking at a widening picture from a single point.


Clearly the difference between writing prose and writing drama is even more radical. I can never start any piece of writing until I ‘hear’ its voice – ie its tone, pitch and language – but this experience is especially pronounced when it comes to plays. Even if a piece of prose is a dramatic monologue, which is probably the closest prose can come to drama, (such as my story ‘The Way to Behave’ in which the speaker is an avenging wife confiding to a listener-reader how she took her revenge), the narrative voice always feels like something I’m more in control of. With a play I feel much more as though I’m listening to something ‘out there’. I think this is because a play is of course essentially a collection of different voices – indeed clashing voices (that’s where the drama comes from) – which must flow and be allowed free rein in that ‘real-time’ which is the event of a broadcast or live play. Clearly, prose also includes dialogue which needs to be authentic-sounding and true to character, but it’s a very different kind of dialogue from that of plays, harshly pruned and selected by the narrator, so writing prose dialogue does feel to me more like a conscious process. Of course when I’m writing a play what I’m ‘listening out’ for at the start is not just the individual voices but, importantly, the overall sound that they make together. In truth this overall sound is the result of my own consciousness – the take I have on the story of the play, and the idea I am bringing to it: my sense of the idea motoring a play has to be very strong; it’s one of the ways I know a piece is going to be a play rather than anything else. But because that overall shaping creates a sound for me, what I call the music of a play, it does feel like something ‘out there’ I’m listening to.


As I mentioned on Sarah’s blog, once you get these things right and in place at the start of a play – the individual voices, the overall sound of a play, the situation and the idea behind it all – it will proceed logically and, in my experience, fast and furious: I have never not written a play quickly once I have started (although sometimes it takes a while to get going – ie, to ‘hear’ it). I’ve said that a novel feels more like an ongoing rush than a short story, but it has nothing on a play. A novel for me is a series of narrative decisions (some conscious, some half-conscious), but, in my experience, in a play the decisions are mostly made at the beginning, even though I may have no conscious idea of how the play will develop or end. Instinctual as the first drafts of prose pieces are for me, they are nevertheless more contemplative than those of drama.


All of this is true for both radio and theatre, but theatre of course has another dimension. While radio, like prose fiction, is verbal and internal – a ‘private’ communication to an individual reader or listener in which the reader or listener is required to imagine the story or action – theatre is of course not only verbal but visual, concrete and communal. When I’m writing a theatre piece I have a very special experience which is almost physical: I ‘feel’ the space of the stage, imagine myself inside it for the sake of the actors, as well as how it looks for the sake of the audience. And in spite of everything I’ve said about it seeming like a largely subconscious process, I do have to keep a part of my brain on highly conscious alert to think practically about the mechanics of the staging. Screen-writing, of which I’ve only done a little, is of course different again, and far less verbal altogether: a single closeup of someone closing her eyes in despair can tell you just as much a long speech about that despair, and in terms of the medium can do it much better. A lot of what you’re doing in screenwriting therefore is describing a series of pictures (and the worse thing about that is that it’s really the director of photography who has the final power over the pictures!)


I suppose because I write drama, I don’t often write short stories that are true dramatic monologues, as many other contemporary short-story writers do, but I come to stories for something different. As I mentioned on Clare Dudman’s blog, many of those stories of mine which employ a first-person narrator – such as the small girls in ‘Power’ or ‘Star Things’ – are internal, and they are not naturalistic in the way a true dramatic monologue would be, but incorporate the character’s voice into a more complex overall narrative voice. I think there are really only two ‘proper’ dramatic monologues in Balancing: ‘The Shooting Script’, which is related directly and colloquially to the reader by a struggling writer, and ‘The Way to Behave.’ But even ‘The Way to Behave’ takes some narrative license: there are ominously symbolic descriptions of a garden which a naturalistic ‘character’ wouldn’t be so likely to bother giving, and it’s perhaps significant that the BBC omitted them when it abridged the story for broadcast.


I've often wondered what it would be like to adapt a piece of fiction into a play, but I've heard it's really hard to do with your own work - knowing what to leave out, what works and what doesn't etc. Can you tell us about your experiences with that?


Well, you know, I’m not all that keen in principle on adaptations. For me if a piece is prose fiction, that’s what it needs to be, and to turn it into drama is inevitably to turn it into a different beast altogether, but I must say I have given in to persuasion and circumstance now and then. And you’re right, it’s harder with your own work than with that of others: the adaptation of an Arnold Bennett short story I was asked to do for radio was a much easier and far less involved task than adapting the two pieces of my own I did for the same medium. How can I describe it? It’s like taking your own child and deciding not only to get him plastic surgery but a change of internal organs, and brain surgery while you’re at it to alter his personality, and not only that but to get in up to your elbows in the gore and do it yourself.


Take the story ‘Power’, which is included in Balancing, and which I adapted for radio. As prose fiction, this is a very internal story. It’s an internal monologue consisting largely of the unspoken thoughts of a little girl whose parents are estranged (although her mother won’t accept this), her father being now largely absent. To cope with these things, her father’s absence, her mother’s distress and denial, and the consequent negligence of herself and her younger sister, the girl decides she has magic powers, and via these ‘magic powers’ she enlists next door’s cat as a kind of familiar. This is all very secretive, and in the story she doesn’t even share her notions about the cat with her sister. The focus of the story, charted through her developing relationship with the cat, is the psychology of the girl as her parent’s marriage goes downhill, and the consequent deterioration of her behaviour and that of her sister, with ominous implications for the future of their emotional health. And really that is all – though it’s quite important enough, in my view.


Well, this just isn’t enough for a 45-minute radio play. Radio is the most internal of dramatic forms, but there’s still a demand for action, and a certain amount of objectivity. So that was the main point of the prose story – its absolute insistence on subjectivity (because it was about subjectivity) – out of the window. I had to take the basic scenario and turn into something quite different and develop it. The child’s thoughts about the cat were no longer internal but shared with her sister – then it could be a plot conveyed through dialogue. Clearly, and more obviously, the scenes she relates in the prose story had to be fully developed in dialogue. The visual descriptive detail was necessarily lost – many of the things the girl noticed in the story, and which are thematically resonant, are not things any girl would say out loud – but in radio these could be replaced with sound effects which are the main evocative matrix of a radio play, and a main element through which its story is told. And then much more had to happen: I had to develop a much more obvious plot for the dramatic action and tension a play requires, in which the parents’ preoccupation leads to physical danger for the children. And – because that’s how it is in radio (or a least was then) – I was required to abandon my ominous ending and create a happy resolution!


Ah yes. The happy ending. If only life was always like that, eh? More rum, dear? Try one of those sugar cakes. They're delicious. Moving on ...

Do you think the advances in new technology - e-readers, POD etc, - are a Good Thing for authors?


Gosh, Debi, I really don’t know what to think for sure! I can’t really say I have looked into the implications of e-readers, but on balance I can’t help thinking that generally the technological developments are good and have potential, at least, to extend the life of books. After all, it’s been the prohibitive cost of traditional printing and warehousing that’s meant so many books just get remaindered or pulped and then forgotten. Look, for instance, at Faber Finds, which uses POD to bring forgotten classics back to life – that’s just wonderful. And you can suggest books to Faber for this treatment – that’s a democratization, isn’t it? And the internet generally has given out-of-print books a new life: I know there’s been a lot of fuss about Google print, but I for one am happy to see out-of-print anthologies with my stories in getting an airing again.


Thanks so much for being here today, Elizabeth. That's a lot of words up there. You must be tired. Sit back now and enjoy the ambiance. Don't worry about leaving any of that punch for visitors - you've earned it and they can bring their own!

Elizabeth Baines is a writer of prose fiction and prize-winning plays for radio and stage. Her short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was published by Salt in 2007 and was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Award for the Short Story 2008. Her novel, Too Many Magpies, will come from Salt in late 2009. Elizabeth was born in South Wales and now lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is also an occasional actor. She writes the critical-commentary blog Fictionbitch and also has her own author blog.


15 comments:

SueG said...

Fascinating, ladies, especially the discussion about play writing --something I'm now getting more involved with, but something I don't get to hear people talk about much. Thanks!

Debi said...

Oooh! I'm a 'lady'. See? See? Sue called me a lady!

Now THAT's something that doesn't happen often.

I've gone all of a flutter now ...

Nik's Blog said...

Thanks both for a terrific interview. Is the radio play of Power available for listening anywhere?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Me too! If only Sue knew, though...!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Nik, there is a website devoted to radio plays, but I don't think you can listen (can't remember the url but I'll look for it later to day). If not, then if you want to email me your address and you have access to an old fashioned cassette player, I could send you a tape.
e.bainesatzendotcodotuk

Debi said...

Can't speak ... still fluttering.

She called me a LADY!

Elizabeth Baines said...

And thank you for the great (virtual) food, Debi!

Debi said...

Ha! We can be ladies who lunch, Elizabeth.

Ladies who lunch ... ladies who launch ... ladies who ...

You can tell I'm still mighty taken by our new status, can't you ...?

Elizabeth Baines said...

No, Nik, I've found the url http://web.ukonline.co.uk/suttonelms/RADIO1.HTML
and there are no links to recordings.

So email me if you really want to...

Nik's Blog said...

Will do...

And thanks so much for looking.

Nik

Debi said...

Feel free to chat among yourselves. I'm a lady and know how to handle this kind of thing ...

Nik's Blog said...

Ha! Sorry Debi. You will join us, won't you?

N :)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sorry, Debi - it' all the wine you gave me. (Lady, she said?)

Debi said...

It's a rum do, eh?

BarbaraS said...

Really enjoyed the insight into writing scripts as opposed to writing fiction. I agree that with radio there is still a certain intimacy that's still required because it's all happening in the mind of the listener...

And Lady Debi, oh yes you are :)