Tag Archives: faustroll

Where do you get your ideas from?

The perennial question for writers. There is a post on the Suffolk Writers Forum on Facebook asking how people approach plotting a novel – this is my answer (for the one I’m working on now anyway).

The germ of the idea was in two parts. A conversation in the pub I ran with a customer who asked if I had heard of Alfred Jarry followed by a long conversation about him. I hadn’t expected a customer in a pub in rural Suffolk to have heard of Jarry, but it turned out he had learnt about him from Sir Paul McCartney who he had been working with as a producer on Paul’s Ubu Jubu radio show in America.

We discussed the possibility of doing a film script about Jarry – my vision was something produced by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp (in a hole to be the right height like a reverse Alan Ladd). For various reasons – work, the fact the customer did more thinking than doing, the fact he would have preferred a version of Ubu Roi rather than a biography comparing Jarry’s life and his works in a fantastic melange – I didn’t take it further than a two page proposal. The I saw the first (and I think so far only) Sir Terry Pratchett prize for an alternate world novel advertised and started to think about a novel with Jarry as a lead character. The idea of a world where the Paris Commune didn’t fall but went on to overthrow the nascent Third Republic just seemed an obvious one. It could have a steampunk feel. I’d been doing the research for all of my life, although I hadn’t known it at the time.

I first discovered Jarry as a student. I spent a lot of time in Orbit Books in Manchester talking to Dave Britton. We had similar tastes and had both been inspired by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, but also by pulp fiction, surrealism, science fiction and fantasy generally. Dave – who was to go on to notoriety as the author of Lord Horror and other titles in his taboo breaking Savoy Books line – was further down the path of seeking out the eclectic and outré than I was and introduced me to authors like Kenneth Patchen (with his wonderful Journal of Albion Moonlight) and Jarry. This spurred me to search Manchester’s bookshops to find some of the authors we discussed. It was a bit like following a breadcrumb trail – the notes in one book would mention other books that shared similarities. There were no Amazon recommendations in the 1970’s, we had to do it the hard way.

I’ve been following the breadcrumb trail since then, with lots of crossovers. As mentioned in an earlier post, the work of Philip Jose Farmer has been one of the key elements as Farmer’s own voracious and varied reading found its way into his own fiction – especially the Wold Newton and Fictional Author work – and led me to a previous generation of authors.

So when I started to write again after we came out of the hotel, this was one of half a dozen ideas for novels I had, and I had a couple of pages to get me going which introduced the other main character – the journalist Philippe – and the terrorist bomb that starts the action. It also introduced the shadowy Fantome who is behind the attack.

I had a general concept of what I wanted – Da Vinci Code meets Moulin Rouge as directed by the Coen Brothers, only exploring the culture and politics of Fin de Siecle Paris as a way of looking at timeless issues which are still relevant today, including the Internet, which I had imagined an earlier version of as one of the drivers of change..

I then did some more background reading and revisited the stuff I had cut and pasted from the internet (bless you Wikkipedia) in that earlier work. I also bought a few books that gave me more of the plot and characters – one which was near contemporary account of Bohemian life in Paris in 1896 which provided several locales I wanted to include, one which gave me the lead female character, and one which gave me a lot of the political background. I’ve found that background reading will spark tangential ideas about plot as well as historical detail. The fact I chose an American with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the female lead gave me the idea of incorporating a covered wagon chase and western shoot out in the book. Researching French writers of the period included Zola’s description of the Les Halles market as the belly of Paris so I felt that had to be included as well.

So I had my starting point of Jarry, Philippe the journalist (with a lot of autobiographical elements) and Suzanne the American expatriot, plus the Fantome who has to be a shadowy figure with elements of Fantomas and other pulp French fictional characters. The other key characters were real – Police Chief Rigualt and Louise Michel from the Commune, Russian spy Rachkovsky and the anarchists who were active at the time, Peladan and the other occultists from the Magical Wars of a few years before the main action.

The joy of Paris at the time is that all the real characters were linked together – many artists were both anarchists and occultists with Peladan being a sponsor of Symbolist painters and journalist Felix Feneon being a leading light in the anarchist movement but also publisher and publicist of many of the key symbolists. Jarry himself was active in the same circles. This interlinking is perfect to pull apart the interlinking strands of art, politics and the occult with separate but linked groups of conspirators all trying to change the world. Now that was in place it was a case of letting them interact in a set of locations I wanted to explore and a group of set pieces I could locate there.

Half a notebook of scribbles, a couple of hundred pages of background notes and a lot of shuffling of characters and ideas later – plus some character studies written on key characters for my OU creative writing course to help understand their motivations – and I had the skeleton and some key body parts for the novel. My understanding of both character and setting changes and develops as I write and think about how they interact, but the core is reasonably solid. I plot the story arc and the key scenes along the way but the details of the journey evolve as I write. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with my characters.

Edinburgh – week three

Just about to start our third week in Edinburgh of My Sister Says I’m Special. Phil has been replaced by Donna and Chris as roadies and Jules has done some great shows – she is definitely more in the moment when she is on stage and is comfortable enough to really play when she is on stage. We have also managed to see a lot more shows – mostly compilations of comedians (what is the collective noun for comedians? A chortle?). Some of these are great, some not so, but a lot depends on how many are in the audience compared to room size.

I’ve also finished doing the research notes on the novel and should incorporate these into the synopsis next week when it is just Jules and I. I now know a lot about Alfred Jarry and Fin de Siecle Paris.

The best English language biography of Jarry by some way is Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry a Pataphysical Life which is imaculatey researched and includes lots of material not in other biographies. It is also bias free – Alastair rehearses the speculation about Jarry’s life and works but is careful to identify his own and others’ opinions so the reader can make their own mind up. The Jill Fell book An Imagination in Revolt includes a lot more “creative” biography on Jarry’s art influences – he may have been influenced by various things around at the time but no evidence trail is cited.

The research has deepened my view of many of the subsidiary real characters in the novel but has not made me have to change it radically – just identify ways in which I can give a better picture of who they are in the appropriate parts of the plot. It has also thrown up lots of serendipitous detail I can incorporate to enrich the book and incorporate some in jokes. The danger now is to avoid it being a novel about Jarry rather than one about the two other lead characters so I will have to work on enriching their back stories and emotional depth. There is also the little challenge of making the “villain” a real person when they are off screen for most of the time for the very good reason that they are supposed to be a shadowy figure.

Thankfully I’ve not had to change any of the action, or alter history more than in my original conceit. Some events will change dates slightly or happen in a marginally different way, but not enough to seem like undue artifice.

Onwards and upwards.

‘Pataphysics part two

Life

So, as I’ve been inspired by ‘Pataphysics, have I ever tried to write ‘Pataphysical material? Yes and no is the answer.

I am not yet confident enough as a writer to move too far away from standard narrative, although I have tried a story that is purely dialogue and features a police interview of a suspect who is either a pathological liar or a sociopath. I tried very hard to write the character’s dialogue so that you could interpret it as either. The fact that it is a police interview means you have no other clues about events outside of the suspect’s version of the story.

What I did do was write some stories with a lot of ‘Pataphysical ideas. I chose the “club story” milieu as (a) I love that genre particularly the Englebrecht stories of Maurice Richardson and (b) it gave me the opportunity to include my fellow members of the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics as background characters (under assumed names of course). I was honoured to have the first one published as a Christmas edition of the LIP Bulletin.

The joy of the club story is that they generally have an unreliable narrator who you are not expected to believe. That is why some of my favourite PG Woodhouse stories feature Mr Mulliner who is a member of an angling club and is therefore prone to exaggeration naturally. This meant I could throw in lots of ideas as jokes without having to develop them logically. This is enormously liberating – you still need to have a plot or it isn’t a story anymore. The plot still needs to work but the details can be as crazy as you can manage to make them so that you and (hopefully) the reader has lots of fun.

The core characters came from an earlier idea about writing a series of bids to funding organisations from two rival scientists where the ideas were unworkable – to see how far they would get. Most funders have a two stage assessment process where the first part is a technical check to make sure you’ve filled it out properly and it hits the criteria identified in the bidding guidance. The second stage is an assessment of the merits of the project – normally by experts in the field. My hope was to get past the first checks. The bids (which would form a sort of narrative) and the correspondence from the funders would then be assembled together. However I bottled it as at the time I was submitting lots of real bids and I didn’t want to prejudice my chances for those.

The two scientists – Andrew Limbus and John Orpheus – were sort of  based on Andre Breton and Jean Cocteau who were both inspired by Guillame Apollinaire – a close friend and sponsor of Alfred Jarry. Both in their own ways carried on the experimental work of Apollinaire.

There are lots of other in jokes – Limbus has had a sort of Jekyll and Hyde accident where his unconscious has become a separate person – De Riyah. This mirrors Dr Faustroll and his pet Bosse de Nage (arse face) in Jarry’s posthumously published novel. It also references some of the physical characteristics of Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage’s companion Monk Lewis as I wanted to include them in Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton family. I also threw in all sorts of fringe science including having the pre and post Einstein theories of the propagation of light being true simultaneously.

If you want to read the story – called Life as it is the first of three Non Trivial Pursuits with the others being Liberty and Happiness – click on the link “Life” at the top of this post. Enjoy.