Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On The Perils Of Not Being A Genius: A Grand Vizier Writes

‘Read, read, read and write, write, write’ is what experienced writers tend to say when their aspiring brethren ask for advice on how to become a writer, although the Grand Viz (right, in full-on smug-on-holiday mode) is of the opinion that if you need to be told to read a lot and write a lot, you’re probably not a writer by instinct. Anyhoo, the point being: submerge yourself in story, find out how the best do it, and then do what they do, only different and – hopefully, one day – better.
  Solid advice, for sure, and the most fun you can have while dressed to boot.
  But here’s the kicker – is there a danger of absorbing too much story?
  The Grand Viz has always loved books and movies, and over the last two decades has spent his professional life moving to a point where he now pretty much writes about movies, books and theatre for a living. Nice work if you can get it, certainly. But last Monday, for example, the Grand Viz attended two movie screenings (Meet Dave and Savage Grace), read a goodly portion of Benjamin Black’s new novella THE LEMUR, and saw Tom Murphy’s play The Sanctuary Lamp at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College.
  The movies, for very different reasons, were both poor; THE LEMUR is terrific fun; and the current production of The Sanctuary Lamp, which the Grand Viz had seen years ago, is excellent.
  The rest of the week was a little quieter from a story point of view, although it still involved watching the movies Baby Mama, City of Men and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (!), finishing off Fritjof Capra’s THE TAO OF PHYSICS, and reading Liam O’Flaherty’s THE ASSASSIN.
  All of which is wonderful, as the Grand Viz tends to spend most of his week steeped in story, absorbing almost by osmosis the hows and whys of the way others craft narrative, learning from their mistakes, taking note of where they got it right. It seems churlish to complain, especially as there’s a pleasing diversity in terms of story and discipline, and it all generates income for the ever-pressing ‘baby needs new shoes’ fund.
  But is there a danger of saturation? Is there a part of the brain that requires stories in order to be satisfied, and if fully sated, won’t need to create any stories of its own? Is there a danger of becoming imaginatively ham-strung, in the sense that you can begin to second-, third- and fourth-guess yourself, dismissing embryonic ideas as ‘already done’, or not potent enough to rise above the mass of stories clamouring for the public’s attention? And where, once you’ve established that the story you have in mind is fresh, unique and worth another person’s precious time, does the time come from, and enough blank mind-space, to put it all down on paper?
  And all this, of course, is susceptible to the Grand Viz’s sneaking suspicion that no story he could possibly contrive could compete with the interest he has in the narrative of his real life, particularly that of the most recent addition to his family, the endlessly fascinating Princess Lilyput (right).
  The GV does have stories he wants to write and / or redraft, although whether he needs to write them remains to be seen. Matters aren’t helped when he steps out of his reading-for-review routine, as he did last night, and embarks on one of his most self-indulgent pleasures, that of reading a master for the sheer enjoyment of it, in this case Lawrence Durrell’s MONSIEUR, the first of the Avignon ‘quincunx’. It’s at times like these that the Grand Viz begins to wonder if there’s any point in writing anything that doesn’t at least aspire to Durrell’s (for example) quality of writing and scale of ambition. With time so precious – his own time, and everyone else’s – and vast swathes of popular culture engaged in a dizzyingly fast race to the bottom, has the Grand Viz – or anyone else, for that matter – the right to write anything that isn’t, in a word, mind-blowing?
  Of the 41 books the Grand Viz has read so far this year, Cormac McCarthy, John McFetridge, Flann O’Brien, Salman Rushdie, Elmore Leonard, Adrian McKinty and Kurt Vonnegut excited him to the point where he resolved – each time – to abandon reviewing / blogging / his wife (if not his child) in order to get down and dirty with the blank page. Each time, happily enough for his wife, he resisted the temptation. Because he’s saturated, soma-like, with story? Because he simply doesn’t have the time? Or because he’s becoming acutely aware that he’s simply not good enough, and very probably never will be, to match and perhaps even better the stories he most likes to read?
  Questions, questions … Although, the Big Question is, given the outrageously poor time-to-benefit ratio involved in writing novels, at least at the Grand Viz’s level, particularly when said time could be much more profitably spent elsewhere – changing nappies, for example – why bother?
  This month there’s a final edit on the sequel to THE BIG O to polish off, which should be a hugely enjoyable experience, but once that’s out of the way, answers will have to be delivered. One thing is for sure – something’s gotta give, folks, and it won’t be Mrs Viz and Princess Lilyput. Stay tuned …