Sunday, August 29, 2010

Joss Whedon and writing from “the dark place”

Joss Whedon at the Sydney Opera House with Wil Anderson (from notes scrawled in the darkness).

When it comes to telling stories, Whedon’s the man. When it comes to combining those stories with characters, emotion, sex, wit, sly humour, and dialogue that rewards use of the rewind button – Whedon’s the man.

So, when word went around that he was slipping up to Sydney after strutting his stuff in Melbourne for the MWF – I knew I wanted to be in that audience. In fact as I sailed through the air two days ago, airborne as a result of hitting a mossy wet footpath in plastic soled shoes, the thought that went through my brain as I crashed towards concrete was “Noooooooooooo, can’t hurt myself, tickets for Sundaaaaaaaay.’

Thirty-six hours later, ice packs and painkillers had done their job and I limped up the stairs with fellow acolyte Sophie to hear from The Master.

It was a beautiful sunny Sydney sprinter day – winter about to end and spring finally poised. Fair enough then, that Joss Whedon wondered ….. why? Why were we all prepared to surrender such a glorious afternoon to come and sit in a dark place and listen to him?

Well, clearly, it was because we were part of a cult, he told us. That was the term often used to describe people such as the couple of thousand gathered beneath the shells on Sydney Harbour this afternoon, and though Whedon used it self-deprecatingly and the audience laughed, he made the point that the term was often used to denigrate and marginalize. And so he touched on a theme that would become central to the question he then posed himself. Whedon decided that we were the ones who deserved an explanation. An answer to the question - why?

Why he does what he does and why he writes what he does and why it comes from “a dark place.”

And he did.

In a chat – it was too relaxed to be called a speech – he shared with the audience the discoveries he had made in thinking about why he writes what he writes and who he writes about. He recalled a starting point came about during a conversation with Stephen Sondheim about writing and about what their universal themes were. Whedon said that he always ended up writing about adolescent young girls with super powers. Sondheim said that his own writing would always be about yearning.

Whedon decided he needed to think somewhat more deeply about what he wrote – young adolescent girls with superpowers – and work out – why?

This took him back to his childhood which, he has to confess was boringly normal, a father he feared disappointing, elder brothers who teased him, certainly no grist for the horror memoir mill. But nevertheless he was physically a small child, curly haired and often mistaken for a little girl, who felt afraid and helpless.

So perhaps it was no coincidence that the characters he ended up writing were, on the surface, similarly small and helpless. He says he grew up feeling scared and alone, not scared and lonely, but scared and alone. Not all bad, he points out, as writers who wish to write should probably love being alone.

So, he asked, “Why is my avatar a female? Am I a literary transvestite? Why do I identify with these girls?”

The revelation, when it came, surprised him. For the 7 years he wrote Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, he identified with Xander, funny, clueless and never getting laid. Then when he was writing an extended piece of prose about a Buffy-type character, a first person narrative, it struck him that he was bucketing therapy on to the page. Only then did he finally see it –  “Buffy was me.”

Writers often talk about creating a loveable character, someone for the reader/audience to relate to. But Whedon describes writing characters that he wants to love him. And in a transmogrification they become him.

His avatar. “She will save my life. I’m tiny, terrified and in need of saving and this girl is going to save my life”

This then was “the dark place” Whedon draws his characters from.

It’s a fascinating and generous admission and one that most writers would respond to, knowing as we do, that stories, characters, ideas, come tumbling out of dark places that not all of us are willing to even look at – let alone share with a vast audience on a sunny afternoon in Sydney. Whedon admits he was always helpless. He describes getting mugged regularly in New York, the first time was when he was going to the comic store. He attempted to defend himself from future attacks by taping coins to the inside of his coat so that they wouldn’t jangle. The adult version of helpless was clueless, he tells the audience.

Returning to talking about character he insists that it’s vital that he respect all his characters. Good guys and bad guys and, when you respect your characters – the greatest act of disrespect is killing one of them. “I want them to overcome danger,” he says.

Every character has to have something to say, and a reason for being there. The villains as well as the heroes because, he asks, if you don’t have respect for them, then how can you write them. “Respect is the essence of why I write”. It can be a problem he says, because by giving the bad guys so much time, by making sure that all their actions have reasons, it can destroy the drama.

He talks about writing character and story as a need. “The need I have for everyone to feel that they are IN this story and respected.” The audience responds because it feels that need. He describes a desperate love of the character. The situation and the character comes first. He loves to create a character no one takes seriously and has knowledge that nobody else has.

In the end, Whedon says, he can’t really understand his own dark place, but he reckons all writers need to find their own dark place. Get stuck in with a trowel if necessary.

“Stories come from darkness and pain.”

“If there’s no why in your story then you’re just spinning a yarn.”

He discussed the episode, The Body, from Season 5 of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. He wanted to write about the surreal experience of the first few hours of a death. The dull pain of it. The way it goes on with no opening up because there IS no opening up in death, swimming through death.

After his talk about drawing on the dark places – Wil Anderson then joined Whedon onstage and conducted a Q and A followed by some audience questions.

Firefly cancellation - did it hurt? Did you have more stories?  “Are you fucking kidding?" Everyday the stories of Firefly, characters, dialogue still haunt him. “I learned about grief from Firefly. You never get over it you adjust.”

How to create a cult? Do it well. Work hard. Pop culture is about reaching out to the audience. Says he is lucky and a hard worker.

Music?  He comes from a musical family. Bonding with Dad meant listening to all the Sondheim musicals over beer. House filled with music. Music, like drawing, something he dabbled with. He was a talented 12 year old artist and still draws like a talented 12 year old artist, no follow through on anything except writing.

Fan fic? No greater compliment – the most beautiful part of this thing is the fan fic, the worlds people build.

TV Networks? Monkeys understand his work better than Network executives, but terror of cancellation makes the work better. Knowing the executives are outside the door makes the team inside work harder to make something good into something great.

Writing dialogue? Is a lot like joke writing, points out he was raised by a pack of comedians. He looks for the heightened moment in writing dialogue. Writes to movie scores, mood pieces where you just feel. Thinks about what do the characters actually have to say – the lines feed off each other – every line a leapfrog they’ve taken over the scene. He collects dialogue. Some lines are stolen from movies, but usually it comes in the moment of creation.

Character killer? Whedon jokes that he’s a bit shirty about being accused of killing too many characters, and he asks people to look at the percentage here. Says the common response on his gig directing Glee was - “Oh he’s directing Glee who’s he going to kill?” He defends himself - “I’m not the grim fucking reaper.”

He points out that when people die in his work, he does kill people that people love. He lost his mother suddenly. He understands death. Killing people that people care about is not something that happens too often. But when it does, the audience will feel something.

Broadway or Opera? Love to do both. – a pipe dream, a really good pipe. But difficult to find time, money – would love to see Buffy the Musical or Dr. Horrible.

The long form narrative for TV – initially Angel was going to be “Touched by The Equalizer” and it began as episodic TV then they realized they didn’t really do that – so went for the long form. Dollhouse had an ending then was surprisingly renewed.

Vampires? Whedon’s fault? Won’t take the blame for Vampires. “Ain’t taking the heat – Anne Rice can” he saw Interview with a Vampire as a teenager and it “totally changed some shit.”

Working on Dr. Horrible? Tells a story about arguing over the songs and sums it up with a deadpan “We’re cynical, ugly people, especially Nathan Fillion.”

Firefly – western? Civil war? – He was reading The Killer Angels a book about Gettysburgh and it was the catalyst for Firefly. He read it on his first vacation from Buffy.

The dialogue in Firefly came from old movies, from Elizabethan language. Slang from any age “I love language”. Speaks aloud as he writes. Loves writing the left of centre characters, River, Dru, Illyria.

And then it was over. Time had run out. Some of the questions had been personal statements – how Buffy had got a young woman called “Bella” through school, she’d “saved” her. How “The Body” had helped a young man feel connected and not so scared and alone in the wake of his mother’s sudden death from a brain aneurism.

Proof, if any were needed, of the power of stories and characters to reach into real lives and remind us that we are not alone, that human beings exist to tell and be told stories.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Music of crime

Music and crime. In much the same way that place has come to be seen as a crucial element of crime fiction, music has also become linked with crime writing.

Think Rebus, alone at night with a bottle of whisky, we'll learn a lot about his state of mind by what his choice of music. If it's The Stones we might suspect he's getting ready to rock and roll on the case but if he summons up Leonard Cohen for company then we can guess that if he's not actually at rock bottom, then he can probably see it. Rebus's record collection became an iconic image of the Ian Rankin's lonely, damaged detective. Whilst the soundtrack to a Rebus novel reflects the author's own taste, it also adds significantly to the reader's sense of Rebus the man.

Peter Temple, in The Broken Shore, uses music, in this case the development of a taste for opera, as a moving and highly effective metaphor for both the healing of Joe Cashin's physical wounds as well as the opening of the man to a new way of experiencing the world.

So, when it came to writing The Old School, I knew that music could play any number of parts in the story. On one level, it could serve the very basic purpose of providing a crime fiction trope that the reader would recognise and expect to see. As the events of the book take place in late 1992, music could also serve as a a useful purpose in placing the book in a specific time. But, as a someone who travelled across the world to Mali on the strength of the hearing Salif Keita's soaring voice one night in a park in Adelaide, I knew that I wanted music to be more than just a device or a time marker, I wanted it to be eloquent.

I had been writing about music, West African music, before I even knew I had a crime novel (or two) inside my head. In retrospect, music was clearly instrumental (!) in unlocking that story.

The choice of songs was made as carefully as if they were a soundtrack, each adding to the atmosphere, and each reflecting something about the character, Ned, as she listens and responds to them. I wanted, originally, to use some lyrics, however, the harsh reality of rights and commerce meant that using the actual words was not an option.

With the wonder of youtube it's now possible to assemble a mini soundtrack to The Old School. For those familiar with the music in the book, I hope you enjoy this reprise. For those of you unfamiliar with some 1970s Joan Armatrading or Malian griot Salif Keita - kick back and enjoy.

Breaking the girl - Red Hot Chili Peppers is a song that, when it first came out, I found particularly disturbing. Having worked in Sexual Assault it was difficult for me to separate the lyrics from their literal meaning. It was easy therefore to imagine this as a song that Ned would find haunting and unsettling, and she does.

He started the car. The tape player came on. Music wound out, sinuous and sinister. 
p. 11 The Old School

Down to zero - Joan Armatrading An old album from a wonderful artist. Joan Armatrading was, in fact, the first serious concert I ever attended. I liked the fact that the music "fit" the scene, when Ned was feeling a bit battered by life, as well as being a latent memory of a song she'd heard in her childhood.

The familiar guitar riff slithered out. Ned’s skin tightened. She punched a cassette in, one of her sister Linh’s oldies. 
Light reggae and a rich voice replaced the Chili Peppers. ‘Down to Zero’. 
p.14 The Old School

Sina - Salif Keita A good example of the high energy drive and excitement of the music of Mali, of which Salif Keita is a fabulous example. Impossible to listen to without moving. Imagine this blasting out of the speakers as TC settles back in the passenger seat.

He rummaged in the glove box, came up with one of Ned’s cassettes and popped it in. 
Salif Keita’s wails and beats leapt from the speakers.
‘Jesus, girl. What the hell is this shit?’
‘It’s African.’
‘African bloody bonking music, if you ask me.’ 
p. 22 The Old School

True tears of joy - Hunters & Collectors Classic Australian sound. Romantic but rough around the edges, passionate but tinged with sadness. A love song that is about lust and desire and wrong choices.

It was a mostly silent trip back over the bridge. Hunters and Collectors on the stereo filled in the gaps. 
Ned stared hard out the window, blinking her eyes dry. 
p.226 The Old School

Television: The Drug of the Nation- Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy Cops spend a lot of time in cars. Driving to and from work, driving to jobs, aside from sitting a desk, sitting in a car takes up a lot of the job. When you share cars, you have to share music and radio choices. At one point Ned climbs into a car to find the radio set on a shock jock talk back station. She drops in one of her cassettes, and when the Disposable Heroes start up ... she has a bit of fun with the lyrics.

Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy replaced the anger of talkback with some equally angry hip-hop.
Beating her hands against the steering wheel, she sang her own version of the chorus. 
p. 294 The Old School

Sanni Kegniba - Salif Keita A sublime piece by Salif Keita that throbs with heat and grief. Sanni the Beautiful is dead, the translated lyrics tell us. The hypnotic music and the keening vocals provide a soundscape to the meeting between Ned and Marcus.

... ‘Sanni Kegniba’ was dissolving in a waterfall of notes from the kora. 
p 273 The Old School. 

Save Me - Joan Armatrading The discovery song. An album track that, as I discovered when I looked for it on youtube, has been used in the series Oz - to devastating effect. This is the track that Ned is re-discovers as she listens to her Discman in the final pages of the book.

She pressed play, and the music began, precise and CD-clean. The simple strummed guitar, 
then piano, then that unique voice, full and round and splendid. 
p.362 The Old School

Now well into Book 2, I'm already "hearing" the soundtrack to many of the scenes ..........

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Talking about The Old School - Writers Radio & gleebooks

During the past few weeks I have had the chance to talk about The Old School on radio with a range of people across the country. It was a great experience and wonderful opportunity.

One of those conversations was with Cath Kenneally for Writers Radio in Adelaide. It was a luxury to have the time to get into a good long discussion about the book, about writing about places and times that are real ... I really enjoyed it. So, as the podcast is now up I thought I'd let you know that if you'd like to have a listen - you can.

If you liked the sound of that, and you'd like to hear more, then come along to gleebooks in Glebe this Friday night, 13th of August.

Camilla Nelson, author of Crooked, and I will be having a conversation about crime, about the fascination with crime that we see in books - true crime and fiction - and the recent popularity of TV series such as Underbelly and The Wire. It should be a great night. Contact gleebooks for tickets.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing retreat, "moving forward" and in the wild

Wrapping up a two week break of house (and cat) sitting in the rural loveliness of Perthville and putting in some concentrated hours on the elusive Book 2. Set my self a target of 30,000 words and, surprising myself, I've achieved it. I think a big factor was forgetting to pack my portable hard drive which had Time Machine on it, which forced me to go forth and write on with no looking back.

It wasn't that straight forward of course.

After discovering I'd forgotten it, I fretted and had my security blanket hard drive posted up from Sydney, only to find  that as I had not formatted and exported my copy of the novel from Scrivener, I couldn't open the file on a new computer! So I was there, on the road to novel, without the comforting distraction of "Oh, I'll just go through what I've already done and edit it a bit" to provide the appearance of activity without making any actual forward progress.

So I have been writing off the map, so to speak. Resisting the temptation to tinker, just creating the next piece of the jigsaw, and the next, oh and a bit over there, and something that might go down there, and this might work later on in the piece after that ... scenes and sketches that will need to be fleshed out, slotted into place, re-worked, in some cases possibly scrapped but .... they are now in existence. And that's a happy thing to be.

So thank you to the beautiful - though bloody cold - Central West for providing excellent walking, thinking and dictating landscapes:

Thanks to those I met along the road:

and cheers to the welcome glimpse of sprinter:

Meanwhile back at the ranch! 

Thanks Maggie for two sightings of The Old School in the wilds of Paddington!

Maggie at Berkeluow's at Paddington

The Old School - face out at Ariel Paddington! 

So, back to Sydney tomorrow, to warmer weather (I hope) and tickets to see Neil Gaiman read "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" at the Sydney Opera House thanks to Galaxy Bookshop's competition.