Writing No End

I took the early morning train up to Nottingham last week for a session with students on the University’s Creative Writing MA programme taught by Matthew Welton. As I had at Goldsmiths a couple of weeks before, I talked about the whys and wherefores of earning a living as a writer over a period of some 40 years, the ducking and diving necessary, the fun, the compromise – the semi-colons; Matthew had chosen two of my poems for us to read together – “Saturday” & “Mutton” – and suggested the students look at the 11th of the Resnick novels, Cold in Hand.

All was going well: the students seemed interested, the book jackets – the old pulp ones especially – looked good on the screen, and who doesn’t like the chance to rabbit on about their own writing?

Then came the question. “How do you know,” the student asked, “when something is finished?”

I fumbled, stumbled, mumbled something about getting to the end of the story you’d set out to tell, finally suggested that only once my editor had read the manuscript and I’d made the revisions asked for, did I consider the job was done.

Towards the end of the session I read the chapter from Cold in Hand in which Resnick goes to the funeral of Lynn Kellogg, his long-time colleague and latterly his lover. After the funeral Resnick returns to the empty house they’d shared, and the chapter ends thus …

The house struck cold when he entered; the sound, as the door closed behind him, unnaturally loud. There was perhaps a third remaining of the Springbank Millington had brought, and Resnick poured himself a healthy shot then carried both bottle and glass into the front room, set them down and crossed to the stereo.
“What Shall I Say?”: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra with vocal refrain by Billie Holiday. He had fought shy of playing this before, but now thought he could.
The song starts with a flourish of saxophone, after which a muted trumpet plays the tune, Roy Eldridge at his most restrained; tenor saxophone takes the middle eight, and then it’s Eldridge again, Teddy Wilson’s piano bridging the space jauntily before Billie’s entry, her voice slightly piping, resigned, full of false bravado. The ordinariness, the banality of the words only serving to increase the hurt. The clarinet noodling prettily, emptily behind.
As the music ended, tears stinging his eyes, Resnick hurled his whisky glass against the facing wall, threw back his head and  howled her name.

I’d read the passage through on the train and now, reading it again, aloud, I realised there was something about I was less than happy with – the final sentence. It struck me as over-dramatic and, given what I knew of Resnick’s character, unikely. “Howled”, especially. What was I thinking of? “Howled”. Did I think I was rewriting Lear? (Perhaps I did.)

How much better, I suggested, to have closed the chapter with the description of that song, that piece of music – the detailed, pedestrian description itself, of course, serving to hold the emotion at bay; the idea that words are insufficient, inadequate to explain the depth of the hurt Resnick, at that moment, is feeling. Better than the following sentence in which I try, and now, to my eyes, fail.

Some of the students agreed; others demurred, considered it fine as it was. And I’d be interested to know what others think.

One thing, though, is certain, to me at least – the answer to the student’s question should have been, probably never.

5.Cold in Hand

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I Authorise!

There have been one or two interesting reactions to my previous blog about the whys and wherefores of killing off Lynn Kellogg in Cold in Hand, bringing into question the nature of the writer’s relationship with his or her long-running characters.

It was somewhat serendipitous, therefore, that, walking on the Heath the other day and catching up, via my iPod, with various accumulated podcasts, I chanced upon a Radio 3 Arts & Ideas programme in which Matthew Sweet talked to a trio of American novelists, Jane Smiley, Marilynne Robinson and Richard Ford.

One of the subjects Sweet returned to, with Robinson and Ford especially, was that of the relationship between writers and those characters who recurred in their work, in Robinson’s case the Ames and Boughton families from the small Iowa town of Gilead, and in Ford’s, Frank Bascombe, who has been the principal character in three novels and, most recently, a quartet of inter-connected short stories.

Given my own connection with Charlie Resnick, about whom I’ve written 12 novels, a clutch of stories, two television screenplays, a number of radio plays, and about whom I’m about to write a stage play, I was interested to hear what each had to say. This exchange, in particular, struck a chord  …

SWEET: How present does he (Frank Bascombe) seem to you? Does he make demands?

FORD: Oh, that’s very romantic!

SWEET: It’s a romanticism, I would suggest, quite a few authors feel.

FORD: It’s baloney! Maybe they are gullible victims of that kind of romanticism. I’m not, actually. I’m the author and what that means is, I authorise everything. So, if I could say Frank made a demand on me, it’s just a way of saying I make a demand on myself. I mean I certainly carry around with me a notebook and I write in that notebook all the time, and I put things that he says and feels – that I would like to assign to him to say and feel – and then I haul them out of my notebook in the way of Ruskin who said composition is the arrangement of unequal things. I take these unequal things and make something out of them. But otherwise he does not have any existence for me.

This almost gleefully debunking of the more romantic version of the author-character relationship comes closest, I think, to my own. Sorry to have to tell you this, gentle reader, but they ain’t real, they don’t have lives of their own – other than the lives we agree to give them. Or not.

 

Killing Them Softly …

“I’ve a bone to pick with you,” S. said. We hadn’t had time even to settle in our seats, shuck off our coats, never mind order the first glasses of prosecco. “Lynn Kellogg,” she said, “killing her off like that. How could you?”

She was not the first and quite possibly, as long as there’s an appetite for the Resnick books, of which Cold in Hand, in which I perform that unspeakable, inexplicable act, is the eleventh, she will not be the last.

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I hadn’t written a novel featuring Charlie Resnick for ten years; had imagined that number ten in the series, Last Rites, would be, well, Charlie’s goodbye. But then circumstances suggested I might write something in which I explored, to some degree, the experience of grief. Three good friends of mine, people with whom I had socialised and worked, to whom, over a period of years, I had become close, had died: Angus Wells, in tandem with whom I had written numerous pulp westerns – the Hawk and Peacemaker series under the pen name of William S. Brady, The Gringos as J. D. Sandon and The Lawmen as J.B. Dancer – and who had latterly come to live in Nottingham; David Kresh, the American poet, who was one of the American editors of Slow Dancer magazine, and who introduced me to areas of jazz – David Murray, The World Saxophone Quartet – I might otherwise have shied away from; and Charles Gregory, whom I first met when he was a visiting lecturer on the American Studies MA course I was following, and with whom I shared many conversations about movies, crime fiction and music – that of John Stewart and Richard Thompson especially – the best of them while sitting up to the bar behind shots of bourbon with water backs. In addition, I had recently read and been strongly affected by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the sudden death of her husband and the near death of her daughter.

Hence, a return to Resnick, the fictional character I knew best and the best through which to channel and explore those feelings, and, in order to do that, poor Lynn had to die.

“How could you?”

Quite deliberately, constructing the story line for the maximum effect. Centre the opening chapter around Lynn, making it clear her importance as a character, and in that chapter place her in mortal danger, a danger from which she escapes. Whew! That’s all right then.

Maintain that centrality, make the case she’s investigating more important than Resnick’s (This is the beginning, perhaps, of easing Resnick into the background, the role of observer which is largely his in the final novel, Darkness, Darkness.) And then, more or less midway through the novel – and out of the blue – actually the dark of night – throw in a sudden warning. Resnick has been sitting around at home, waiting for Lynn to return from London, passing the time sipping whisky, listening to Bob Brookmeyer – four minutes and twenty seconds of ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.

Through the music he heard the sound of a cab approaching along the narrow, poorly made-up road that led towards the house and a smile came to his face. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lynn leaning forward to pay the driver, exchanging, perhaps, a few words, before getting out and, as the cab drew away again, crossing towards the house. In a moment he would hear the faint clicking of the gate. The cat jumped down from his lap as he rose and moved towards the door.

At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath that it was not.

End of Part One. Title Page: Part Two. Which begins with chapter 22, in which I take us off to a new character, another police officer, Karen Shields, waking, slightly hungover, a hundred or more miles away in North London, close by the Essex Road. It isn’t until chapter 23 that we return to that night in Nottingham, moving backwards in time to find Resnick kneeling beside Lynn Kellogg’s body in the front garden of the house they had shared.

All designed to have the maximum effect on the reader. [What did Henry James call it? The architecture of the novel?] So that when someone says, as did S., still affected by it some six or seven years later, “How could you?”, I know.

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