The question we asked to Aly Monroe, Helen Walsh and Armand Cabasson was:
How did you use your experience in a fictional setting, and how much did you have to change it to fit your creative vision? How much did others want to change it for creative or commercial reasons?
My setting, Cadiz, a very old island town founded by the Phoenicians along the Atlantic coast from the Straits of Gibraltar, is not fictional. I had to fit the story to the place, in one sense make use of what was already there. But since the story was both historical (set in 1944) and a reaction to many things about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and its aftermath that I had heard when living there, I have to admit that wasn’t too difficult.
This is fiction in history – and for reasons I can’t quite explain it is of great importance to me to get the history accurate. The history provides a framework for the creative vision.
My difficulties came in making the story both immediately comprehensible and interesting to English readers. This was because I was my own translator and the past is not just a foreign country; in this case it really did come with a foreign language and you really don’t begin to know a people until you know their language. I was anxious to maintain the feel and the flavour as an essential part of the setting.
The book went through about three versions. My editor asked for more explanation and less irony, acted as a bridge so that I felt happy I was not disrespecting the Spanish while I learnt to help an English speaking reader, who might not be too familiar with the situation of Spain at the time. Some changes were structural. Big example? The first chapter to set up what was happening. And there was a certain de-Spanifying. That some Spanish swear words translate badly for English sensibilities was easy enough, but certain expressions sounded falsely exotic and/or slowed the book down.
In my second book, set in Washington DC, this process continued but I had learnt a lot more before writing and was not dealing with a foreign language – or at least only the ‘divided by a common language’ business. Indeed, not knowing Washington nearly as well as Cadiz and dealing with a much larger city much changed since 1945 was something of a relief – and very exciting to research.
AC: I applaud you when you say : “for reasons I can’t quite explain it is of great importance to me to get the history accurate” ! I share your point of view. I believe history is history, I don’t allow myself to change it. And I don’t find this golden rule oppressive when I write fiction, on the contrary, I feel free to write.
I am also very interested in what you say about two languages, Spanish and English. I love comparing French and English, listening to their “music”… I believe that if a novel is written “between” two languages, it creates something unusual … At the moment I am writing a novel where the hero is both French and American. He lives with those two cultures, he speaks both languages and I’m enjoying making him play sometimes with English, sometimes with French words.
I really admire those writers – McEwan (Atonement), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Michel Faber (The Crimson Petal and The White) – for their corporeal depictions of the past. I’m too lazy a writer to invest emotionally, in a time and place that I have no direct experience of or at least some visceral connection with. The geographical settings of my stories are as important as the psychological make up of my characters. Brass was as much a love letter to Liverpool as it was a coming of age novel, and Once Upon A Time in England could only have been set in the Seventies and Eighties in a small northern satellite town like Warrington. Shift forward ten years or west ten miles and you have an entirely different story with an entirely different outcome. In setting Brass in Liverpool, and in South Liverpool in particular, my editor at the time warned that I was potentially alienating readers, not least because the everydayspeak of my characters was too specific to the area. He was eager to dilute the ‘Scouseness’ of the novel but I resisted. There was no middle ground in which we could meet either. It would have been impossible to write a novel set in the city – written in interior monologue too – and not use local dialect. This is where writers and editors come to blows often enough. A writer is concerned about matters of authenticity, getting the argot and rhythm of the language pitch perfect, whereas an editor is forced to think more cynically on a more commercial and critical level.
AM: I understand Helen’s striving to retain the ‘Scouseness’ of her novel, Brass. If you dilute that to make it ‘comprehensible’ to readers, you can run the danger of losing the whole atmosphere of the time and place of your chosen setting.
On the other hand, you do want to help your readers to appreciate your characters and the story you are telling.
My editor was a useful ear. I do mourn the loss of some things, but there comes a time during the process of writing and editing when you have to make yourself shift your perspective towards the readers. I think this may have been easier for me than for Helen, because it is easier to accept that readers are not familiar with Spanish, than to accept that they won’t understand a local English dialect.
AC: “The rhythm of the language”: I love it! When I write, I listen to the rhythm of the language, when I listen to my patients, I listen to the rhythm of the language (in this case, the rhythm is dictated by feelings, and I can use it to help me find a cure…). The music of life is the rhythm of the language.
How did you use your experience in a fictional setting, and how much did you have to change it to fit your creative vision?
I have been fascinated by psychology for many years and I draw heavily on my experience as a psychiatrist in my writing. But when I create a character, I never use one person in particular (that would be to steal someone’s private life).
I’m interested in the way the mind works – in the contradictions, the obsessions, the stratagems the mind employs to deal with traumas, the way it controls its impulses, and how and why these sometimes, in spite of everything spill over … I also try to understand the causes of violent behaviour and to work out the psychological roots of such behaviour.
I pay close attention to the way we communicate with each other, to the words we use and the resulting dialogue.
I love to explore the dynamic when two people meet each other for the first time. It’s interesting to see the way they act on each other and how their relationship will play out, to find which aspects in them can be changed by the other person and which will remain unchanged.
Everyone’s personality is complex and unique, so I make sure that this applies also to my characters. When I read a novel I can’t bear one-dimensional characters (or metro tickets as I call them because you can sum up their characters in two lines on the back of a metro ticket).
In fourteen years of working in psychiatry I have never come across a single uninteresting person. But over the same period I have encountered a certain number of dull characters in the books I’ve read.
AM: I would never base a character directly on a real person – I agree with Armand there. We are writing fiction. But a real person may occasionally provide the initial inkling for a character. This was the case with my character Ramirez, the local police chief in The Maze of Cadiz, whose starting point was a few words, a voice from a real person, that remained with me over the years but developed into a completely different, fictional character. More often, though, characters arise from accumulative observation of people in different contexts. They then flesh themselves out as they interact with one another and the circumstances you have placed them in. So yes, they are a product of experience, but not drawn directly from life. The process definitely has an important subconscious element.
How much did others want to change it for creative or commercial reasons?
I’ve been fortunate so far in that I have never had too much trouble in this respect. An author’s first reaction on being asked to change something is often indignation and the thought that commercial considerations are the reason for the request. But I have found that in reality the criticisms are often apt and that once I have dealt with them the novel actually improves. When I find myself in this situation I say to myself, ‘I don’t agree with this criticism, but I’ll go with it and redo the passage as requested and then compare it with my original version.’ Mostly I find that the new version is better, and that my ‘test-readers’ also prefer it. But in the small number of cases where I find that the change isn’t better I stick to my original version. As you English say ‘I don’t give an inch’!
HW: On reading Aly and Armand’s responses it’s clear that ‘experience’ prompts different writers to privilege different aspects of the novel. Aly Monroe pays great attention to place and historical detail through the medium of fiction whereas Armand Caisson’s background in psychology renders the psychological/emotional construction of his characters, of utmost importance to him – both as a writer and a reader.
I found myself smiling when I read Carbasson’s comments on the editorial process. I remember how utterly devastated and deflated I felt when my editor first suggested changes to my second novel, and worse, the removal of certain peripheral characters. With my first novel, Brass, the novel you see in print is pretty much the manuscript I sent off to agents and publishers. The writing is messy, over emotional, rambling and chaotic in places, badly written in others! I was able to justify it because it was written in interior monologue and the writing therefore reflected the characters’ psychological states which were often enough chemical states. The editor I had back then allowed me to run with it but my editor for Once Upon A Time in England, Anya Serota, brought me to book! I am guilty of going off piste when I’m writing and there are occasions when I know that I am not in total control of my characters. When Anya first sat me down and told me she wanted to cut the length of the novel – and drastically too, my initial reaction was hurt, anger. I was straight on the phone to my agent: “They can’t ask me to do this can they?” He told me to sleep on her suggestions. Looking back now, most of her suggestions were right for the novel and I feel very smug about the fact I had such a brilliant editor who although I didn’t always agree with, I trusted completely. I don’t hail from the creative writing course route, all that I know about writing comes from reading I suppose. I do believe that writing is instinctual but story telling is not. My editor taught me the basic grammar of storytelling. Now when I’m writing, whether it be screenplays or novels I am always thinking to myself, how does this move the story along? How does it justify itself in relation to the text? Whereas before I would be thinking more about my characters and the quality of the writing.
AM: I wonder how different the experience was for you, Armand. You have two filtering processes – first with your editor in your own language, and then with a translator. Were there some things that had to be modified to be better understood by English readers? I wonder how you felt about this.
Armand Cabasson replies: I can say that my English publisher, Gallic Books, is especially respectful with their translation. That’s because they exist as an English publisher publishing French writers, so they have clearly understood that the question of the translation is key. Another positive point is that the “Gallic Team” loves French culture and many of them speak French. So when I read my novels in English, I am really pleased with the translation.
We have decided not to change anything in my books – this is “pure French culture” and I hope that English readers will enjoy my books as much as I enjoy English novels and English culture (I come to Great Britain as often as possible!).
But there is in fact quite a lot of discussion at the moment in France on this subject, because some English publishers who publish translations of French novels, prefer to rewrite them. For example, an English publisher may want the story to be moved from Paris to London (with all the changes you can imagine that entails…). Personally, I prefer to stick to the original novel. And I say this not just as a writer but also as a reader!
Armand Cabasson, a psychiatrist working in the north of France, is the author of several novels and short stories, including the Quentin Margont series of thrillers set in the Napoleonic Wars. The third in the series, Memory of Flames was published by Gallic Books in October 2009 (read an extract). Armand has also written the introduction to Napoleon Bonaparte’s only novella, Clisson and Eugénie, also published by Gallic Books in October 2009.
Aly Monroe was born and educated in England. She has lived in several countries – mostly Spain – and speaks several languages. She is married and has three children. The Maze of Cadiz, her first novel, is part of a projected series that begins during the Second World War and follows the process of decolonisation and the aftermath of Empire. The series continues with Washington Shadow.
Helen Walsh was born in Warrington in 1977 and moved to Barcelona at the age of sixteen. Working as a fixer in the red light district, she saved enough money to put herself through language school. Burnt out and broke, she returned to England a year later and now works with socially excluded teenagers in North Liverpool.