“Above the table hangs the 1988 calendar. On it, Mum writes in different coloured ink each weekly event – Open University deadlines, benefits and allowance payments, piano lessons, repeat prescriptions, paydays – plus, the weekends are colour coded with orange highlighter for a Dad weekend, and blue for a Mum weekend with capital Ds and Ms depending on where I’m supposed to be.
D M D M D M D M
D M D M D M D
M D M D M
D M D
M D M
D M D M D
M D M D M D M
D M D M D M D M
Fifty-two capital letters that dictate my life.
I scrawl in the square of Sunday 27 March that Harper will be at Cassie’s. Mum has already inked in her activity for that day. It says ‘Mary is SLEEPING’.” (From What a Way to Go published on 7 January 2016 by Atlantic Books in the UK and available now for pre-order).
In 2013, I read this post by Bristol author C.J. Flood not long after having picked up her brilliant debut novel Infinite Sky. In the blog, the author discusses how she built the imaginative landscape in which her characters roam and the house in which they live. But when I first read this piece, I mis-read the phrase ‘world building’ for ‘word building’.
At the time I was in the throes of finishing What a Way to Go and I was preoccupied by language and what words I was choosing to use – both consciously and unconsciously – and those that I was jettisoning. This was particularly the case as my protagonist Harper, through whose point of view we see the story unfold in the novel, is only twelve and a half years old. As the story is also told in the present tense, I couldn’t allow her to have a particularly precocious handle on language: this was not a story of childhood told from the perspective of an adult, looking back. However, I did show Harper referring to her copy of the Chambers dictionary, because I realised that it would be more fun me - and also hopefully also for the reader - if Harper had a relatively good grasp of the English language, a technique also at play in Joe Dunthorne’s gritty and excellent coming of age novel, Submarine. I wanted Harper's word-world to be colourful and her use of words to be playful and creative.
As I entered the home straight in finishing the book, I realised that there was a finite vocabulary that I was using in the novel. I also noticed that some of the words I was using were beginning to take on a life of their own, and become three-dimensional in my head. Language was beginning to refract, as if words were shining through a three-dimensional prism. I think by this stage I was also drinking about three espressos a morning as well, so that may have something to do with why my creative practice took on a rather psychedelic element. By way of grounding what I think I was feeling then, in those heady caffeine-fuelled days of finishing Harper's story, I'm going to refer to the 2005 movie adaption of Pride and Prejudice and the blockbuster movie from the 1980s, Back to the Future. [Contains plot spoilers!]
One of the little amendments I made when I was in between the first and second draft was to insert the section, extracted above, into the end of the fourth chapter. The 52 capital letters M and D take on the shape of an egg timer, an object which is referred to again later in the novel. I lit upon that shape because I felt the egg timer betrays one of my preoccupations in writing this book – that of time slipping away. Individual grains of sand slipping through the pinched waist of an egg timer are barely noticeable, but before you know it, the egg you’ve put in boiling water is cooked, the little girl you gave birth to has become a young woman, the person you dearly loved has left…
I was recently comparing the screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice written by Deborah Moggach to Jane Austen's original text. Towards the end of the book, Elizabeth Bennet visits Mr Darcy’s opulent country residence Pemberly and is taken on a tour of the grand mansion. She spends some time looking at family portraits, being captivated by the painting of Mr Darcy. In the film, Keira Knightley who plays Elizabeth Bennet, walks around a gallery not of two-dimensional portraits, but of exquisite marble statues instead. When she stops in front of Mr Darcy’s bust, chiseled from pure white marble, she is therefore seeing him in three dimensions. I loved how, somewhere along the process of adaptation, the decision was made to bring Darcy’s head into pure, white relief. It somehow makes Elizabeth’s longing and regret all the more felt.
It struck me that the marble bust was like a version of augmented reality, an early nineteenth century version of the hologram shark in Back to the Future. In this film, we see Marty McFly travel forward in time from 1985 to 2015 and as he walks around the future for the first time, he sees a trailer for Jaws 19 at the Holomax cinema. A holographic shark springs out of the screen to bite him. For both protagonists, the reality of their situation could not be clearer: Marty is in his hometown, but in the wrong century; Elizabeth has fallen in love with a man she once hated.
When Harper creates the egg-timer shape with Ms and Ds, this was an attempt on my part to make the reality of her alternate weekend schedule work in more than one dimension. I wanted her situation to pop off the page, her feelings of being bound by that expectation to shuttle fortnightly back and forth to be amplified through the egg timer image. Without the benefit of holograms or Italian marble, a little bit of primitive ASCII art and imagination had to suffice.
And that is how you get from Mr Darcy’s bust to Jaws 19.