On my way to the “Page to Screen” cocktail party designed to link Canadian writers and publishers with film and TV production companies, I was thinking about the ways in which each of my books might work -or not – as a movie or television show.
I love movies and it’s very clear that what makes a great book does not necessarily make a great film. The key is to translate the heart of what the story is about into a visual medium, without violating the author’s vision of the characters and the meaning but also without slavishly replicating every single incident or line of dialogue. I like to think I’d be the kind of writer who would happily cash the cheque and then get out of the way, accepting that what the final product turned out to be would not change the book I wrote. I’ve never written a screenplay and I’m not sure I want to, because much of what I love about writing is performed by other people – the actors, the cinematographer, the director – in films.
But of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some thoughts on the matter.
The Night Inside
This was actually optioned a long time ago and I even read the script. To me, this would be the easiest of the books to film. There are few special effects required, there are neighbourhoods in Toronto that approximate the Queen Street of the early 1990s and you could either treat it as a period piece, set it in an indeterminate time, or update it to the present (though you might have to throw in a couple of “Twilight” comments). It could even be effectively done in black and white on a low budget, like the new film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Blood and Chrysanthemums
One of the main challenges with this would be determining whether it was a standalone project or was part of a longer piece that included The Night Inside. Again, special effects are minimal, but the scope of the story broadens, requiring sections to be shot both in Toronto and Banff. Because I based the Fujiwara diary sections on elements of Japanese popular culture (the ghost story, the samurai tale, the noh play etc), I’ve always imagined it would be fascinating to treat each of these as their own “movie within a movie” and choose a style of film-making based on the original Japanese examples I watched. For example, Fujiwara’s transformation into a vampire, in the story “The Lady of the Autumn Moon”, is based on the classic Japanese ghost story included in the film Ugestu.
The Fujiwara diary sections might also work as animation, in the Studio Ghibli style. (Damn, now I want to see that…)
A Terrible Beauty
I realized that with each book, the fantasy elements increase and so would the budget. The key to A Terrible Beauty would be the right setting and the appropriate use of CGI. It would now be possible to create Sidonie’s inhuman appearance without resorting to the dreaded “bumpy forehead” of Star Trek fame. Just narrow her jawline here, add some cheekbone there (a la Angelina Jolie in Maleficent) and there you are. (I’m sure I’m completely over-simplifying that.)
And up the budget and complexity goes again. I think it would certainly be possible to make a single, long film of this but it could also work as a mini-series. Vistas are required for this one, and strange cultures, and the multiplicity of place that is the Faery Court. You could always go the Dangerous Liaisons route and concentrate on one or two key settings, costuming and close-ups to do the work and at least it doesn’t really require a cast of thousands and contains no epic battle scenes (sorry).
Don’t ask me who would play anyone, though. I generally have no idea.
I just finished the rather long process of recording an audio version of Cold Hillside as a gift to a friend.
I’m not a bad reader, but it was definitely a challenge. First of all, I had to actually listen to a few audio books. I found that interesting but time-consuming – I could have read the books in half the time it took to listen to them. It quickly became apparent there was no way that I could do voices beyond the most simple of characterizations, so everyone in my version sounds basically the same. It also became apparent that with 148,000 words to read, abridging it beyond the occasional elimination of a “said” was not in the cards.
Then there was the technical part of the process. I’m very bad at dealing with technology and so I had to find the simplest possible program to use. Fortunately, my husband is very good with technology and he found me one called Voice Record Pro, which would work on our IPad. It was so intuitive that even a techno-peasant like me could figure out how to record and edit the files.
So with the technical part of the problem solved, it was on to the reading itself. I soon realized that I could not edit out every single stumble, so I restricted my fixes to more egregious errors. Some of the chapters had as many as five sections that I had to edit and stitch together to form the final file. Despite my attempts to maintain a relatively consistent volume, it did vary somewhat, as I recording a chapter at a time over several months.
The hardest thing was reading the prose itself. Every clumsy sentence and every repetitive word is glaringly apparent, which is why reading your work aloud is a useful part of the editorial process. I’d done that for portions of the book but not all of it. Fortunately, due the wonders of e-books, I can work with the publisher to correct the few typos that survived the proofing process and reword a particularly infelicitous sentence or two.
The recorded version is by no means professional quality but it worked for what I wanted it to do.
Next time, I’m going to read the whole damned thing out loud before I submit it, though.
And now comes the time in a book’s life when the reviews start. I wish I was one of those writers who could grandly proclaim that I never read reviews but that would be a complete lie. I shamelessly admit to googling myself. A good review will make me happy and a bad review will make me huddle in the corner and beat myself over the head with my very old, very heavy copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
I remind myself that I’ve survived bad reviews before. I will never forget opening a copy of Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s equivalent to Time, at the time) in the dentist’s office and discovering a FULL-PAGE REVIEW of Blood and Chrysanthemums. A full-page BAD review. The dentist probably could have given me a root canal and I wouldn’t have noticed because I was so devastated. When I was apologizing to the Penguin publicist about it (because that is the kind of sad person I am), she was baffled. “It was a FULL-PAGE ARTICLE in Maclean’s,” she kept saying. “No one will remember whether it was good or bad. All they’ll remember is that they read about you in Maclean’s.” I’m not sure it’s true but it did make me feel better.
Once I achieve a bit of distance from the initial elation (I rock!) or despair (I am the worst writer in the world!), I try to take the less than glowing reviews for what they’re worth. There are some people that you could never have made happy, because they wanted a book you did not write (sorry, The Night Inside is NOT a vampire romance). Sometimes you’re forced to admit, like the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that “it’s a fair cop.”
Given that it’s been a long time since the last round of reviews, my skin has thinned a bit. So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t quite reached the “it’s a fair cop” stage yet and may spend a few moments huddling in the corner with a very strong martini (because damn, that Roget’s hurt).
Cold Hillside turned out to be like neither A Terrible Beauty nor Blood & Chrysanthemums when it comes to the music I associated with writing it. While it didn’t have either artists or songs that connected directly to the content, I had an ITunes playlist called “Cold Hillside”, which is certainly more than I would necessarily been able to muster for B&C. At some point I seem to have erased the playlist so I’m working from memory of what was on it.
Because the writing of this novel took such a long time, my musical tastes changed and expanded, and albums in high rotation on the ipod came and went. During the periods when I was tentatively poking at writing, or distressed over the fact that I wasn’t writing, or trying to determine if I would ever write again, I took comfort from the music of a number of singer-songwriters who tend to be associated with country or folk so the playlist was dominated by woman like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Very little that they wrote had a direct bearing on the novel itself, but it answered some emotional need I had while writing.
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On” album is one of my all-time favorites and this song is pure poetry.
This song by Lucinda Williams is one of the rawest evocations of addictive sexual and emotional need I’ve ever heard.
It’s hard to pick a single song from Emmylou but this one, from her album “Red Dirt Girl”, does have an emotional connection to the novel.
And, because we’re now watching the publishing world slide into the transitional chaos that has mired the music world, and I know writers who make pennies while their work gets posted on sharing sites without their consent, here’s a song from Gillian Welch. Sadly, she’s right: “we’re going to do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay”.
After the non-soundtrack post last week, we’re back on topic. A Terrible Beauty most definitely had a soundtrack. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Sarah McLachan’s 1993 album, turned out to be the perfect blend of mood and music for that book.
The lines “The night is my companion/and solitude my guide/Would I spend forever here/and not be satisfied” seemed written for an ancient vampire who enacts a nightly ritual of request and refusal with a captive painter. (The writing of the song Possession is a fascinating story in itself, but I leave it to you to check that out.)
Blood and Chrysanthemums was not a music-enhanced writing experience in the same way the other books have been. I listened to music while writing, of course, but the only specific music that related to the novel was a CD of classical Japanese music that I bought to listen to while writing the Fujiwara sections.
B&C was really about poetry and research. Lots of research. Lots of reading of early Japanese literary works such as The Tale of the Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei-Shonagan. Books about Noh drama, the yakuza, samurai, Hiroshima, the Heian court, wars, art, culture, contemporary Tokyo…. the list was long. Oddly enough, the one that the was the most useful in giving me a way into the Japanese section was Pink Samurai: The Pursuit and Politics of Sex in Japan. While I was reading that, I realized that since I was writing a book about a common trope in popular culture in the West – namely vampires – I could use the common tropes in Japanese popular culture to frame the story. That allowed me to write each of Fujiwara’s sections in a different way, echoing the particular element I was using: a ghost story, a Noh play, a Heian court tale and so on.
I read a lot of poetry in translation as well, primarily work by Matsuo Basho and The Tales of Ise. I also had to write a good deal of poetry, plus portions of a Noh play, which was a thoroughly daunting process. Fortunately, most of the poetry in the periods I was writing about was not haiku, but an earlier form which was not as rigid.
The other thing I needed to research was mountain climbing. For that, I subscribed to Climbing magazine (the only magazine I’d ever read with a section at the front listing who had died and how since the last issue) and relied on a reading list and advice from my brother, who lives in Banff. My sole actual experience was going half-way up the climbing wall in the Banff gym. Of course, having my brother live there made my Banff research quite enjoyable. I wandered around town looking for places for Ardeth and Rozokov to live, bought my “Dead People are Cool” t-shirt at a local shop and made my husband pose by a lake to give me a visual context for a key moment in the book.
My home office at the time had a bulletin board where I posted images that related to my writing. I thought I had a picture of it but it has vanished into a large box of unsorted photos. I did keep a number of the clippings and photos though.
Below is the lake, sans husband.
I pulled this picture from Climbing Magazine, as my rough model for Mark.
I copied this from a book about the yakuza, because this was my mental image of Yamagata. I admit that I shamelessly based Fujiwara on the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune.
I listen to music a good portion of my day, though it’s probably more accurate to consider it a background soundtrack rather than an activity in which I actively engage. I wear my Ipod during my walk and subway trip to work, sometimes while I’m working, and it plays in the sound dock at night. (Right now, a song from rather unfortunately musical of Dracula is playing. I’m not sure why it’s still even there, except that my husband inexplicably refuses to delete it. It’s not nearly as amusing as our other musical theatre offering : A Shoggoth on the Roof.) I’ve done this since I was a teenager and studied and wrote while playing albums in my room.
Most of my novels have a soundtrack that plays during the writing process. My third big ambition (after being a starship captain and archaeologist) was to be a singer/songwriter and a number of my short stories were heavily influenced by my musical interests (Exodus 22:18 and The Party Over There, in particular). So it was inevitable that it would form a core of both the plot and the process for The Night Inside.
The music and lyrics of this British band are central to this book. The title and all of the section names are taken from their songs (and getting permission for that was an adventure). Their album Oil and Gold remains one of my favorites: a beautiful, sinister, mid-80s evocation of doom and decadence. I still get a shiver at the lines “We had some good machines/but they don’t work no more/I loved you once/don’t love you any more”.
They didn’t make a lot of videos but there are no shortages of ways to find their music on Youtube and other sites and Oil and Gold is available on ITunes. The song below is also one of my favorites (“Call in the airstrike, with a poison kiss…”) partially because it is one of the few songs that includes the word “parthenogenesis”. We made singing a song with that word the condition of kissing at our wedding and only one table rose to the challenge.
L.A. punk pioneers X were my model for Sara’s band Black Sun. The name even came from their album Under the Big Black Sun. The songs “Riding with Mary” and “The Hungry Wolf” seemed to suit the story perfectly.
And now for something completely different…. Richard Thompson is a brilliant songwriter, guitarist and singer who is considered primarily a folk artist. The heartbreaking resignation of ”How will I ever be simple again?” has made this the song I most associate with Rozokov.
Thompson has made even fewer videos than Shriekback so below is the best I can do.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see all of these performers live, some more than once. So if you’re curious about soundtrack for The Night Inside, check out their music.
Oil & Gold (source of the novel title, from the song “The Only Light that Shines” and section header “Everything that Rises must Converge”
Jam Science (source of section header “Midnight Maps”)
Big Night Music (Source of section header “Shark Walk”)
Under the Big Black Sun
Isn’t Love Grand?
Rumour and Sigh
Shoot out the Lights (with former wife Linda Thompson)