Thursday, August 4, 2011

Anatomy of a Novel: Only Ever Always

Guest post by Penni Russon


1. Papercut animation

I always have a visual image, playing a novel like a movie reel in my head. In this case, it wasn’t live action though, I distinctly saw this novel as papercut animation. To me Clara’s world is made of paper and pencil and brown ink, smudgy and torn. Claire’s world is paper too (one is not realer than the other), but the paper of her world is elegant and patterned and textured, colourful though still a little muted, a little blurred at the corners, like aging Victorian wallpaper.

   2. The Double Life of Veronique

I went to see this movie when I was twenty with my flatmate and good friend Andrew. We came out stunned into silence and didn’t want to talk for a long time afterwards. A residual echo has stayed with me throughout my adult life. Irene Jacob is Weronika in Poland and Veronique in Paris. They are not related but connected in some deep, philosophical sense. This fantasy element is never explained, which is why the movie is so haunting. I have always been fascinated with the idea of doubles and alternate realities, by the relationship between self and other when we confront ourselves in the mirror, at the horror we feel hearing our own voices played back on tape.

   3. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

I am enchanted by novels for children that work on a philosophical level, that deal in tropes and archetypes, images and metaphors, allegories and double meanings and wordplays. I was a fan of Alice in Wonderland growing up, and my favourite scenes were the ones where something deeply profound seemed to be going on, as in the scene where Alice and the faun walk side by side, Alice’s arms around the baby animal’s neck. The faun is unafraid of Alice because they have both forgotten their names. But when they reach the edge of the wood and remember their names, the faun also remembers to be frightened of the human and bounds away, and Alice grieves. I love the last lines of the Looking Glass poem: “Still she haunts me phantomwise/Alice moving under skies/Never seen by waking eyes.” This image of Alice as a giant dream “everchild” is arresting… and sad. By the time he penned those lines the real Alice Liddell, for whose amusement Carroll invented the original tale, would have grown up.

At the centre of the Wonderland stories is Alice’s journey and her interactions with a cast of unusual characters. I tried to capture some of that feeling in Only Ever Always, though Clara has a very specific quest. I am not sure Alice could ever be written now – a modern editor and audience would be asking: “But what’s at stake for Alice? What does Alice want? What does Alice need?” She is very much a product of her time – a questioning investigation into selfhood always bordering on a collapse into meaninglessness, in a truly circular narrative where arguably nothing significant has altered or shifted for Alice by the end.

   4. The Strongman (and carnivalesque)

When I was a child I wanted to be a clown – but a sad one, a Pierrot. I have always been intrigued by the melancholy of the carnivalesque – circuses are shabby and strange manifestations. When you go to a modern circus at first you see the shabbiness, the old dusty tent, the dodginess of the carnies, the cheap toys and overpriced popcorn. Then you are dazzled by the showmanship and the colours take on a different hue. And then I think you look deeper in again and start to see the mechanisms behind the showmanship, the wires holding the girl up, the sleight of hand. So you are constantly confronted with the layers of reality and pretence and are constantly having to revise or reignite your experience of belief and credulity. This seam of the carnivalesque is strong in Only Ever Always. There’s one character Salvador who makes a brief appearance who I purposefully modelled on the old-fashioned strong man, with bald head and waxed moustache. He is big and strong but in other ways ineffectual and timid. So I was deliberately playing with this idea of reality and pretence.

   5. The Form Guide

Clara’s world is made of debris, and so the language of her world is also broken. Characters speak in broken sentences or drop consonants, they have idiosyncratic grammatical constructions, and language is made up of “found objects” – so sometimes old fashioned words or turns of phrase appear, or new words or phrases are coined. My favourite example of this is a character who exists in both worlds, Old Mrs Jarvis, who is presentient and speaks entirely in “Form Guide” speak (from the horseracing section of the newspaper). This came about after a workshop I attended run by Carrie Tiffany, where she got us to do a piece of creative writing using the form guide as inspiration (her rationale being that it has its own distinctive language, but a language not created by writerly types, so it reminds us to try different phrasing and break out of writerly clichés.) I ended up sorting phrases I found into a sort of character arc.

Teatime tattle. Looks genuine improver. Hidden strings. Chance in harder event. Must come into contention. Will appreciate rise in distance. Shouldn’t take long to keep current. Go well. Keep safe.

In the shadows. Needs more ground. Always well back. Gotta have heart. Not a strong first-up record. Prefer to see.

Hard to knock winning form. In strong stable. Commands respect. In the money last three outings. Expect bold showing.

Hard to enthuse on recent efforts. Bled during race. Looking to others. Passing. Wait until she shows more. Mixing form and proving hard to follow.

Scratched. Scratched. Scratched.

Chance with suitable conditions. Needs more ground. Go close. Go well. Salute the storm. Eternal’s choice. Will make the most from one of the inside’s barriers. Keep safe. Go well. Keep safe.

Many of these phrases are now in the novel.

   6. Snow globes and music boxes

The instrument of magic in Only Ever Always is a music box – an object of “uncertain value”, worth what the beholder thinks it is worth. I am interested in collections and in particular oddments, the sorts of things we stockpile, objects that we define ourselves through although they say nothing in particular about us. Claire’s music box is an invention: a glass globe that contains the queer marriage of a mouse groom and a Thumbelina type bride. But somewhere in the back of my mind I did have a snow globe that encased a big eyed rabbit who would be showered with flowers. It was an object I owned in my childhood that is adrift somewhere on the tide of things I have lost or thrown away but never forgotten. As I was writing Only Ever Always, Martin found me a music box mechanism in an op shop and it sat by my desk, I often studied its workings. It too has now been lost, carried off perhaps by one of the children, and is similarly adrift.

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