Q & A:
by Gordon Reece
Photo credit: Jo
|A CONVERSATION WITH GORDON REECE,
AUTHOR OF MICE,
Courtesy of Publisher (Viking)
1. Bullying is a
significant and growing problem in the United States. What is the
situation like in the other countries where you’ve lived?
I think bullying is a growing and significant problem in many, many
countries. When I researched girl-on-girl bullying, all the cases I
looked at were from the UK, but when I moved to Spain I saw the same
thing there. I remember seeing harrowing mobile phone footage on the
news of some teenage girls beating up another girl while their friends
egged them on with shouts of Mátala! Mátala! (kill her!).
And here in Australia we’ve just had a case, also captured on a mobile
phone, where an overweight schoolboy being
goaded and punched by another boy suddenly snaps, picks him up, and
slams him down hard onto the concrete—you could say it’s the story of
Mice played out in a ten-second video clip. I haven’t yet visited a
reading group here without meeting someone who’s been bullied
themselves or someone whose child has been bullied. So the United
States is definitely not alone in this.
2. What drew you to
write about this subject?
Some experiences I had when I was a trainee lawyer got me thinking
about bullying in the workplace and the potential for explosive
violence in individuals subjected to regular humiliation. Mice was
originally to be about a young married couple who are both victims of
bullying in the workplace—the husband in his law firm, the wife in the
dental clinic where she’s a nurse. Girl-on-girl bullying was much in
the news at that time, however, and I eventually decided to substitute
the couple for a mother and daughter. I also felt the dynamics of the
mother/daughter relationship might be more interesting to explore. I
know Shelley’s bullying has aroused a lot of comment because bullying
is such a worrying and pressing problem today, but my main motive in
writing the bullying scenes was to create the necessary psychological
trauma in Shelley so that her extreme reaction when the burglar breaks
into the house would be believable.
3. Shelley thinks to
herself: “After everything I’ve lived through, surely I’ll be able to
write something truly great? After all, how many writers actually know
what it’s like to kill somebody?” [p. 231]. You describe the act of
murder pretty vividly. How did you come by that knowledge? Could you
talk about the relationship between real experience and imaginative
writing more generally?
It wasn’t firsthand experience, I promise! I’ve got an oval rose bed in
my garden but there are no bodies buried in it. I’m actually pretty
squeamish and go faint at the sight of blood, so I don’t think I’d make
much of a murderer. I know they say “write what you know,” but that
philosophy has never really appealed to me very much. I’m bored by what
I know, there’s no imaginative challenge in what I know. I like to
imagine what I don’t know. From childhood I always wrote stories that
were far removed from my own everyday experience (I remember a long
saga when I was eight about the survivor of a plane crash struggling to
survive in the South Pole) and still today it’s that imaginative leap
into other people’s lives, other historical times, other realities that
makes writing such an exciting and liberating occupation. If I do make
use of real experience, then it’s so distorted in the writing process’s
hall of mirrors that it’s completely unrecognizable.
And that’s how I think it should be.
4. Mice is full of
surprises. How did you go about plotting the major turns in the novel?
Did any of these turns surprise you when writing?
I had a general plan—I’m not the kind of writer who can sit down and
start writing without having a fairly clear idea of where I want the
story to go—but I left myself enough freedom so that the precise
details of the unfolding story would be fresh to me as I wrote them.
Sometimes these details—like a certain mobile phone going off at an
inconvenient moment—would come as a pleasant surprise. Those are the
best moments in writing, when a little twist presents itself out of the
blue and you’re confident that it’s going to work. Even though there
was a rough plan, I still took wrong turns. I can remember writing a
long scene in which Shelley and Elizabeth visit a local farm shop—I
have no idea now why I would have included that scene!
5. Shelley and her
mother are revitalized by the murders they commit, which feels
emotionally right but morally wrong. How do you feel about this issue?
I think that description says it all—emotionally right but morally
wrong. My sympathies were strongly with Shelley and Elizabeth when I
was writing Mice and for me there couldn’t have been any other ending
than the one we have. At the same time, however, we know that lines are
being crossed, rules broken, values we hold dear twisted out of shape,
so that we can’t feel entirely comfortable with what’s happened. I
think after finishing the book many will feel a lingering sense of
unease about what they’ve condoned in its pages. While I was writing
the novel I sent each finished third or so to my agent, and I remember
her saying to me when she’d read the ending, ‘I’m not sure I know these
people anymore. And that’s precisely the point. The problem with
violence—even when it’s justified—is that it inevitably corrupts those
who use it and erodes the moral high ground they once had.
6. You’ve written
and illustrated fourteen children’s books. What are the challenges
moving from this genre to adult fiction? Did your previous books help
prepare you for Mice?
It was a challenge changing genres, I must say. I couldn’t listen to
the radio or audio books when I was writing (as I can when I’m
illustrating), so the working day felt harder and seemed much longer. I
thought I’d be able to write a thousand words a day and discovered that
I was doing well if I could manage a hundred! And of course in a work
with illustrations I can draw things which are difficult to describe,
but with a novel you have to do everything with words. Strange as it
may sound, I think the children’s picture books I’ve written were a
preparation for writing Mice in many ways. My first children’s books
were very influenced by Aesop’s fables and often dealt with moral
dilemmas. Ironically, stories like that can involve some complex moral
philosophy and are much harder to write than they look—one wrong
sentence, one wrong word even, can change the message and a story which
was supposed to encourage independence, for example, might end up
seeming to promote selfishness. One book I wrote was called The Little
Donkey, and it was about a family of Corsican peasants who are
unspeakably cruel to their donkey—they beat it and overwork it and
starve it so that it’s just skin and bones. When nothing is heard from
this family for several days the police chief goes to their mountain
cabin to investigate, but they’ve disappeared. All he finds are some
suspicious bloodstains, and the little donkey—which has, inexplicably,
grown very fat. The story was never published—it probably would have
sent the kids to bed completely traumatized!—but maybe it was an
exaggerated first sketch of some of the issues that interested me in
Mice. Its epigraph was “fear the weak” which would have worked well for
Mice in some ways too.
7. You’ve mentioned
Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers as one of your favorite novels.
In what ways has McEwan been an influence on your work?
McEwan was the first writer I actually discovered for myself. I saw his
collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, in a local
bookshop and bought it, and was hooked immediately. There was a
startling honesty about his writing, a lack of squeamishness, an
unpretentiousness, and a sense of danger that was a revelation to me as
a teenager—he wasn’t afraid to explore the darkest corners of the human
psyche and confront taboos. His first two novels—The Cement Garden and
The Comfort of Strangers—will always be in my top ten books. I never
have a copy of them in the house because I’m always lending them out as
must reads! I was already writing dark stories at school, but
discovering McEwan helped validate those early efforts and convinced me
that, ironically, it’s the dark corners that can shed the most light on
the human condition.
8. What other
writers have been particularly important for you?
Thomas Hardy was important in my teens and twenties; I think Tess of
the d’Urbervilles is the most powerful feminist novel written to date.
I was obsessed by W. H. Auden at university and for many years
afterward, and the sharp-eyed will see several quotes or paraphrases of
Auden in the text of Mice. I think Auden really showed the
philosophical potential of poetry—no other writer I know makes you
think so much about so many things. Zola’s Thérèse Raquin
was another early favorite—it’s a wonderfully macabre melodrama, dark,
compelling, and extraordinarily vivid—the mortuary scenes will stay
with you forever!
I want to write my own love triangle novel one day, but
Thérèse Raquin will take some beating. And Graham Greene
has been an important influence too, not so much in terms of his style
or subject matter but in his conviction that an author can write well,
i.e., deal with profound and complex material, but still be
entertaining, still take the reader on a thrilling ride.
9. The novel feels
in many ways cinematic. What would you like to see if this was adapted
for the screen?
I think we all write for cinema to a certain extent these days—I might
easily stop and change something I’ve written if I think it would be
difficult to film. As for the movie version of Mice, I’d love to see
what two great actresses could do with the roles of Shelley and
Elizabeth. People often say there aren’t enough challenging roles for
women in cinema—especially for women over forty; well, Mice is a movie
about two women, one in her teens and one in her late forties, and one
or the other would be on the screen the whole time. More than that, the
roles are truly demanding—there’s hardly a human emotion they wouldn’t
have to portray between the two of them. I’d also love to see the extra
touches, the extrapolations, that a good director could bring to the
material. You see this in the best adaptations of novels—Deliverance,
Straw Dogs, The Shining, Revolutionary Road, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest—the director understands the story and the characters so well that
they can actually bring something new to it, take what the writer has
done and develop aspects of it further. It’s these additions I’d be
most interested to see, rather than just a slavish adaptation of the
10. What’s next for
I’m contracted to write another novel for Allen and Unwin and I’m about
halfway through the first draft. It’s another thriller with a female
protagonist and the working title is The Slide. After that, I’d like to
take a break from novels and write some shorter fiction—novellas and
short stories. My problem is that I’ve got about twenty-five story
ideas in my notebook that I want to explore, but there’s not enough
time to write them all as novels. I did a scriptwriting course a few
years ago and enjoyed that a lot, so I might try to write some of them
as movie scripts. Others could make good graphic novels, but I’d have
to let go of the illustration side of things and try to find an
illustrator I could collaborate with. On a more personal note, I’m
moving back to live in the UK after twelve years away—so that’s an
exciting prospect, but also a little daunting. After living in a sleepy
valley in the Australian bush for the last six years it’s going to be a
bit of a culture shock!