In her chapter on reading as a writer in The Road To Somewhere (A Creative Writing Companion), Heather Leach talks about learning “to look beneath the surface of the print for traces of the making process, the writer at work.”[i] When we read as a writer, we are trying to find out how it was done. As John Gardner observed, “All great writing is in a sense imitation of great writing.”[ii] We are dismantling the work to see how the end result has been achieved. We are reverse engineering.
As I began to write a new novel, I set my mind to doing this with greater intensity. I wanted to focus on relevant models to see what I could learn from them. Artistic practice is a matter of consumption that leads to production. Artists in any field soak up their preferred examples of good practice and synthesise them into something new. In fiction, Graham Swift modelled the structure of his Booker Prize winning novel Last Orders on that of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The Coen Brothers’ The Big Liebowski is modelled on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. You can see this in any creative sphere – literature, film, music or art.
I thieve and I almost always have. I’ve learned that all artists do – and that it isn’t cheating. “My purpose in reading,” John Updike wrote, “has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal.”[iii] The first time I can remember consciously doing this is when I was writing If You Have Five Seconds To Spare, (a play about The Smiths staged by Contact Theatre, Manchester). I immersed myself in British kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s and early 60s (for example, A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Room At The Top), which Morrissey had raided for his lyrics, and went in and plundered for my playscript. As I worked on this new novel, The Former Boy Wonder, I studied the models I had chosen and tried my best to learn from them. And, like a magpie attracted to shiny objects, I lifted elements, no matter how small, from the works that resonated with me. It’s fun, it tickles me, and it also plants a little gem in my text that I hope readers will spot – which will make them feel smart, which is good.
Before I settled down to work on it, I knew the themes of The Former Boy Wonder:mid-life crisis, father-son issues, and lost love. In the story, the 50th birthday and 20th wedding anniversary of the protagonist, Peter Duffy, are imminent. He rages – or at least presses – against the dying of the light and fights to hold his family together, to reignite relations with his wife and his son, until an invitation arrives, to an old friend’s 50th. The party is to be in a country house, the lost domain where he first fell in love, and the fantasising this invitation provokes threatens to undermine his battle to save his family. All his university friends are going to be there, but nobody has seen Sanchia, his first love, in decades. It’s not possible she will have been invited, but an inveterate dreamer like Peter might start to wonder if it is. That’s the present day of the novel. A second narrative strand takes place half a lifetime before and concentrates on the story of Peter and Sanchia, and Peter’s troubled relationship with his father.
To help me write the book, I studied a handful of novels in greater or lesser detail, but the principal models I adopted were Alain-Fournier’s 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is familiar to most readers and is accepted as one of the classics of American literature. Not as many in the English-speaking world will be familiar with it, but Le Grand Meaulnes has been acknowledged as one of the greatest French novels of the 20th century. I’ve read Gatsby many times and over the years my admiration for it has only deepened. I also love it. Le Grand Meaulnes was one of the set texts in my French A Level and has had a lasting affect on me. A major theme in both novels is lost love. Fired up by the similarities between Meaulnes and Gatsby and what I was writing, I decided to study these novels in depth and see what I could learn from them.
The structure of Meaulnes matched the one I had already conceived of: boy finds girl; loses girl; goes on a romantic quest to find her again; finds her and fails to keep her. Augustin Meaulnes is a 17-year-old student in a country school, who lodges with the teacher’s family, the Seurels. The novel’s narrator-reporter is his friend, François Seurel. Meaulnes takes the family horse and carriage to collect his friend Seurel’s grandparents from a railway station, gets lost, stumbles upon a wedding party in an enchanted chateau – the party is called la fête étrange – and falls in love with Yvonne de Galais. The wedding party comes to a sudden end and some other guests bring Meaulnes home. He has no idea where the chateau was and for most of the rest of the book, he’s on a romantic quest to get back to find Yvonne again. Once or twice, it appears that he has met someone who can tell him where the chateau is, but it is only towards the end of his story (which isn’t the end of the novel) that he reaches it again.
The Former Boy Wonder begins with one party and ends with another. Right from its earliest inception, the two narrative strandswere to be bookended by two parties, a structure which I consciously took from Meaulnes. And as with Meaulnes and Yvonne, Peter and Sanchia meet at a party and are reunited at a second party in the same setting as the first. Originally, the beginning of the Boy Wonder strand set in the past was quite a modest gathering: Peter and Sanchia meeting at a Halloween party. I was aware from the outset that the climax of the novel would take place at a reunion of Peter’s university friends. Initially, this was set in a restaurant. Meaulnes and Gatsby showed me a better way: bigger parties.
Inspired by the wedding party at the beginning of Meaulnes, which takes place in an enchanted domain, and the opulent parties in Gatsby, I decided to create a grander event and dreamt up Loston Manor, a substantial house in the Lancashire countryside, which belongs to the family of Caitlin Byrne, one of Peter’s close friends. I wanted it to be smaller than a stately home, but larger than most country houses. This, I hoped, might give the first appearance of Sanchia Page more impact. If the party at the start of the strand in the past was to be a more significant occasion, a 21st, rather than a Halloween party, might do the trick. The second party, a quarter of a century later, was to have taken place at a meal in a restaurant. Such a setting for the reunion might have worked, but there had to be a contrast between the pizazz of the first party and the restraint of the second. To emphasise this contrast, I learned from Fournier, both parties should happen in the same setting. I decided that the party at the end of the book would also take place at Loston Manor and would celebrate another milestone birthday: Caitlin’s 50th. As with the final party in Meaulnes,this second party needed to be a more muted affair, smaller and less festive that the one that opens the story. And if la fête étrange helped me write the party where the lovers meet, the second party in Meaulnes, where the chateau has fallen into disrepair, helped me write the one where they are reunited again. I put more time into creating the setting for the first party than the second.
In Meaulnes and Gatsby, the first party features the debut of a significant character: in the former, Yvonne de Galais, the woman the hero of the book falls in love with; in the latter, Gatsby himself. In both cases the author delays this first appearance. To help me give Sanchia’s entrance maximum effect, I studied the build-up to the appearance of the key character in each novel.
The first allusion to Yvonne de Galais comes after Meaulnes, who has mysteriously disappeared for a few days, returns to the Seurel family home. François Seurel can see that Meaulnes is disturbed and bides his time until he will tell him why. When he eventually does, offstage, Seurel, beginning on p 33, gives us the story of Meaulnes’ adventure. Even if it isn’t clear at this point that it has a romantic conclusion, we have begun the journey that will eventually bring us to Yvonne and to Meaulnes’ coup de foudre – which is not until p 58.
In Meaulnes, the journey to and then through the party to the moment where the hero meets the young woman and falls in love is long. Her first appearance is delayed as Meaulnes moves towards the centre of the party in several stages. From the point where Meaulnes leaves the Seurel home to his arrival at the chateau takes eight and a half pages. Entering the chateau takes a further four and a half pages and from there through to the midst of the party and the first sight of Yvonne takes nine more. The journey I’ve just summarised could easily have lasted a couple of pages. Fournier stretches it out over 22. He withholds the key moment of the novel’s first act for as long as he does to generate tension and engage the reader, and through the slow journey to Meaulnes’ first encounter with Yvonne he creates an enchanted domain.
The hero gets lost on the way to his original destination and, as he attempts to find his way, he stumbles on the chateau where la fête étrange will take place. Other guests lead Meaulnes through to Wellington’s room, which is a hiatus between arriving at the chateau and moving through the party to meet Isabelle. He passes through a courtyard with many kinds of carriage. When he enters the chateau, he finds Wellington’s room and a dressing up box and transforms himself into a gentleman in top hat and tails. More specific details follow, adding to the fairy tale quality of the occasion: a treasure chest of children’s trinkets, entertainments, a Pierrot, coloured lights, music. Once his appearance has been transformed, Meaulnes is drawn to the lights and sounds of the wedding party. Coming in as an outsider, he hears and catches the scent of it, but is not yet a part of the party. In other words, the build-up is slow and we enter la fête gradually until Meaulnes’ great moment arrives. With this steadily delayed entrance, it is as if he is being accepted and absorbed into the party, and we have the sense that he is passing through a dream-like setting and being drawn inexorably towards this mysterious beauty.
The dramatic beginning of the plot is equally delayed in Gatsby. Fitzgerald takes his time building up to the first appearance of his hero and keeps him offstage long enough to make the reader’s desire to meet this character intense. We know from the title that Gatsby is great (as Meaulnes is grand). The title of both novels intrigues readers and prepares them for a character who is more than special. Amongst others, a thesaurus offers these synonyms of the adjective “great”: unlimited, immense, large, grand, famous, illustrious, eminent, distinguished, celebrated, remarkable and talented. In Meaulnes, the hero is there from the start, so the connotations of “great” will become clear only when the story is underway. However, whereas the grand debut in Gatsby is the eponymous character’s, in Meaulnes it’s Yvonne’s.
The build-up to Jay Gatsby’s entrance is designed to make him a man greater than any other, a legendary figure, a mythical hero, perhaps. He is first mentioned on page one and his significance is developed through the succeeding pages. On the second, Nick Carraway tells us that “There was something gorgeous about Gatsby…an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” [iv]
Just as Fournier delays Meaulnes’ first encounter with Yvonne for 22 pages after Seurel begins to tell us about Meaulnes’ adventure, slowly preparing us for the thunderbolt when he falls for her at first sight, Fitzgerald builds up to the novel’s first dramatic moment, the arrival of Gatsby, over the course of 40 pages. Most of the way Fitzgerald tantalises us is by characterising his hero through the use of setting. His house and the parties Nick observes from a distance and the one he finally attends characterise Gatsby through association and build up to his entrance. Apart from being colossal, his house is sophisticated (the French architecture), grand (the tower), opulent (the marble swimming pool), expansive (40 acres) and expensive (it sits in proximity to millionaires’ properties). His general, unspecified parties are pleasant (they feature music on a summer’s night), bright (guests gather around like moths), sparkling (champagne flows), shining (the night stars), super– rich (motor– boats, aquaplanes, Rolls Royce), hedonistic (servants repair the ravages of the night before), modern (new– fangled squeezing machine), colourful and celebratory (enough lights for a Christmas tree),epicurean, (baked hams, harlequin salads, golden turkeys)and legendary (gins and liquors not seen for an age). Gatsby is further characterised by the particular party that Nick attends. It is wildly popular (cars are driven out from New York and parked five deep), festive and lavish (guests in primary colours, new kinds of bob, rich), sumptuous (shawls beyond the dreams of Castile), energetic (the bar is in full swing), happy (easy, prodigal laughter) and vibrant (confident, wandering girls weaving here and there). Thus, through Fitzgerald’s use of setting, Gatsby is all of these things. Trimming the list to some of the essentials, he is sophisticated, grand, expansive, super– rich, sparkling, hedonistic, modern, colourful and legendary, wildly, popular, lavish, happy and vibrant. And we understand all of that without Gatsby doing or saying anything – without him even appearing
I tried to apply what I had learned from Fournier and Fitzgerald about delaying the debut of a significant character. The first suggestion of Sanchia Page is on p 13, in the present– day strand, and comes after the arrival of the invitation to Caitlin’s 50th:
My heart leaps and flashes of a party in the past come and go, Snapchat flashes of that house on a hill, the courtyard when Caitlin’s 21st was in full swing, the walled garden, and the fabulous girl I saw there, her long cloak dark against the foliage behind her.
Peter has further thoughts of Sanchia over the next three or four pages, thoughts such as this:
Seeing her again would be great. I mean, seeing Broadway Danny Rose or The Crampsagain would be great. But seeing Sanchia again – that wouldbe great. And also terrible, also torture.
On page 27, he takes out a photograph of her wearing a Panama hat, a picture taken just before they broke up, and one that evidently troubles him. The reason for this isn’t clear, but it is a key part of the build– up to her entrance. We now know she was his first love, she broke his heart, he has a nostalgic longing for her and wonders if she will have been invited to the party. We also know that something important which still hurts happened and has to do with this Panama hat photograph. Sanchia’s mystique is, I hope, added to a few pages later when Peter is blown away in a moment of magic realism. On a giant screen on the side of a building in Manchester’s city centre, a girl who is wearing a dress like the one Sanchia wore the night they met walks backwards and forwards. The film, he decides is an installation. The woman in it walks forward, points at him, repeats the words, I love you. I love you. I love you and moves back again. In a few moments, he sees that the installation involves her pacing about and stopping here or there to point at any passer– by in her line of sight. Even though explained, the experience may strengthen the reader’s desire to meet Sanchia. This may be piqued a few pages later when Peter asks his friend Dennis if he thinks Sanchia will have been invited to Caitlin’s 50th. Sanchia is next mentioned in the first section of the strand set in the past, when some of her future housemates enthuse about her. Peter sets out to Catilin’s 21st on p 46 (and we already know that he will meet Sanchia there). Using what I had learned from Fournier, his journey to the party is protracted, and once he arrives at Loston Manor, I spend four pages building a lavish and, yes, fairy tale party – almost entirely through the use of setting – and, as with Gatsby, I prepare the reader for Sanchia’s first appearance by having other characters talk about her. Finally, she appears, 51 pages into the novel, and literally walks on stage when she stands in front of a small crowd and plays the guitar and sings a few songs. My aspiration for Peter’s coup de foudre is that it may be as emotional, as romantic, as Meaulnes’:
Her voice was low and sweet, the sound of her guitar was mournful and resonant. The gentle light of the lanterns on her face was pale and my breath quickened as I soaked up the sound and sight of her… In this moment of surprise and wonder, the sight of her dazzled me, I felt as if I could step onto the roof of the summerhouse and climb up to the stars.
And then, just when he and the reader have had their first encounter with Sanchia, she disappears and Peter runs through the party trying to find her again. She vanishes on p 53 and it takes him a couple of pages to track her down and when he does, he approaches her and speaks to her for the first time. Their conversation is brief, she appears to find him entertaining and then, as the chapter and the first section set in the past comes to an end, she introduces herself: ‘My name’s Sanchia.” I can’t say how effectively I have applied what I’ve learned from Fournier and Fitzgerald, but I do know I’ve kept my heroine off stage for over 50 pages.
In Meaulnes, the wonder of entering the enchanted kingdom of love is partly created through Fournier’s use of setting. The extravagance and carnival details of la fête étrange contribute greatly to the drama and emotional impact of the lovers’ first encounter. Setting is a crucial aspect of fiction writing. Jerome Stern suggests that “A scene that seems to happen nowhere often seems not to happen at all.” In Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Shlomith Rimmon– Kenan writes that “A character’s physical surrounding (room, house, street, town) as well as his human environment (family, social class) are… often used as trait– connoting metonymies,” [v] This is what the novelist Jane Rogers describes as conveying character by association with “place, mood or occupation.”[vi] The settings associated with a character, and the physical objects in them, have connotations for a reader that create that character.
I aimed to make Sanchia a full-blown romantic heroine who would entrance Peter and the reader. Inspired by Fournier and Fitzgerald, part of the way I characterised her was through setting. I used other kinds of setting, but one I used was her room, which I depicted in three different ways. Before Peter meets Sanchia, he hears about her. At the end of the first year at university, Caitlin, and Grace and Daisy, two girls she is going to share a house with in the second year, talk about a fourth girl who will move in with them: Sanchia Page. The scene is only short, but for the young Peter it’s the first hint of this charismatic friend of Caitlin’s. Grace and Daisy describe Sanchia in superlatives (from London, metropolitan rather than provincial, cultured, hugely well read) but the focus for their characterisation of her, of what it is that makes her fascinating, I hope, is their description of her room, which is “so interesting”. On the walls are posters from exhibitions of French artists’ work, and Daisy, who clearly knows about art, is impressed that Sanchia has a print of a Klein blue. Thus, the first occasion on which she is characterised is by her friends’ account of a room she has lived in.
The second room that creates Sanchia on the page is an imaginary one, Peter’s vision of what her room at Goulden Road (the shared house Caitlin, Sanchi et al move into in the second year) might be like:
Her room would have bright, funky cushions. An Egyptian throw would cover the bed, which was a mattress on the floor. No overhead light, just lamps with yellow or red shades and soft warm, light. Pot pourri with a faint, elusive scent. Her record collection might include Ravi Shankar or Judy Collins and none of the banal rock bands I listened to. There would be bookshelves made of boards and bricks and a desk, and she would be sitting there, in the pale glow of her Anglepoise, pen and notebook out, books everywhere. Outside, the sound of an owl called into the night and here in the room “Visions of Johanna” played, with Dylan’s harmonica scything across the end of each verse.
The senses are important in bringing this room to life: light, sound and smell and, in the board and brick bookshelves, an implied suggestion of touch. Here, the characteristics that the first room suggests are added to, and this time the implication is that Sanchia is exotic and unconventional. The inventory of specific details in these rooms is designed to intrigue readers and make them want to meet this mysterious woman.
The third room I used to characterise Sanchia is her actual room at Goulden Road. Peter heard about the first room and imagined the second, but he experiences the third room himself. It’s a bedroom, of course, and is on the ground floor with a window that opens onto the back garden. This, for Peter, is novel and, I hope, adds to the readers”sense that she is an exotic creature. Rather than carefully arranged on shelves, her books are piled on the floor. To the conventional Peter, this seems unconventional. It’s a suggestion of difference. The specifics of her books (The Scarlet Letter, Vanity Fair, Dubliners, Bleak House, black– spined Russian classics and grey– spined Penguin Modern Classics) and the contents of her desk (more books, sheets of paper filled with writing, notebooks, a pot of pens and pencils) indicate that she is a serious reader and a committed student. Reproductions on postcards of paintings by Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Bonnard, Magritte and Chagall and photographic portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Doris Lessing and Mahler add to this, developing his impression that she is more cultured than he. Finally, her record collection, which also sits on the floor, leaning against a wall – like her books, not on shelves, not conventional – includes jazz (Dave Brubeck’s Take Five) and classical (Bach’s Goldberg Variations). No pop, no rock, no rock’n’roll. She isn’t just a literary person, she knows about art, she knows about music. To Peter, her taste is unusual, which is exciting, but also eye-opening. Although he’s an Art student and a reader, she is more well-rounded than he, and, he thinks, much more sophisticated. Exotic, serious, well read, cultured, sophisticated, other, and all conveyed to the reader through the use of setting.
The wedding party where Meaulnes meets Yvonne is grand, magical, sumptuous, enchanted and more. Alongside studying the novel in translation, I went back to Robert Gibson’s introduction to the French edition that I had used in the sixth form. Here, he analyses particular effects Fournier deploys and explains how they work, which taught me a great deal. Fournier mostly creates la fête étrange by offering the reader a memorable sensual experience. In Meaulnes, the viewpoint character’s sensory perceptions are significant, (as they should be in any fiction). Light is a constant feature. Characters are seen in shadows or total darkness. The party is seen at dusk and at daybreak. Different kinds of light recur in the narration: lamplight, torchlight, candlelight, reflections. Light from windows or doors at night, from fires, a circus flare. Sound is a distinctive feature of the novel, too: voices, music, the wind. The narrator hears the distant calls of Yvonne’s brother and of shepherds. There are distant bells, too, and the notes of a piano played somewhere out of sight. The wind is often mentioned, sometimes presaging disaster. If Robert Gibson’s introduction in my sixth form copy of Meaulnes revealed to me the way Fournier uses the senses, Ruth Prigozy’s introduction to the Oxford’s World Classics of Gatsby was also revelatory. She itemises the light– related words in the text: sunshine, shining, light (as a noun and as a verb), dim, shadow, gleam, ghost, pale, veiled, soft light, hazy, brilliant, coloured lights, silver, flashing, gleaming, glow, moon, fade, darkness, shifting, drifting, dawn, ashen, ghosts, twinkle, dim lights, lustreless, overhanging moon, smoke, dazzling, glinting, flicker (of light, of film on screen) and illuminate. In both Meaulnes and Gatsby, most of the light references are to do with poor light, dim light. Not much happens in bright light. The scenes in both novels are often in low light. One of the effects of this is that the characters are not always fully apparent. They exist in low light that prevents us from completely seeing them, that leaves them not quite defined. As a result, readers may not be able to have a clear understanding of the characters, which has the effect of making the principals – Meaulnes and Yvonne, Gatsby and Daisy – veiled and therefore mysterious. Related to this, our perceptions of the key characters in both novels are not straightforward. Fitzgerald’s narrator– reporter, Nick Carraway, regards Gatsby as a romantic hero, a gangster, a nostalgic fool and more. Our understanding of who he is shifts with Nick’s. Similarly, Seurel portrays Meaulnes as an adventurer, a romantic hero and an irresponsible fool. I aimed to show the reader Sanchia from a variety of perspectives, too: the soul of romance, a young woman of 20 who’s in love, one of 22 who has fallen out of love and one of 49 who’s mature, self– aware and more mature than Peter. We see her from Peter’s adoring perspective, but also from the more detached and critical standpoints of Caitlin and another friend, Dennis. Alongside my efforts to complicate the reader’s view of Sanchia, I gave a lot of attention to lighting the scenes in Boy Wonder. The allure of the novel, if there is any, depends greatly on my portrayal of Sanchia. I wanted her to have a mystique, to be attractive to the readers, bewitching and magical, but elusive. I needed to convince them that this was a woman worthy of Peter’s pursuit of her, his devastation when he loses her and his passionate longing during his quest to find her again. She had to be worthy of passionate pursuit to Peter, but also to readers. The way Fournier and Fitzgerald used light was instructive.
As Peter makes his way to Caitlin’s 21st birthday party, I mention the pale, warm sun. Autumn mist hangs over the road. Two lanterns mark the bottom of the drive that leads up to Loston Manor and he arrives at this point in the last of the evening sun. The necklaces of coloured bulbs that hang across Loston’s façade have a warm halo which glows in the evening light. On a dance floor, lights flash on and off. Immediately prior to her first appearance, Sanchia is in a summerhouse, hidden in the shadows and when readers first encounter her, her face is pale in gentle lantern light. That’s the first party, Caitlin’s 21st.
Once Sanchia appears and Peter pursues and then has a relationship with her, I continue to use light as a means of characterising her. The second time they meet, in Heaton Park, she is described as radiant. When they start for home after what has been a joyous afternoon, the sun sets behind them. The light faces them as they approach the city centre. When they are about to part, her eyes are shining and she is vivid and bright and something invisible dissolves.
The final act of Boy Wonder takes place at another party, Caitlin’s 50th, where the climax of the story and the resolution of its conflicts takes place, and here, just as much as in the first party, I made abundant use of light. In setting the scene for the ending, I used dim light:
Fires burn in braziers, and lanterns and candles illuminate the solemn faces. Warm light blooms in the windows and doorways and marks a path, however short, through the shadows.
A candle on a table lights Peter’s wife Lucy from below, suggesting a figure in a Caravaggio painting. Peter moves quickly through the party. On the very slight chance that Sanchia might appear, he searches Loston for her, passing through house, courtyard and gardens. “I chase,” he says,
the girl of the long– ago party, of Central Library, of Goulden Road, and pursue the warm light falling from a window at the far end of a street, the glow I want to hold hands with again, no matter how far away, no matter how elusive, the light I’ve been racing the sunset to catch.
The downbeat denouement takes place in gloomy light. A car’s interior lamps cast a low light that illuminates two characters, as if by candle. A bracelet gleams, jam-jar lanterns sway on tree branches, a fog hangs over the road and headlights spring out of the mist, lighting up shadowy foliage that rushes by and disappears into the darkness. Nowhere in the last party is there bright or clear light and each of the references to light I include contributes, I hope, to the emotional tone of the final scenes: muted, sorrowful.
The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes were the most relevant novels to the lost love theme of Boy Wonder and, clearly, I studied them in some depth, but other texts were helpful to me, too. In Great Expectations, Pip falls for Estella in the nightmare landscape of Miss Havisham’s house, just as Peter falls for Sanchia in the enchanted realm of Loston Manor. Estella later betrays Pip with one society beau after another, breaking his heart. Sanchia finishes with Peter and he deduces afterwards that she has done more than leave him; she has betrayed him. It helped me as I fashioned Peter’s yearning for Sanchia to study the way Dickens creates emotional tone in the chapters where the love-sick Pip follows Estella round dazzling parties and watches her dance and flirt with suitors who are richer and more assured than him. Turgenev’s First Love demonstrates the behaviour of a young man in love for the first time and taught me a good deal about how to write one of my own. François Truffaut’s series of autobiographical films, which follows his alter ego Antoine Doinel between the ages of 12 and 35, greatly influenced the writing of Boy Wonder. The second of them, Love At Twenty, was at least as helpful as First Love with the challenge of writing a young man’s first experience of love. It also reminded me of how painful it can be when the one you love doesn’t love you.
I don’t know how many times I redrafted the ending of Boy Wonder. I thought I’d finished the book in summer 2014 and then again, a year later and so on, right through to summer 2018. Throughout, I spent more time on the ending than any other part of the novel. In George Plimpton’s 1958 Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway [vii] the author claimed to have rewritten the ending of A Farewell To Arms 39 times. Plimpton asked what it was that had stumped him. “Getting the words right,” Hemingway replied.  I wrote and rewrote my ending at least 20 times, and, as I did so, studied the endings of novels better than I could hope to write.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer’s passionate love affair with a woman, Madame Olenek, whom his society and his loyalty to his fiancée prevent him from marrying. Half a lifetime later, when he is a widower, a moment comes when he has the opportunity to be reunited with her. This had enough overlap with Boy Wonder to make it worth studying. At the end of the Wharton novel, Archer is about to go up to see her in her Paris apartment, to be reunited after a gap of decades, but baulks at the last moment:
Archer sat down on the bench and continued to gaze at the awninged balcony… He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a manservant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.[viii]
After all that has gone before, this is such a poignant moment: just when he might be at the threshold of the happiness that has eluded him in his married life, the novel’s hero turns back. Does he do so out of wisdom or fear? It doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that he turns away that makes the moment affecting. I re-wrote the ending of Boy Wonder so many times because of prevaricating about whether it should be sweet, bitter or bittersweet. Without giving it away, in one part of the ending I’ve settled on, I’ve tried to emulate Wharton’s subtle effect.
Rather than bittersweet, the end of the love story in David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago – which, for me, is more dramatic than that of Pasternak’s novel – is ironic and devastating and packs a considerable emotional wallop. The lovers, Zhivago and Lara, lose one another, and the ructions of civil war and Soviet regime keep them apart for decades. The tragic climax comes when the old Zhivago, his health ruined, is passing through the streets of Moscow on a tram and sees Lara. He stands to get off, but the crowded tram prevents him and he goes back to the window. As the tram passes her, he calls her name and thumps his hands against the window, but she doesn’t notice. He battles his way off the tram and begins to pursue her on foot, stumbling weakly. Lara carries on walking away from him, oblivious to what is happening behind her, and Zhivago’s heart gives out and he falls to the ground, dead. The implication here is identical to that in the endings of Meaulnes, Gatsby, and The Age of Innocence, and, if I could pull it off,of By Wonder, too: the past is not a place you can return to.
Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar is a comic novel with an unhappy, but not too unhappy, ending; perfect for my purposes. Billy has planned to escape the restrictive Northern town he lives in and go to London with the blonde, beautiful Liz, who represents liberation and adventure. At the end of the novel, Billy meets her at the railway station to catch the last train, but is disappointed:
‘I’m not coming, you know, Billy.’
She shook her head. ‘I won’t live with you, Billy.”[ix]
A few lines later, she backtracks on the decision and tells Billy that she will go with him, on one condition. He knows that she means he would have to marry her and both tacitly acknowledge that he will be unable to make this commitment. In Boy Wonder, the reason the young Peter and Sanchia break up is because of his inability to commit to the relationship. Waterhouse’s ending showed a way of mirroring this at the end of my novel and suggested a way of constructing the affecting ending I aspired to. John Shlesinger’s film of Billy Liar develops the novel’s already subtle ending. Here, Billy goes as far as entering the train carriage with her, but under the pretext of buying her a carton of milk, he returns to the station concourse and deliberately misses the train. That, the refusal of the call to freedom and adventure, is what I wanted to achieve in Boy Wonder’s ending. I studied both film and book to see how the emotional effect was created and I borrowed one particular aspect of the film version’s final scene. Billy times it so that he runs up the platform with two cartons of milk just as the train is leaving the station. Liz sees his failed attempt to board the train again, it’s clear to her that Billy has deliberately missed the opportunity to go to London with her, a complicated expression plays across her face, one of regret and compassion. It’s an effect I’ve tried to emulate with Sanchia at the end of my novel: “The expression on her face [is] a get well soon card, not a Valentine’s.”
Billy Liar fed into my novel in another way. I learned from studying the resemblance between these two protagonists. Peter Duffy is a daydreamer, and as I thought about the best way to realise this I was drawn back to Billy, the daydreamer’s daydreamer in British fiction. In Keith Warehouse’s novel, the hero’s fantasy sequences are set in Ambrosia, the imaginary world in which Billy is a conquering hero. The first begins:
By rights, the march-past started in the Avenue of Presidents, but it was an easy thing to shift the whole thing into Town Square. My friends had vantage seats on the town hall steps where no flag flew more proudly than the tattered end blue star of the Ambrosia Federation, the standard we had carried into battle. [x]
The fantasy sequences are in prose, like the rest of the novel, and the narrative flows seamlessly in and out of them. In the film version, the visual nature of the medium, the high production values and the design, costume, settings and props of the fantasy sequences make them stand out more emphatically from the rest of the film, the real world of a Northern English town in the early 60s. The Ambrosia of the film is more dramatic and more distinct from its reality than is the case with the novel.
In the earliest drafts of Boy Wonder, Peter, (who is a serial fantasist and admits at one point that “a fact could come up and slap me in the face with a freshly caught trout and I still wouldn’t get it”), had regular flights of fantasy about what it would be like when he was reunited with Sanchia. Each was about half a page and they were in the same discourse as the rest of the novel, prose fiction:
I smile at the memory of Lucy and Jack waving me off at Piccadilly.
‘It’s for the best,”Lucy says. ‘We haven’t been happy together for a long time. And did I say? I’m seeing someone. Jeremy, actually. He’s made you some lunch for the journey: So you don’t have to worry about me.’
‘That’s right, Dad,”Jack says. ‘It’ll be great. I’ll go to university in London, and you and I can see each other all the time.’
In the final months of redrafting, I rewrote these fantasy sequences as screenplays, and presented in the industry– standard font: Courier. They now had a different appearance from the rest of the novel, and looked more distinct on the page from the novel’s reality:
INT. PICCADILLY STATON, MANCHESTER.
LUCY and JACK are on the platform. PETER has one foot on the train and a suitcase in his hand.
It’ll be great. I’ll go to university in London, and we can meet up every week.
It’s for the best. We haven’t been happy for a long time. And did I say? I’m seeing someone, so you don’t have to worry about me. It’s Jeremy, actually.
[Holding up a small gift bag and handing it to him.]
He’s made you some goats’ cheese filo parcels for the train.
I hoped these changes would accentuate the difference between reality and fantasy as much as Schlesinger’s technique achieved the same in Billy Liar.
In the scores of drafts I wrote in search of an ending that was both just and satisfying for readers, I played around with what happened and with the tone. The endings I’ve mentioned so far are somewhere on the spectrum between happy and unhappy, but another aspect of them is whether or not they are open or closed. The Age of Innocence, for example, has a closed ending, as does Billy Liar. Archer is not reunited with Madame Olenek; Billy has burned his boats with Liz. As I wrestled with the conclusion of mine, another novel I looked at was The Catcher In the Rye, in which the ending is open:
That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t. [xi]
The implication of Salinger’s ending is that although Holden Caulfield is not in a good place now, in time he may be. The last we see of Peter and Lucy, they’re in the sky-bar of Manchester’s Hilton hotel, finally out together and trying to move forward with their stalled marriage.
A jaunty waitress arriving to take our order took the library off my mind and we said which drinks we’d like.
‘Listen.’ I took my phone from my pocket and held it out to her. ‘Would you mind?’
‘No.’ Lucy produced her iPhone. ‘This one’s better.’
The pretty young waitress smiled and waited for us to make up our minds.
The joy of the open ending is that it keeps reader’s mind active – a fiction writer’s top priority – by leaving them with a question.
All of these works of fiction chimed with my ambition for Boy Wonder – that it should be about the unsuccessful pursuit of love, and about its elusive nature. Each has emotional scenes that encapsulate what I wanted to say about romantic love: that at least some of it happens in the imagination, that it is always about the pursuit of something that can’t be caught. Half of my novel is about Peter’s pursuit of Sanchia. He moves through the initial party, the one set in the past, coming upon her only at the end of the many pages that it takes him to get to the party and make his way through it, scratching for something and it’s not clear what until the end of that particular narrative, until he encounters her for the first time. In the present day, after he has restrained himself for many chapters, he sets off in pursuit of Sanchia again, racing through London, running after the beloved, and, at the final party of the novel, on the move all the time, as he had been in the first, still looking for her, still seeking and searching.
Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series helped me write a young man in love, but it influenced Boy Wonder in other ways, too. Like Peter Duffy and Billy Liar, Doinel is a romantic and a daydreamer. I didn’t base Peter on Antoine, but seeing the similarities between them deepened my understanding of my protagonist. “’Antoine Doinel was Romeo, in love with the idea of being in love,’” Peter says in the later stages of Boy Wonder, and goes on to declare:
“Being in love with the idea of being in love is normal when you’re an adolescent, perhaps acceptable when you’re in your twenties, but when you’re on the lip of 50, it’s stupid.”
Here and in one of my fantasy film scripts, Peter and Antoine are juxtaposed, but I paid homage in other ways, too. One scene in Baisers Volés features Antoine in his Paris bedsit, standing in front of a mirror, staring at himself and repeating the name of his girlfriend, over and over, many more times than this: Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon. In Boy Wonder, I reference this scene when Peter describes it to Sanchia and allude to it in the title of the first section of the book that’s set in the past: Sanchia Page Sanchia Page Sanchia Page Sanchia Page Sanchia Page. (The title of one of the novel’s other sections – The Bourgeois Sentimentalist – references Truffaut, too: it’s the description Jean Luc Godard once used to dismiss him.).
I consciously lifted one of Antoine Doinel’s characteristics and gave it to Peter. In most of the films, especially Baisers Volés and L’Amour En Fuite, Antoine is often seen running, on a quest, dashing after a girlfriend or former girlfriend. From the earliest drafts, Peter is a man with a mission, too, a knight on a quest, and, as just mentioned, always in pursuit of his new love or his lost love. In these drafts, two key scenes feature him running after Sanchia, the first within a year of the end of the relationship, the second in the present day of the novel, when this middle– aged man runs through the streets of Notting Hill in pursuit of her. Seeing how I had already had him running at these two points of the story, and after watching the Doinel films again, I consciously made Peter run in scenes where he hadn’t in previous drafts. In an earlier version of a scene where he goes to meet Sanchia in an art gallery café, he arrives like this: “I rounded a corner and came into the café, and there she was, at a table in the middle”. But after watching the Doinel films again, I expanded this moment to emphasise the way Peter, like Antoine, is a character who is always in a hurry:
I rounded a corner and came into the café, and there she was, at a table in the middle, poised and calm. I ran towards her, sliding on my leather soles along the café’s parquet tiles, shooting along the surface like a kid.
Because I have been very familiar with these films for most of my adult life, other references to them crept into my story. Early in the strand set in the past, Peter tells Sanchia about the Doinel series and she says she would love to see them with him. Out of this moment, conflict and an important plot point grows. At the other end of the book, a scene that ties all the threads of the story together, resolving the conflicts, also came out of paying close attention to the Truffaut films.
Photographs have been important part in the writing of Boy Wonder. I’ve been a passionate lover of films for most of my life, so I have always cherished the cinema where the seeds of that interest were sown: the Tonic, the art deco cinema in Bangor, Co Down that I used to go to when I was growing up. For years, a framed photograph of it has hung on the wall of my study. I used the picture as a talisman in Boy Wonder, a symbol to Peter of his father’s love: the first time he sees a film is at the Tonic with his father, Ray. It seemed to me an obvious choice to use this photograph in this way. Peter inherits the photograph when his father dies, but because they were alienated, he has never taken it out of the bubble-wrap it came in. That’s not the only significant photograph in my novel, though, and the symbolism of the second grew out of studying a Doinel film. This photo, the one I have mentioned, is of the young Sanchia wearing a Panama hat, and readers know from the start of the novel that, because of what he thinks it signifies, it upsets present-day Peter. In the final year of writing, I revisited L’Amour En Fuite. Close to the end of the film, a photograph of Antoine’s lover, Sabine Barnerias, comes back into his possession. In the final scene, the couple stand in the record shop she works in and she tells him she doesn’t want to see him again. She says he’s a pick-up merchant, that their relationship only started when he saw her through the shop window and came in and chatted her up, just the way other pick-up merchants had. Not, so, Antoine says and begins to tell her his story, which we see in flashback. He is standing outside a phone booth in which a man is shouting angrily at the person on the other end of the line. Antoine watches and listens until the caller takes a photograph out of his pocket, tears it to pieces, throws it on the floor, hangs up and storms off. Antoine goes into the booth, picks up the fragments of the photograph and sees that it is of a young woman. He takes it home, reassembles it using adhesive, and, once he sees the woman properly, is smitten. The photograph has the address of a photographer’s shop stamped on the back and Antoine sets off on a quest to find her. After many cul de sacs, he eventually tracks her down. At this point in the story, we return to the present of the film, and Antoine and Sabine in the record shop. He produces the photo, which is of her, Sabine, and the lovers’ story comes to a happy conclusion.
Studying L’Amour En Fuite inspired me to have Peter tear up the photo of Sanchia in the Panama hat. When he finds it not long after they broke up, he’s devastated and jumps to conclusions about what it means. In these circumstances, it was reasonable for him to tear it up. Since it’s almost the last photograph of her he has, it was also feasible that he might regret what he did and immediately stick the picture back together. When I stole the torn-up photograph of Sabine, I had no plans for it other than paying homage in a small way to L’Amour En Fuite. However, I came to study my photograph as, whether intact or torn up, it also represented a key element of my plot. Throughout the novel, we understand that Peter is trying to find Sanchia, ostensibly with the aim of restoring their relationship. When he eventually finds her again, he shows her this photograph and asks if it means what it appears to: that she had betrayed him (in a way the reader understands) when they broke up. Now we see that the possibility of restoring his lost relationship with Sanchia is not the only reason for his quest – and perhaps not even the most significant one. A third narrative strand running though the novel concerns the young Peter’s disenchantment with his father, which in the end leads to Peter cutting off with him – because of the Panama hat photograph and what he thinks it signifies. At the final party, he confronts Sanchia with this photograph and effectively asks her if it means what he thinks it means. Understandably, she reacts angrily. The photograph doesn’t mean what he has believed for the past 25 years. When Sanchia calms down and forgives him, she asks for the Panama hat photograph, takes it, tears it up and gives the pieces back to him. In this action, the conflicts in the two key relationships of Peter’s youth are resolved. Sanchia didn’t betray him and neither did his father. Also, the act of tearing up the photograph suggests that his longing for the past is over. Now, in regard to Sanchia, he can move on. Just as importantly, he can forgive his late father; in fact, he sees that there was nothing to forgive him for. So when he gets home, he takes the Tonic photograph out of its bubble-wrap and hangs it up. The Panama hat photo has achieved all of this.
I took Sabine’s photograph from Truffaut without knowing what I could do with it – really, I only lifted it for a lark – but as I let it gestate in my unconscious, I discovered that it became the point where the central conflicts of Boy Wonder could intersect and be resolved. The photograph of Sabine was something shiny that appealed to my inner magpie. I had stolen it to decorate my text and, I suppose, pay homage to one of my favourite films. The theft might have ended there, but I contemplated it at length and considered how I might use it to some effect. And I found a way. I studied the torn-up photograph of Sabine and saw how the whole plot of L’Amour En Fuite turned on it. I looked at that scene and that prop and read it as a writer, looked beneath the surface, and came to understand how I could imitate it and construct a satisfying ending. Reverse engineering led me to that, led me right through the processes involved in completing this novel.
In conclusion, I might say that I knew the themes of my novel, found other novels with similar ones and read them as a writer and took them apart to see what I could learn. I might equally well say that my novel emerged from my imagination and sought out all it would need to be completed, attracted everything relevant to its purpose the way a magnet attracts iron filings to itself. So it found what it needed, Le Grand Meaulnes, The Great Gatsby, Billy Liar, the Antoine Doinel series and the reassembled Sabine Barnerias photograph – but that would be a different essay.
[First published in NAWE’s Writing In Pratice, Vol. 5, 2019]
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Alain–Fournier, Henri. Le Grand Meaulnes. (1968)London: Harrap.
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Leach, Heather. (2005) ‘Reading As A Writer’, in Graham et al, The Road To Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Rogers J. (1992) in Monteith, Moira and Miles, Robert, (eds.) Teaching Creative Writing. London, Open University Press.
Pasternak, Boris. (2011) Doctor Zhivago London: Vintage Classics.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. (1989) Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New York: Routledge.
Salinger, J.D. (1958) The Catcher in the Rye. London: Penguin Books.
Updike, John. (2000) More Matter: Essays and Criticism. New York: Fawcett Books.
Waterhouse, Keith. (1962) Billy Liar. London: Penguin Books.
Wharton,Edith. (1996) The Age of Innocence. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. (2014) Directed by Francois Truffaut. 424 minutes. Criterion Collection. DVD.
Billy Liar. (2013) Directed by John Schlesinger. 96 minutes. Criterion Collection. DVD.
Dr Zhivago. (2010) Directed by David Lean. 192 minutes. Warner Home Video. DVD.
Plimpton, George (1958) Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction. New York: The Paris Review, Issue 21. Available from: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/ernest-hemingway-the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway [18 June 2018]
[i] Leach, Heather, in p. 74.
[ii] Gardner, p. 10.
[iii] John Updike, p 418.
[iv] Fitzgerald, p. 8.
[vii] Plimpton, The Paris Review, Issue 21
[viii] Wharton, p. 368.
[ix] Waterhouse, p. 184.
[x] Waterhouse p. 5.
[xi] Salinger, p. 192.