Monday, November 12, 2007

GENTS and Warwick Collins.

A few weeks ago I read GENTS by Warwick Collins. Although it is a short novel (about 20 000 words, I'd guess) it asks some big questions and challenges the way most of us see things. It is set in a men's public convenience (hence the title) which is a place frequented by both men - who simply want to 'spend a penny' (or 20 pence in today's currency) - and 'reptiles' (according to the characters in the book) who come for sexual assignations.

The establishment is tended by three men from the West Indies and I was particularly impressed with the dialogue which struck me as authentic and witty.

All three main characters are affectionately and vividly portrayed and their relationships with each other, and particularly with their wives, are sympathetically and touchingly described. Here Ez is in bed with his wife Martha. Both are devout Adventists. Ez has just told her about the activities in some of the cubicles. He continues...
"Mr Reynolds and Jason, they have a war. Keepin' back the tide of perversion. Always looking to throw someone out."
"You help them?"
Martha was silent for a several seconds. She said softly, "You not liking your work?"
"Strange thing is, after a while you don't notice it. Just one of the facts."
Martha turned towards him. He felt the equable shake of the bed and the movement of her large hips. He moved towards her, into her warmth.
Her perplexed face studied him for a few seconds. She relaxed. "Everyone different," Martha said. "Some people different shakes. Some people gay."
As the novel progresses they have to change their beliefs and I was left thinking about the nature of prejudice and the way we are sometimes forced to reassess how we think. The outcome is unexpected and original.

Warwick Collins has kindly agreed to answer a few questions. He turns out to be an extremely interesting man.

Warwick Collins is a novelist, screenwriter and poet. His first published works were a series of poems published in the magazine Encounter in his teens and early twenties. He became a defence analyst and a yacht designer, during which time he invented and patented the tandem keel, which remains one of the radical keels in the America's Cup. He took to writing full time in his forties, and since then has written eight published novels and a similar number of screenplays.


General Questions:

Clare: Do you have any connection with snails?
Warwick: I love snails and slugs. They seem to me like the harmless cows and sheep of that smaller world, innocently processing plant material. In the evenings, when I walk out over the tiles towards my shed to work, there are always several crossing on their way to the greenery on the other side of the path, and I avoid them as carefully as I can.

Clare: What is your proudest moment?
Warwick: Difficult. In my feckless youth I used to be something of an expert on defence strategy, and had addressed as sole speaker the House of Lords All Party Defence Group and the House of Commons Aviation Committee on defence matters. I advocated that jets were very ineffective against tanks and other ground forces (too fast and un-manoeuverable at low heights) and that what we needed to counter a large mobile tank force was a much slower, more manoeuverable aircraft that was driven by fans, had a low infra-red and radar profile, and could survive much better at low level in “ground clutter”. I remember ending up in a formal confrontation with several air marshals at the MoD about its technical suitability, and slowly rolling back their technical objections. It didn’t make any difference in the long term, but I did feel good about winning the argument against such formidable and implacable opponents!

Clare: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
Warwick: The film WITNESS, one of my favourite movies, about an Amish boy who witnesses a murder, is also a fine essay on the long term effects of violence. Implicit in it is the notion that retribution and counter-retribution is never-ending. It didn’t turn me into a pacifist, but it helped to take the decision to move out of defence strategy/consultancy and into writing fiction in due course.

Clare: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
Warwick: A girl with an eating disorder who seemed wracked by a grief she could never explain.

Clare: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
Warwick: Laziness.

Clare: What is happiness?
Warwick: Not having enough time to consider whether one is happy or not.

Clare: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
Warwick: I’m one of those annoying people who feel fresh when they wake up, so I usually make a cup of tea and go to the computer for a stint of writing.

Questions on writing and GENTS.
Clare: Looking through your page on Amazon I see you've written, by my reckoning, at least seven books starting in 1990 in a range of subjects and styles. How would you sum up your career as a writer?
Warwick: I enjoy the stimulation of adapting method and style to different fictional challenges. That said, my range of subjects and styles has been a real disadvantage in the eyes of English language corporate publishers, who claim they can’t market me coherently. Luckily, my foreign language publishers have tended to regard this range as a sign of virtue.

Clare: How has publishing changed in the last seventeen years?
Warwick: I do think corporate publishing has had a catastrophic effect on publishing generally. The marketing and accounts departments now rule the publishers and editors. I hate it when publishers try to “create” books for a perceived market. The books currently in the bookshops are surely the most mediocre in history.

Clare: Do you see yourself fitting into any genre?
Warwick: No.

Clare: How did GENTS come into being - both in its earlier incarnation and now, again, with The Friday project?
Warwick: GENTS began as a screenplay. I like the screenplay form as an initial means of exploring a dramatic idea, because it’s so tight and formally circumscribed. I informed my then British literary agent, one of the great names in the business, that I enjoyed writing the screenplay and intended turning it into a novel. He wrote back saying that “on no account” should I turn it into a novel, and refused to give any further explanation. I ignored his advice. He then refused to send the novel out to publishers, and eventually I had to submit it myself. Luckily, Marion Boyars published it. Needless to say, my agent didn’t remain my agent for long. This year Scott Pack and the Friday Project did a wonderful job in republishing it. I have to admit that a little imp inside me wanted to send my former agent a copy of his original letter telling me not to write GENTS as a novel, along with the recent review of GENTS in the Times as a modern classic, and ask for his response. But I resisted the temptation – not least because I know it wouldn’t make an iota of difference to his paternalistic attitudes.

Clare: One of the impressive features of GENTS is the dialogue - humorous, authentic and yet conveys a serious message at the same time. Do you work on this or do you 'just' have an ear?
Warwick: I do love the rhythms of speech. For some reason I felt at home in the West Indian patois. After publication, a good moment occurred when two fine actors of West Indian ancestry, Colin Salmon and Oscar James, asked to meet me in order to discuss a role in any possible film or play of GENTS. After shaking hands, Colin said, “I can’t believe you’re not black.” Much appreciated.

Clare: I also liked the way GENTS seems to be a very accessible book and yet conveys quite a complicated message about prejudice and people's behaviour. Do you start with a message in mind?
Warwick: I’m afraid I do enjoy beginning with an ideological confrontation of some kind, but I also accept that it’s a very risky approach, because there’s always the chance that the characters will just be two-dimensional mouthpieces. To me at least, the summit of literature is a combination of fierce ideological or political or social confrontation with rounded, preferably sympathetic characters. One of my favourite books is THE SCARLET LETTER, which is also a magnificent satire on Puritanism, and HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which I would submit is also one of the greatest essays on the moral difficulties of slavery. I do think that combination is profoundly absent amongst modern novels. To my eye at least, the best relatively recent example is a group of so-called “children’s books”, for example Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, which is also a powerful, subtle and engrossing interrogation of organized religion. I wish our literary novelists would engage as sincerely and naturally with great issues.

Clare: Is GENTS going to have a sequel? What are your future plans?
Warwick: I doubt very much if GENTS will have a sequel. I know this sounds strange, but GENTS is a better book than I remember writing. It seems to exist outside me now, as an independent character on its own. So I wouldn’t even attempt to match it, and prefer to try something different.

Regarding future plans, for the last seven years or so I have been concentrating mostly on writing short novels, which I call mini-novels, of about 10,000 words or approximately 50 pages each. I would submit mini-novels differ from short stories or novellas in always having a clear arc of narrative – a beginning, a middle and an end. Amongst published works, one of the closest in form and style to that ideal is probably BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, by E Annie Proulx. I’ve completed over 50 of these mini-novels now and am looking forward to the first group being published by the Friday Project in the next two years, probably in a group of 12 published at the rate of one a month.


Blogger Susangalique said...

there is a lot of good stuff in this interview.

thats interesting about about the publishing world. It seems that everything is debased now. If I ever write anything, I am going to put it in my jewlery box.

loved Witness to

Mon Nov 12, 11:33:00 pm  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

You are amazingly productive, you know that don't you?
I have given your blog name as an interesting one over at poefrica

Tue Nov 13, 07:04:00 am  
Blogger wyndskald said...

Cottaging has generated some interesting ewesages, eg "Gloryhole" . When
we lived on the west coast, the police after months
of surveillance, arrested a number of local"Cottagers",
including a retired local farmer of 72 who promptly
drowned himself rather than face the shame of trial.
The Loch(Clue: Ms Dodman) he chose had the same as his
recently deceased wife. This story has haunted me for a
while. It was not a country much frequented by snails
but beloved by slugs. Something to do with pH.

Tue Nov 13, 10:45:00 am  
Blogger Motheratlarge said...

Intriguing. I've been curious to know more about Warwick Collins since reading and enjoying Gents. Something about the book seems to defy easy categorisation. I'd never have imagined its author worked in defence. I don't know what this says about my prejudices, but I made the mistake of assuming Warwick Collins was from the West Indies himself. Yet another way in which this book is challenging my assumptions. Great interview. I enjoyed it.

Tue Nov 13, 01:42:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

Thanks S - you're very are you, CB!

Ah Wyndskald, I do like a I take it you are Scottish...and I too am much enthralled by your tale about the cottager (who presumably actually lived in a cottage - now where did that term come from, I wonder? I'd always assumed it was because the men went from 'cottage' to 'cottage' or cubicle to cubicle like some dubious salesman touting for business). And do slugs prefer a different pH from snails? I'd not heard that before. I'm a Dud rather than a Dod, though, I'm afraid.

And 'Motheratlarge' yes, I too was convinced that Warwick was from the West Indies - I think because he seemed to me to get the dialogue so right. Also the name 'Warwick' resembles, in my mind at least, the name 'Winston' - which seems to be a popular choice over there.

I'm very glad you enjoyed the interview - I did too. All due to Warwick, of course!

Tue Nov 13, 04:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see Warwick every day in my local Pub when he appears out of nowhere on his "stealth" bike!! Is truly fascinating to talk to!

Mon Oct 06, 01:37:00 pm  

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