Posts Tagged ‘Patrick O’Duffy’

What with all the ranting and soforth that constitutes the majority of my output here at Shattersnipe, I’ve decided to class up the joint by incoporating author interviews and guest blogs as part of its semi-regular fare. By way of inaguration, let me introduce you to Patrick O’Duffy, an upstanding layabout, editorial ninja and self-published author of the Melbournian persuasian who I first met via the auspices of a mutual dayjob. Patrick’s new novel, The Obituarist, is a sharp, fun murder mystery with a social media twist; my review of it is here, and you can also keep up with Patrick via Twitter and his blog.

So, without any further ado: let the interviewing commence!

The Obituarist reads as a modern, self-aware take on the classic noir and hardboiled detective genres – a sort of stripped-down, blackly humorous homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Rather than being a PI, your protagonist and narrator, Kendall Barber, makes a living by tidying up the online affairs of the recently deceased, putting up tribute pages for bereaved families and removing the risk of identity fraud. What lead you to connect such an interesting and recent niche profession with golden age gumshoe stories?     

I had the ‘social media undertaker’ idea back in, hmm… early 2010? I was using Facebook and Twitter and so on and saw how people who voluntarily left those platforms still left traces behind that they might then have to go back to clean up – and how, in a handful of sad cases, someone else would have to do that work because their relative or friend had died, leaving this constant reminder behind. It struck me that there was story potential in that, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

When I first started mulling over the idea, I was mostly thinking in terms of sci-fi, fantasy or horror, because these are the genres in which I’ve mostly worked in the past. At one point, years ago, I’d sketched some ideas for a story where an online historian ‘audits’ the lives of other people to turn into presentations, and he realises that some of them are based in alternate timelines. (That’s a cool concept, and I may still come back to it one day.) But I decided that it might also be a chance to play around in the crime genre, which I’ve enjoyed for decades as a reader but barely ever written.

Still, ‘social media’ on its own isn’t really a strongly compelling concept for a crime story, so the idea didn’t develop further – not until I was thinking about identity theft for some reason and realised that leaving unfinished business online would create potential avenues for copying and reusing someone’s identity. At that point the two plotlines of The Obituarist pretty much popped straight into my head, and it was then just a question of fleshing them out and writing the damn thing.

As for why I looked to hardboiled crime stories for inspiration, well, a lot of that is because that’s the kind of crime fiction I like to read. It’s a subgenre where mystery and investigative procedure are major elements, but are nonetheless secondary to character and tone. It’s also a subgenre that tends towards pyrrhic victories and protagonists who lose as much as they win, if not more, and that’s a story direction that’s always appealed to me

Another major reason, though, is that the best works in the genre have an economy of language. One of Chandler’s great strengths as a writer was that he largely eschewed detailed descriptions of people and places, and instead used simile, metaphor, voice and dialogue to communicate personality, rather than appearance, to the reader. This let him sketch things out quickly and broadly so that he could then focus on characters and action. I didn’t want to specifically emulate that writing style – it’s been done too often by too many writers – but I wanted to find my own way of compressing description and character so that I could fit a worthwhile, moderately complex story into a 22 000-word novella. So in looking to Chandler for inspiration in writing style, it was natural to also look to him for inspiration when it came to genre, tone and story structure.

You say in your dedication that, although the book is partly for him, Raymond Chandler would probably hate it. What makes you say that?

I think Chandler was not just a pioneer of the crime genre but one of the great American writers of the 20th century. He wrote crime fiction not because he loved the genre but because he thought that the techniques of good writing could and should transcend the limitations of genre. And he was right. The way he approached character and tone, the way he used simile, the way he transplanted Shakespearean concepts of nobility and tragedy into a genre that had previously lacked much depth… he was a genius.

But he was also, well, kind of a dick – a prissy, bitter, homophobic misanthrope with a very low opinion of modern life. And ‘modern life’ in this context is the 1940s. He didn’t like people, he didn’t like technology, he didn’t like change. Things like social media, the internet, the way the boundaries of ‘community’ have swelled and changed shape due to technology – oh man, he would have just crawled into a whiskey bottle and died rather than accept any of that.

For that reason, along with a few other bits and pieces of the story, I’m pretty sure Chandler would just cut me dead if we met at a party. And that’s okay. He probably wouldn’t like the parties I throw anyway – too much playing of Rock Band.

As a narrator, Kendall is self-deprecating without being self-pitying, while the setting is less atmospheric than it is ambiguously everyday. Given the overwhelming tendency of noir and hardboiled characters to brood angstily about their tortured pasts in convenient alleys while the rain falls darkly on their trenchcoats, was it a conscious decision to try and subvert the more gothic, melodramatic elements of the genre, or just a consequence of your particular narrative voice?

I think that the kind of tendency you’re talking about is really an overstatement. It’s a stereotype of the genre that came from secondary texts like films of the 1960s and 1970s, which exaggerated the tropes of hardboiled stories to make them more overt and accessible to the broadest possible audience. Semiotic cues like voiceover monologues, muted lighting, rain and alleyways – these were all overt tools filmmakers used to emphasise tone and character in situations where subtlety wouldn’t work. And somewhere along the line, the idea developed that those exaggerated tools were in fact the core tropes and conventions of the subgenre – that it’s a genre of brooding and angst.

When you go back and look at the original source texts (Chandler, Hammett, Thompson etc.) or at the better modern writers in the genre, such as Mosley and Parker, you get a very different picture of the genre’s emotional makeup. Most of the protagonists in these stories are men (always men) with strong emotions but little sentiment. They feel pain but refuse to show it; they feel love and its loss but internalise it rather than admit their sorrow, their weakness, to others. They hold to a personal concept of nobility that they inevitably have to compromise in some way over the course of the story, and they do so stoically. Actually, that’s a good term – hardboiled crime is very much a genre of stoicism.

Does The Obituarist engage with that stoicism or subvert it? Hmm. Probably a bit of both. I wanted to embed the novella into an everyday sort of context, to tell a story about normal concerns like dealing with loss and controlling our identities, rather than the more esoteric world of detectives and complex, dramatic crimes. But I also wanted to contrast that everyday world with oddities, with offbeat crimes and characters, and to let those normal concerns propel things in strange directions. Plus, you know, have some fights and chase scenes in there for colour.

…hang on, did any of that answer the question? Probably not, now that I look at it again. Sorry. Hazards of studying English literature when I was at Uni long ago.

On the whole, I’d say it was a consequence of the narrative voice rather than something intentional.

And on that note…

Which aspect of The Obituarist are you the most proud of?

I think it would have to be the voice of the book. Voice is probably the most important thing to me as a reader and a writer, both in terms of character voice and in the narrative voice/style used to communicate the text. There are many stories that could be told, but the way you tell them is what makes them compelling, and storytelling is an aspect of voice (among other things).

The thing about the voice in The Obituarist is that it was easy and fun to write. I’ve been working on a novel for several years now, called Arcadia, which has a very specific voice born from a narrator with an often-shaky grip on her emotional state and the difference between reality and imagination. It’s a book I want to write and a story that I think is worth telling, but the complexity of that voice, which is so very different from my own, makes it incredibly hard work and draining work to boot. Every time I work on that book I struggle.

By contrast, I was able to just sit down every night and get into the voice of Kendall like I was turning on a tap. It’s not simply my own voice, although there are similarities, but it’s one I can assume and use as a lens for the story with ease and confidence. And I think that ease and confidence comes out through the story; it makes it a smooth, natural work that you can read easily without it being ‘easy reading’. Well, that’s the hope anyway.

The idea of a digital obituarist-turned-detective is a compelling one. Do you think you’ll ever tell more stories about Kendall and his world?

Oh man, I hope so! I started coming up with ideas for a sequel while I was still working on The Obituarist, and I think I could definitely write more than just one.

In the end, this is a book about three things – death, identity and how technology/social media affects the way we think about death and identity. That’s a pretty solid thematic foundation and it’s one on which you could build any number of stories. The trick will be to do so without falling into formula or into stasis – Kendall and his world need to change in every book. But then again, themes of death and identity allow plenty of room for change, so the potential’s there.

I’d also like the chance to tell more stories about these characters and their city – see, you thought I was all just wanky literary talk, but I like characters and setting too! The city of Port Virtue is only lightly sketched in The Obituarist, and I want to avoid giving it too much detail, but at the same time it has a personality that I’d like to explore. Especially its shady side, which I see as being rife with strange, offbeat crimes and criminals. You probably won’t encounter a car theft ring or second-story burglars – but black marketeers selling high-grade bull semen or forgers of ‘authentic’ Victorian pornography? That’s the kind of thing I’d like to pit against Kendall and his mad social media skills. That could be fun.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.