Reprinted by permission
Lily Decker: How's progress on your, uh, novel-in-progress?
Craig Cliff: Novel B? Let's just say we aren't on speaking terms at the moment.
LD: What's the problem?
CC: It's hard to explain without going into too much detail.
LD: Go for it.
CC: But I don't want to say too much. So much is still moving around. I might never finish. It would be foolhardy to throw too much out into the open at this stage.
LD: Maybe if you talk it through, the path will become clearer?
LD: It's worth a shot.
CC: Okay, but if I get final call about what you can print.
CC: Well, the novel is, in part, a continuation of my short story 'Copies'. The main character of Novel B (let's call him Character A) is the narrator of 'Copies'. It didn't start out that way; in fact, I started off writing a kind of detective novel, but that's for another interview. In 'Copies', Character A is about to become a father for the first time, and this prompts him to consider the life (and death) of his own father, who was an artist. Character A is not an artist himself at this stage. When Novel B opens, Character A is struggling with the death of the son who was but a foetus in 'Copies'. After working in an office for several years, Character A begins making art in a deliberate echo of his father.
LD: Sounds interesting.
CC: Perhaps. Or depressing or self-indulgent.
LD: So what's the problem? Why aren’t you on speaking terms at the moment?
CC: It's the art part. In 'Copies', Character A is able to discuss his father's photocopy art with a level of reverence, but at the same time, there's a degree of mystery. Character A was just a child when his father was photocopying photocopies of Nighthawks, so he doesn't know the whole story. That gap -- between the father and the son, the artist and the assistant (and audience) -- means the art is somehow more plausible. In Novel B, with Character A as the narrator again, there is no gap. He's the artist and the means of transmission. Everything he says about his art -- which I'm not even sure the reader is supposed to take seriously -- sounds hokey and insubstantial. If he's ironic about his attempts to follow in his father's footsteps, he sounds too flippant. When I try and play it very straight, the 'fiction' of my art-world shines through.
LD: What do you mean by the fiction of your art-world?
CC: I'm not an artist. I visit galleries and read books about art, but I've never been through the process of putting on my own exhibition. I could talk to artists about it, but I'm not sure that's the solution to my core problem: do I trust myself to pull it off?
LD: So what is the solution?
CC: If I only knew. I've toyed with switching the whole novel into the third person. That way, it's not Character A talking about his own art, but someone else. There's that gap I was talking about before. With a third person narrator I can play it multiple ways. Character A is trying to be an artist but his efforts are hokey and insubstantial. Or Character A is trying to be an artist and his efforts are valid and interesting. The former throws up all sorts of questions about the seriousness of the rest of the book. The latter smacks of someone (me) taking themselves too seriously. A third person narration may be able to traverse a middle ground, but not as well as a first person narrator (think of how often your opinion of yourself and your work fluctuates on a given day). First person provides a level of immediacy in the opening chapters (which are all I'm talking about here), but when the real plot gets going Character A will play the role of observer/interpreter, as he did in 'Copies'. At this time the first person narration will be at one remove from the "action"; a third person narrator would be watching from the cheap seats.
LD: Sounds like you've ruled out third person narration then.
CC: I'm not ruling out anything. I change my mind so often… I haven't solved the problem of how to relate Character A's forays into the art world in an engaging and convincing manner. I’ll just have to write and write until something clicks. The problem, right now, is opening up the latest version and writing.
LD: It keeps coming back to this, doesn’t it?
CC: I've been guilty of taking myself too seriously for years at a time. My best writing has come in those windows where I don't care about publication. When I write what I want. On one level, Novel B is an intensely personal story that I need to write. It's a kind of book I'd like to read (if executed correctly). But, if I read Novel B one week, the next three weeks I'd entirely different books: books with a sense of humour, a sense of abandon, risk-takers; books set in other countries, other times; short story collections and books of poetry; essays, books about birds.
LD: At the risk of sounding like Karen Carpenter, you’ve only just begun. You can write a humorous, historical, globetrotting rip-snorter next time.
CC: I hope to.
LD: But you’ve got to finish Novel B, my friend.
CC: [Nods] I know. It does help to talk these things through.