“Do you ever read my blog?” I say, topping up our glasses with the new bottle of white wine I’ve just bought here in the Mr Morris Wine Bar. It’s around ten o’clock on a Wednesday evening and Ben has been talking, for most of the first bottle, about how badly his book shop is doing. It’s a familiar theme and one I sympathise with, even if I do buy most of my books from Amazon.
“Yes, of course I do,” he says, “along with the other hundred thousand writers’ blogs that clog up the ether with rather obvious remarks made in a surprisingly knowing tone.”
I feel this sarcastic remark may off-set my Amazon treachery somewhat.
“Last time, I wrote about openings to stories,” I say.
“I know. You talked about how important it is to get the tone right with an opening.”
“I thought you didn’t read it.”
“I don’t have to, because you always talk about it, so I get the gist.”
“Oh. So can I gist you with what comes after the opening?”
“You can try but that’s probably the most predictable bit.”
“Take self-help books,” he says. “I sell a lot of them; well I did before everyone decided to sacrifice their souls to a faceless international giant that doesn’t care about anything but feeding its endless fiscal appetite. Anyway, I’m pretty good at advising my customers which book is the one they most need.”
“You must read a lot of them, then.”
“No, that’s the point: the most I ever read is the introduction to a self-helper. That always sets out everything that’s going to appear in the rest of the book, nicely summarised.”
“So, why would anyone read the whole book?”
He shrugs. “I guess some people need the message repeated in a hundred different ways until they get the point.”
“Okay, but fiction is different to that,” I say.
“Well, it should be but a lot of it is just as predictable.”
As I’m thinking about this, he really goes for the narrative jugular.
“It’s the same with relationships. You meet a girl; it’s an exciting new beginning; could go anywhere, be anything. But in fact, anyone watching from the outside can easily predict that in no time at all the two of you will be watching the One Show every night, drinking a bottle of wine too many, having perfunctory sex a couple of times a month and basically waiting for death.”
“Jesus, do you have a self-help book that deals with that?” I say.
He smiles, drinks more wine.
“You don’t deal with it by pretending it’s not an inevitable factor of starting anything,” he says. “So, with a story, you set up a character in a situation with a problem then you have to tell the reader more about the specific nature of the problem, and about the world it’s taking place in. No way of avoiding it. Otherwise all you have is one of those dickhead thriller stories that rocket on from one drastic scene to another till you get to the end and realise you don’t give a damn about any of the characters involved.”
“So,” I say, “the trick is to do the predictable in an interesting way. That’s the ‘what follows’ bit.”
“Yes, and it’s what sorts out the writer men from the writer boys. The boys can set up a dramatic opening but what they can’t do is carry the reader through the exposition bits that need to follow. Instead, they try to skip through it quick and get to the next exciting part. Men writers, however, use the what follows bit to make you care about the characters.”
“And to do that, they have to care about the characters themselves.”
“I think they have to like the characters, too, whatever their function in the story, even the bad guys.”
I don’t have any time for royalty, I think, but I like the royal characters I write about sometimes.
This is what follows for Princess Gertrude in ‘[Dragon]’:
She searched his green eyes.
“I saw you missing the lines,” he said.
She climbed down and went to the balustrade, leaning far out into the night so he would tell her not to, but he didn’t.
“It’s bad luck to step on them,” she said. “And I’m going to need lots of luck tonight, because you won’t tell me anything about the dragon.”
She studied the big, hissing fountains and their wide, rippling pools below, and the busy little dots of the servants between them. As always, she wished she could fly down and surprise them by stepping on their heads very fast, keeping her balance, like sprinting over the rocks by the sea.
A strong gust of jasmine smothered her thoughts; the cicadas scratched in a tingly way at her ears, and suddenly she wanted to eat lots of cake. But she couldn’t eat anything tonight, they’d told her; tradition forbade it.
She frowned, realising her father hadn’t spoken, even though she still leaned out dangerously and for all he knew, could be dribbling spit on to the people below.
She turned to see him a few paces away, noticing for once the perfectly pressed navy tunic and cloak, the shiny polished black boots, and the thin gold crown in his black and grey hair, winking in the moon’s peach glow.
She became aware of the sagging trousers and loose cotton shirt she’d worn for the last six days straight, and the muddy boots she wouldn’t let the maids touch. She pulled matted red hair away from her face and said, “I suppose you want the servant women to scrub me with lime and pile up my hair like a big red bum on top of my head, and put me in a white dress with a girdle under it that will make me spew up everywhere.”
“Gertie, you know it’s–“
“Ah! Of course–that’s why I can’t eat tonight: so there’s nothing for my girdle to squeeze out.”
He looked away from her, at the moon or the spaces between the stars, and at last she felt the fear they’d said would only be natural.
He turned away, walked back into her room. She followed, not bothering to miss the lines this time. He sat on her favourite oak trunk, next to her bed, gently moving aside her woollen owl and fox to make room.
She sat on the edge of her bed and waited while he traced a wooden leaf with his finger.
“You’ll be the first princess in over a hundred years,” he said, “and, after I’m gone, the first queen since Marlianne.”
“I know that, Daddy. But I don’t want to be queen.”
He didn’t seem to hear. “When I was at my turning age like you, I didn’t need to meet the dragon to become a prince.” He looked up, his smile like a forgotten promise. “But girls have to meet the dragon before they can become a princess.”
“I don’t believe in the dragon,” she said. “No one’s ever seen it.”
“It lives forever, Gertie. It came a hundred years ago and it will come again tonight.”
He’d caught her in his arms so many times, when she’d fallen out of trees or slipped off the saddle, and often he’d brushed aside the servants to wipe the blood and dirt from her knees himself. But he wouldn’t be there tonight.
“Mother told me about it once,” she said, “when I was very young. She said Queen Marlianne was a just and respected ruler of Arcanadia.”
She pictured her mother’s flowing red hair and always occupied green eyes–before the sickness had sucked all the person out of her. She met her father’s gaze and knew he saw the same picture.
“But,” she went on, not wanting to, “no one knows what happened to Marlianne when she met the dragon. Because all the stupid books say you have to meet it alone.”
He said nothing, stricken at last.
“She lived a long life,” Gertie said, “but without a husband or children.”
The King of Arcanadia stood and went to his daughter; he took her in his arms and squeezed so tightly it hurt but she said nothing.
“There’s an awful lot of awful written shit in the world, calling itself art,” says Ben as we’re nearing the end of the second bottle and wondering if we can or should fit in another before Mr Morris decides to call it a night. “Because, I reckon, a lot of people want to be a writer than be a writer.”
“But why would anyone want to read shit?” I say.
He shakes his head at this, knowing I know the answer.
“For the same reason,” he says, “they can’t stop their relationships falling into the trap of being highly predictable and not in an interesting way.”
I stand, having decided that any more wine is going to mean the downhill walk from here to home is in danger of turning into a downhill arms-whirling sprint, ending abruptly and painfully in Nige’s hedge.
“What comes after the bit that comes after?” I say.
He stands and we walk out into the Brockley night, full of coloured splashes of light from the fried chicken takeaway and the rather blaring bus shelter.
“Either,” he says, “the reader is comatose with predictability or he’s joined hands with the author and they’re entering a temporary but highly fulfilling civic relationship that only a truly satisfying end to a story can better.”
I think of saying something but don’t because I reckon he’s probably right.