My daughter was at swimming class last night and I decided to bring along a copy of The Story Begins: Essays on Literature by Israeli author Amos Oz. In it, he quoted Edward A. Said – the Palestinian scholar best known for his theories on Orientalism. The topic was (blessedly) not the Middle East but rather the beginnings of stories.
In the essay ‘What Actually Existed Here Before the Big Bang’, Oz explains that Said ‘has distinguished between “origin” (a passive being) and “beginning” (which he regards as an active concept).’ Excavating the half-page-long footnote below, I pull out: ‘in Said’s view, each beginning is actually an interplay between the familiar and the new.’
This feels right to me because an act of departure has to start from some place of familiarity to a reader, otherwise it could feel like waking up inside a storm. If your first thoughts are, ‘Where am I? What’s happening here? I don’t understand . . .’ it turns the mind away from the story and towards one’s self. In such a case, it’s hard, even impossible, to become swept up in what John Gardner called the fictional dream.
And so . . . a beginning has to start from a place where our feet are on the ground and our eyes are looking straight ahead – even if what we see amazes us. This reminds me of songwriter Paul Simon, explaining in a documentary how he likes to begin his songs with a statement of fact such as, ‘It was a slow day / And the sun was beating /On the soldiers by the side of the road.’ But that small fact creates expectations: a storyteller doesn’t announce that it’s a slow day unless it’s going to speed up – unless something new is coming.
Reading a completed story is like this, but writing one begins further back, with origin, long before there is a beginning. The departure point for the reader is the arrival for the writer.
Radio Life originated as a screenplay. On April 12, 2015, I wrote six and half pages that began with the following opening shot:
EXT. ABANDONED ARMY BASE, AMERICAN NORTHWEST.
A lone man is running across the base towards a bomb shelter as explosions light up the sky. He types a code into the door and pulls it open. Another explosion slams the door into his back and hurls him unconscious down the stairs into the dark. We meet this character in the following scene:
INTERIOR. A MODERN RESEARCH LIBRARY.
The same man is dressed in ‘business casual’ and is stacking books. He is the reference librarian on the same army base. He is wearing a name tag that says, WALTER BERGMAN. A WOMAN in uniform comes in.
Are you the librarian?
Yes. May I help you?
Is there a current events section?
Yes, it’s right over there in aisle three. Let me know if you need help finding something in particular.
In aisle three, all the books are burning.
Afterwards, we find Walter shaking himself awake, sorting himself out and taking up a position by a HAM radio. What follows is a 500-word (!) monologue into the radio that bores me to even think about. I like the library scene, I like the bomb shelter. I love the idea that he’s a librarian. But I hate everything else. Walter is a bore. I immediately give up.
December 16, 2015 (a good eight months later), I’m at it again. I have abandoned Walter to oblivion (sorry, Walter) and I’m starting from scratch. It’s a screenplay again. In it, a husband and wife – Henry (or Henrietta) and Graham Waldman – are waiting ‘in a refurbished bomb shelter designed for corporate team-building among IT nerds’ for their colleagues to arrive. There is going to be a meteor strike in Antarctica (yes, really) and the company has decided to meet there, more out of romance than genuine concern. There’s a HAM radio inside. Nations are getting jittery and because of tensions exacerbated by the meteor. There’s a war . . .
It’s mostly terrible.
But the bomb shelter remains. The idea of it being converted is there. Two characters – a wife and husband – have appeared out of nowhere and whereas Walter was milquetoast, these two have great chemistry, wit and banter. They are intellectual equals who are romantically and sexually charged. I really like them – but I hate the derivative and listless story. I write 20 pages and abandon it.
October 9th, 2016. Almost a year later. Henry and Graham are back. RADIO LIFE is now a post-apocalyptic story set hundreds of years in the future. Except for Henry and Graham, it’s all new: new story new plot, new setting, new mood. The Waldmans have become the Wayworths and their marriage and personalities have transposed beautifully. Their daughter is Alessandra. She is an Archive Runner. Poor boring old Walter is long gone, but his library remains. I write seventy pages of this. It isn’t bad. I feel like I’m onto something. Many of the scenes and much of the dialogue will actually appear in the final novel. But my mind is now recalling a book called A Canticle for Leibowitz that I heard about but haven’t read. There’s a shared premise with that 1959 novel. Am I re-writing it? Am I indebted to it? I need to read it. I do, and abandon the screenplay.
And then I’m back. On March 17, 2017, I actually finish the feature film draft at 99 pages. I have read Canticle and I have boldly come to see Radio Life as being in dialogue with that Hugo Award-winning novel, but this is no homage. I’ve written an original and modern story.
But it’s still not great.
The problem, I have learned, is that I’m a novelist. I need the time and space to spin out the story in long-form; only then can revisit and revise the story afterwards for the screen. My brain doesn’t work the other direction. I therefore decide the story will only be great if I write an entire novel.
So off I go.
For the next three months I pound out the first draft with a great deal of clarity and momentum, because the plot and story and characters are already alive for me. But I’m also struggling to free myself from the screenplay which – I am discovering – is easier said than done. It has its own gravitational pull, and it is destructive because it’s limiting my imagination.
I complete a draft on 8 June, 2017. I have to re-write the novel three more times before I can expunge the screenplay and make this into a book, not a treatment of a flawed screenplay. This takes me until 2020, during which time I also write two other novels, Quiet Time and How to Find Your Way in the Dark. The book is slated for publication in January, 2021, almost six years since Walter fell down those stairs.
These were the origins.
And so it begins: ‘Two riders trace the ridge of the sand sea.’
Meanwhile, as I was reading Oz and Said in preparation for this piece, my nine-year-old daughter jumped off a 5-meter platform into the deep end while I wasn’t looking.
This is what it means to be a writer.
(c) Derek B. Miller
About Radio Life:
In this riveting political thriller, The Commonwealth, a post-apocalyptic civilisation on the rise, is locked in a clash of ideas with the Keepers, a fight which threatens to destroy the world . . . again.
When Lilly was first Chief Engineer at The Commonwealth, nearly fifty years ago, the Central Archive wasn’t yet the greatest repository of knowledge in the known world, protected by scribes copying every piece of found material – books, maps, even scraps of paper – and disseminating them by Archive Runners to hidden off-site locations for safe keeping. Back then, there was no Order of Silence to create and maintain secret routes deep into the sand-covered towers of the Gone World or into the northern forests beyond Sea Glass Lake. Back then, the world was still quiet, because Lilly hadn’t yet found the Harrington Box.
But times change. Recently, the Keepers have started gathering to the east of Yellow Ridge – thousands upon thousands of them – and every one of them determined to burn the Central Archives to the ground, no matter the cost, possessed by an irrational fear that bringing back the ancient knowledge will destroy the world all over again. To prevent that, they will do anything.
Fourteen days ago the Keepers chased sixteen-year-old Archive Runner Elimisha into a forbidden Gone World Tower and brought the entire thing down on her. Instead of being killed, though, she slipped into an ancient unmapped bomb shelter where she has discovered a cache of food and fresh water, a two-way radio like the one Lilly’s been working on for years . . . and something else. Something that calls itself ‘the internet’ .
Radio Life by Derek B. Miller is published by Jo Fletcher Books in hardback on 21st January.
Order your copy online here.