Researching, Revisiting and Revising by Philip Davison

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Philip Davison

Jack Hinkley, the principal character, observes that no secret is ever the whole truth. This is central to the story and it is this that dictated the structure and the tone of the spy novel I wrote some thirty-five years ago.

It is the late 1980s. Hinkley is employed in the shadow world of MI6. He is the underachieving Station Head in Barcelona. A hijacked jet needs to refuel at Barcelona airport. Chance has delivered into his hands a unique opportunity that will utterly change his life.

This is an intricate spy narrative that reflects the tangled lives of the people who must act – or choose not to act – in response to events, and often without having the whole picture.

Returning to a manuscript that was written so long ago begs some obvious questions for a writer. Is the work still relevant? What about the perspective, the tone, the writing style? Were you to attempt to write that story now how would it differ? In subsequent novels I have been drawn to the challenge of writing simpler narratives with more complex characters. This is not to say that Jack Hinkley and his fellow pilgrims are not to the fore – they must be so if the narrative is to work. The Makeweight, as I recall, was well researched. The then structure of the KGB, British Parliamentary procedure, the committees of the EEC, I would like to think, are all accurately represented. The few details of Moscow life are based on observations made on a trip to that city.

The MakeweightThe novelist must guard against using too much factual information in their text, however seductive it may be. With a complex narrative there is the temptation to stop and explain; to burden the reader with information at the expense of staying in the moment; of keeping the reader in the experience. Reflecting now on the research I undertook for this novel, I think I grasped that it was better to approach from an oblique angle. Were I writing this book today, the angle would be more oblique. Information of itself, does not produce drama or fiction, however much it might be part of the means to light the way. For the writer of fiction their research serves to better equip them in understanding their character’s circumstances and their perspective. That understanding is essential if they are to fully comprehend the decisions their character makes, and the course of action they take.

The danger that presents for the writer who immerses themself in their researches is that they become more risk averse; less attuned to the priorities, fears and desires of their characters in favour of the facts. A writer of fiction or drama most often cannot properly proceed if they fully know what it is they are doing. After all, they are in the process of exploring human nature in all its complexities; they are not out to confirm the facts, even when those facts are salient, not to say, vital. We want the facts to emerge. We don’t want them imposed. I have learnt that often the most valuable and sustainable research a novelist might undertake is to do with point of view, perspective, context. This, one might describe as research into the self.

For many writers, I am sure, rereading their own work is often an uncomfortable business. Their natural disposition is to be dissatisfied. The text should be better – that is your default, and that is as it should be. Your critique of the piece is fixed on what was being attempted, not just the result. Rereading something you wrote more than three decades ago is no less uncomfortable. However, there is room for small surprises – look how well that paragraph sits; there’s an evocative phrase you cannot recall writing; some insight you managed that came from who knows where.

The Berlin wall was a physical manifestation of an imposed ideological divide. As such, it has provided writers of spy fiction with a concrete representation on which to perch the true divisions in political and social thinking. Even at a basic level, if one gets a glimpse of how a nation’s secret service operates, one gets a sense of the collective priorities at work in broader society. Moral questions surface – not least the fundamental question of how bad an act might we sanction for the greater good, and how might we judge the balance?

So, is The Makeweight still relevant in any regard? There are constants in the spy novel of any era, just as there are constants for those who people the secret world. The gathering and analysing of meaningful intelligence through human interaction and electronic surveillance is a constant, but must be done in a sea of deception and half-truths. It is no surprise that central to the spy novel of any period is the business of betrayal. ‘Nothing is private, Jack,’ Hinkley is told – and this from somebody who is looking out for his interests. ‘It may be secret, but it’s not private.’

(c) Philip Davison

About The Makeweight:

The MakeweightJack Hinkley, the underachieving MI6 Station Head in Barcelona, is tired of watching the cable-car ply between the harbour and Montjuïc from his office window. But today a hijacked plane is forced to refuel at Barcelona, where it is successfully stormed. Among the surviving passengers seen disembarking live on shaky long-focus television lenses are two KGB agents of interest. The natural order of things in the shadow world is suddenly out of kilter. So begins a run of close surveillance, kidnapping and coercion that ultimately leads to a hunt for a mole in London. Once again, our man, Jack, finds himself marginalised. Instead of sinking in the toxic inertia he uses the time to help his brother get back on track, and to rebuild his relationship with his estranged wife. Then, in a street of cramped houses in Chelsea, somebody fires a shot at him. In the shadow world lessons are learnt late – sometimes, too late. The Makeweight is a remarkable spy thriller from the 1980s, which will resonate with a new generation of readers, by a writer described by the Independent as “part le Carré, part Graham Greene”.

THE MAKEWEIGHT by Philip Davison will be published on 30 May by Ely’s Arch, an imprint of Liberties Press. The book is available to preorder here [link below]. Readers of Writing.ie can receive a €5 early-bird discount until 31 March by using the code WRITING.IE at checkout.
 

About the author

Philip Davison’s published novels include The Crooked Man, McKenzie’s Friend, The Long Suit and Eureka Dunes. The Crooked Man was adapted for television. His play, The Invisible Mending Company, was performed on the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage. He has co-written two television dramas, Exposure and Criminal Conversation, and Learning Gravity, a documentary film on poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. He has written twelve plays for radio. An adaptation of his novel Eureka Dunes was broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 in 2019, and an original dramatisation of Quiet City was broadcast on the same station in 2020.

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