Author Spotlight with Graham Marks
So, Charlie, let’s get some background information about you to start everything off…how long have you been a writer?
Well, I only count it from when I started getting paid to do it, so that’s got to be about twenty years.
And before that?
Before that I was a film editor at the BBC.
But were you writing as well?
I wrote bits and pieces for magazines and newspapers here and there; I wrote things when I was at university and then left and carried cans of film around Soho.
Was a writer what you always wanted to be?
It was always half what I wanted to be; the other half, at the time, was to be a film director
That was obviously a stronger pull for you.
The thing about writing is that you can be a writer in your own kitchen, but you can’t be a film director in your own kitchen…
That’s very true!
…and there’s always a chance you might get paid for what you write in your kitchen, but you’re never going to get paid for what you direct there. So then I went to film school at USC [University of Southern California] in my late 20s, and went in for a writing course there, and very quickly realised that for me the power lay in the writing and not the directing.
Do you think so? From outside the business it seems to me like the writers always get a bad deal, or at least no real kudos…
Certainly not in television…in American television the writers are king and run everything, but I was too stupid to notice this at the time so I wrote a lot of movie scripts…you get paid very well to do that, but you’re really being paid to be mucked around. But they’re paying you well enough, it’s not hard work and you’re not working outdoors, so you can’t complain too much. I stayed in LA for ten years and then we came back.
Would you say that the script writing for films, as a storytelling process, is very different to writing a novel?
The form is different, but no, it’s not essentially a different process - there’s a beginning, middle and end, you know…it’s all to do with delayed gratification and when you tell the right bit of the story. The great thing about screenplays is that there’s much less writing in them, they’re much more of a shorthand…the particular difference is you never go inside the head of the character. In a screenplay you only write what the film camera or microphone can capture, and they can’t capture thoughts.
Did you write directions to the actors, then? What you wanted them to think and do?
Not the actors, but certainly the director, in the action descriptions. If you start directing the actors, directors get upset; it’s considered bad form to give an actor instructions. Hopefully, if you’ve written a scene well enough, it explains itself and they’ll understand what you want them to do.
Do you have a preference between screen and novel writing?
I wrote Stoneheart because I was getting very frustrated with screenwriting, which was largely because I was either getting paid nicely for films that never got made, or else paid for films that did get made which turned out not so nice. Either way it seemed like, creatively, a losing game, although lucrative.
So I wanted to write something where I was in charge, to get away from being a writer-for-hire, and also, very nakedly, so that there would be something my kids could read that would be entirely me and hadn’t gone through all filters scripts go through.
I like being my own boss and I particularly like the relationship with an editor, which is very different to the one you have with a producer, who is always trying to make your story what he thinks it should be. A good editor is always trying to make you get out of your own way and tell your story better. It’s a much more amiable relationship.
Your debut novel, Stoneheart, was set in London – in fact I don’t think it could have been set anywhere else. Were you glad to be home?
Absolutely. I loved Hollywood, it was great…but there’s something about your kids having their roots in the same mulch as you grew out of. And it’s easier, I felt I’d always be pretending to be interested in baseball and basketball, and pretending I didn’t think they weren’t actually girls games being played by men!
Your new book, Far Rockaway, finds you back in the States, with a West Coast family on holiday in Manhattan, and you can tell you love that city.
I like cities, full stop. I don’t live in a city now, and that’s the reason why I love them. Now I just love visiting them.
Do you miss America?
Yes, I do. I miss many things about it, it’s a fantastic place and I’m not an America-basher; I had a fantastic time, tremendous opportunities, I learnt a huge amount and made incredibly good friends there. So I have very, very good memories about it and a very good feeling about it, and particularly Far Rockaway.
The whole idea came about the first time I went to America; I went to New York to stay with my godparents, who lived on West 57th Street, and I got on the subway with them and I saw the station at the very end of a line on their strange tube map - instead of Epping there was Far Rockaway, which sounded incredibly romantic to me.
You start the whole ball rolling in the book with a quote from a wonderful Laurence Ferlinghetti poem, A Far Rockaway of the Heart, so did that come to you much later?
Yes, in fact my office in Santa Monica used to be right next to a tremendous old radical bookstore call The Midnight Special. I went to a Ferlinghetti event they had and I bought a couple of his books of poetry and that one just jumped out at me, so it’s been in my head for about fifteen, sixteen years.
Just waiting. Far Rockaway always sounded to me, from when I first saw it when I was eighteen, like a place where an adventure should happen. And what a perfect name for the end of the line, it sounded like the edge of the world.
Did you ever go there?
No, never did, which is probably a good thing for the imagination. And then later on I found the poem, which is a wonderful poem about belonging and travelling across America and looking back on life…roads taken and not taken. Just a great, great thing.
Was this then a seed planted in your head which took a long time to grow?
Yeah…it was always in my head that a grandfather and a child would take a journey to Far Rockaway. For some reason that was always there, that there was a plan to do that.
Did you have a particular relationship with your grandfather?
No, I didn’t know either of my grandfathers, who both died before I was born, maybe that’s why. In the book he’s a mixture of various people, but largely my father.
He’s a lovely character.
As is my father! It was my parents who got me interested in this whole story thing in the first place…my father used to endlessly pass me books to read when I was a kid, and my mother used to read to me all the time. You need someone who mentors you.
Was there a moment when you knew you had a story to write?
I always knew Far Rockaway would be two places, a real one and an imaginary one, and that it would be a journey which took place in two continuum. I always knew there would be a difference between the ideal and the real, with the story taking place in two worlds, and I just thought it would be interesting to revisit some of the classic novels [The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Three Musketeers] that got me interested in stories to start with.
It is quite a dangerous conceit, mixing up a very current ‘YA angst’ storyline with elements from books which your audience may not have read, or even seen the movie version of.
I’m reliably informed by many people that it was a high-stakes thing to do, and perhaps a gamble, but hopefully it only adds if you happen to know those characters and books. It works whether or not you do – the idea of the Mohicans is exciting, pirates are exciting, sword-fighting is exciting, and if you happen to realise that the characters come out of classic novels, that’s an added bonus. Maybe people will go and discover the originals for themselves.
So the idea of doing this obviously excited you…
Yes, I thought it would be fun. With the Stoneheart books, I wanted to do a fantasy story, but I wanted to always have it rooted in the reality of London’s streets. Since I was going to go away into this imaginary story world, in Far Rockaway, I again felt it was important to have that anchor of reality to always come back to, a real story that paralleled what was going on in the imaginary world.
For me, the fact that these characters you’ve borrowed are actually great characters just takes the story on even further.
Well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best! When I was writing Far Rockaway I was listening to a something called The Best of Booty, which is a ‘best of’ collection of DJ mash-ups that comes out every year, and I thought if you can mash up Peggy Lee and Iggy Pop - two completely disparate things, but they worked really well together – why not do the same to literature? There was something so dynamic and exciting about that mixture of the old and the new put together, so why not mash up a novel? And it worked.
Have you ever wondered what James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas would think of what you’ve done with their characters?
I think I’ve dealt with their heroes and villains with great affection, and I hope they would have enjoyed that. The one thing I did do with Long John Silver was bring out the fact that there is a large amount of good in him as well as a large amount of darkness, which is the reason he’s such a brilliant character; indeed in the book of Treasure Island, he’s the only one of the pirates who doesn’t get hung, he goes away. Hopefully they would have liked what I’ve done and not sued me rigid!
Why is Milady, the character from The Three Musketeers, in the story so briefly?
That’s me leaving a door open, if I want to go back to that story world. But she’s a great villain anyway. I don’t know if I will return, but that’s why she’s there.
Did your time in Hollywood help you see this book in your head?
I think it’s the other way round: I’ve always seen stories, that’s why I went to Hollywood. I was taken to the cinema all the time, as a kid, and I’ve never seen much of a difference between the ways in which you get a story; story is Story, capital S.
I’ve written elsewhere about the different forms of ‘Vitamin S’, and actually the means by which you get it – book, film, TV series, comic - doesn’t really matter as long as we’re getting it into ourselves, because we’re story machines. That’s what makes us different from other animals.
This book seemed to me to be an intensely personal story, with it’s combination of your teenage heroine, Cat’s blinkered point of view meshed with her parents’ and grandparent’s take on the world.
That wasn’t my intention, but it’s no accident that I wrote the book at the point with my kids are the age they are, and my parents the age they are. And I’m at the strange age, a strange passage, which no one tells you about, when on the one hand you’re trying to launch your children out into the world, and on the other hand trying to ease your parents’ old age. You’re stretched between two responsibilities, and there’s no instruction book, which is a terrible, terrible con.
You say you didn’t intend to write it so personally, so when did you realise you were, that it was quite a personal document?
While I was writing it. My father became very ill while I was writing and it just made me think about the whole sweep of life, from beginning to end.
The obvious choice might seem to be to have made Cat a boy, because that’s what you know…why did you make the main character a girl?
I’ve always been attracted to strong women – I’m surrounded by them, I have no choice! – and to make him a boy just seemed to be too obvious. I realised I had three strong male hero characters in Chingachgook, Long John Silver, Alan Breck, and I thought it’d be more exciting to have a girl.
But specifically the reason I chose a girl is because my daughter, who is extremely feisty, had just read her way through the Twilight series and straight-up she loved them; then she re-read them, as they all re-read them, when she was year older and said she wasn’t enjoying them that much second time through. I asked what she didn’t like and she said that Bella was always waiting for someone to come and rescue her, and that didn’t feel very strong. So the mantra that’s repeated in the book, the tag-line for me of Far Rockaway, is ‘Real Girls Rescue Themselves’. So I was really writing for Ari, I wanted to give her a strong female archetype who wasn’t waiting round for guys to come and rescue her.
Victor, the grandfather, who seems to have an element of the magician about him, says at a real pivotal moment that ‘the point wasn’t arriving…it was the journey’. But in a book there’s always an arrival, at ‘The End’, which has to be a satisfying one for the reader. Did you know, when you set off on this journey, where and how it would end?
I did. I knew it would end up that Cat would heal the thing she didn’t know she was healing…without giving anything away, she heals something which she wasn’t even aware was broken but was fundamental to her family. And I wanted that moment, when she came back to the real world, where she thought she saw something the others couldn’t, but through her they did. That to me was her bringing the healing back.
You were writing to that moment?
Yes, in film terms, to me, that was always the last shot.
Was there anything about the end that surprised you?
It surprised me how hard it was to write. To get the balance right, and only readers can judge whether I have, because one degree either way would have made it a horrific, sappy ending. I wanted to make it real.
There is magic out there.
There is, that’s part of what story is.