I have finally, finally, seen the film ‘Life of Pi.’ I have wanted to see it in its glory ever since I read the novel nearly six years ago. I have raved over this book, adored it, and harassed my English teacher into letting me include it in an A-Level essay. The pinnacle of all this was sending the essay to the author Yann Martel and receiving a personal email in reply.
Anyone who loves a book so much is naturally apprehensive about seeing it translated to a different kind of medium: the cinema screen. If the director botches it, the likelihood is that you come away feeling personally betrayed. In the case of “Eragon,” I fled feeling as though I had been kicked in the teeth. No such feeling in this case. The film was a dazzling piece of cinema, a shining star that dug into extra layers of interpretation and discovered even further meaning that I could not have thought possible.
The plot: Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) lives in India, within a family zoo owned by his father. When the family encounters political troubles, Father decides to uproot his wife and two sons to Canada (producing a wonderful line that I am glad was kept in: ‘We’ll sail like Columbus!” “But he was hoping to find India!” bursts out a sullen Pi.) In the midst of the ocean, and the first of the incredible storm scenes, the ship carrying the family (and the zoo) sinks. Pi is the sole human survivor and finds himself on a lifeboat alongside a few surviving animals: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The task of staying alive at sea and facing down two carnivorous beasts begins.
Director Ang Lee perfectly captures the essence of despair, rage and desperate hope of the young Pi (rising star Suraj Sharma) stranded alone in the lifeboat. I am sure it would be tricky enough attempting to keep audiences’ interest for two hours with the endless lifeboat scenes, but he manages it, switching at critical moments to the older Pi, telling his narrative to a writer whom, at least in the novel, we are led to believe is Yann Martel himself – a perfectly cast Rafe Spall. Spall shows the appropriate blend of curiosity, sympathy and enthralment at Pi’s predicament.
Through natural selection, Pi and the tiger become the only two beings left on the lifeboat. Staying alive at sea is hard enough, but you could feel the extra trepidation and doubt of survival as Richard Parker and Pi enter into a battle of wills to compete against one another for territory and food. Eventually, an uneasy truce is called and the next stage of the journey suddenly bursts on the viewer as Pi discovers a lush island of vegetation, armed with its own band of adorable meerkats. But circumstances force the two travellers onwards to find land. Once they do, Pi finds that the insurance investigators don’t believe a word of his tale about what had taken place aboard the lifeboat.
So he changes his story for them; a tale of brutal, bloodthirsty survival and humans turning animal-like in an attempt to survive. How I wish more prominence had been placed on this part of the film, instead of the twenty minutes given instead to the three religions Pi adopts near the beginning. We understand that faith is extremely important to Pi, and Yann Martel makes sure we know it is what sustains him in the lifeboat. But why was so much time spent building this up when it is only referred to once by Pi later at sea? The final fifteen minutes of the film is what ought to be a significant and vital conclusion; sadly, I feel it flopped. Pi rattles through his second story so abruptly, there is scarcely time to understand exactly what it contributes and it is too easy to dismiss if you have not read the book and think it bears no relevance to anything that has just gone before it. There is nothing hinting about the importance of stories, interpretation and faith – a huge integral point made within the novel and within this second story. The ‘film’ Pi never passionately hammers home these arguments as his written counterpart does. These final few scenes were almost an afterthought. I suppose what might have helped and reminded the audience visually could be that, as Pi was recounting each event (the cook killing the sailor, Pi’s mother defending Pi, Pi slaying the cook,) there ought to have been a flashback of each allegorical animal in the first story performing these deeds. As it is a film, this medium and these tools should have had better use made of them.
Onto Richard Parker, the tiger that has been seen glowering down from advertising film posters. It is no secret by now that Pi adopts the tiger persona in his first story and reveals ‘his’ truth: that in reality, he was the only being on the lifeboat – there was no tiger. When you flip to certain scenes in your mind, and relive Richard Parker’s rage on the lifeboat, you may get a sudden chill of realisation: “That’s Pi. That is Pi as he was, with his animalistic side, isolated and furious at his situation and his master struggle with the ‘tiger’ part of himself.” On an interesting side-note, the real tiger in the zoo, the true Richard Parker who was supposedly drowned along with everyone else in the shipwreck, was named Thirsty as a cub. An early sign in the film that is quite hard to catch shows a small Pi drinking from a font, and a priest remarks “You must be thirsty.” Ha! Pi is Thirsty; Pi is the tiger. A deliberate ploy by the writers? I like to think so.
If we are to believe Pi’s second story, then the implications of just what we may have to go through in order to keep hold of our human side rather than our bestial side in desperate circumstances are horrifying. The direction of the “first” story is so well done that we can easily believe Pi displayed animalistic tendencies as Richard Parker did: eating rats and killing fish despite his vegetarian status. One suggestion is that when he discovers teeth on the Meerkat Island in the “first” story, that was Pi witnessing the remains of the corpses in the “second” and he has had to resort to cannibalism. (I also wonder if the meerkats, teeming in their thousands, represent maggots swarming as the cargo on the lifeboat disintegrates). After realising how bestial he has become, Pi sheds his wild tiger side. As the “tiger” leaves him without a farewell, Pi dissolves in tears on reaching land, much like the boys in “Lord of the Flies” as they confront what their savagery has turned them into.
Full credit to the film-makers for producing many more findings than you can also continue to uncover in the novel if you look hard enough. You can see this film without having read the book but I urge to read it. The film itself was a beautifully shot and crafted project. Ultimately, its message and that of the book is not about worrying over which story is “true,” as there are inconsistencies in both. It is a message about faith, acceptance and why people choose to believe what they do. (Unfortunately, given how the film treats the telling of the second story, this diminishes a little.) Which version we choose or prefer to believe is up to us, and ultimately reflects as much on us as the story. Each adds value, separately and together and they are well worth delving into if you have not already.
Last week I watched the thought-provoking “Women at the Top”. In it, Hilary Devey, star of Dragons’ Den, presents her musings and research on women in the workplace and the struggles they face in trying to ascend to middle and senior management levels. We all know it starts off so promisingly for girls: beating boys at every stage of the school exam system and more women are currently attending university in the UK than men. Where does it all go so wrong for them and why?
This is what I want to uncover in my HR dissertation. Devey’s programme revealed that 70% of middle management positions in the UK are held by men, compared to 30% of women. At senior and executive level, the picture is even worse. 83% of positions are held by men and only 17% by women. Shocking figures that make even more of an impact when viewed visually via the brilliant “human pyramid” on display in the programme.
Hilary Devey wants to find solutions. “There is no glass ceiling,” she insists. “I’m living proof of that.”
Maybe so. But Hilary Devey hasn’t got crippling childcare costs to deal with. She doesn’t suffer from the kind of restrictive work culture that sometimes discourages women from rising to the top. She doesn’t need a mentor. She doesn’t have a lack of confidence and – more tellingly – doesn’t appear to own a supportive network or team. She certainly doesn’t appear too sympathetic to the plight of thousands of women who have to contend with every single one of these barriers every single day.
“I’ve got no time for women who don’t want to make self-sacrifices,” she barks, in the kind of tone that would make Lord Sugar blanch.
Perhaps what Devey is doing, even unintentionally, is alienating the potential network she could have had. She is the Ultimate Queen Bee, anxious to weed out any “weaklings” in her organisation, driving away other candidates, when all they needed was a boost, a shot of confidence from someone who could have been an inspiring role model.
Let us say, for argument’s sake, that she is correct. There is no glass ceiling. Instead, there are multiple silent and invisible barriers. Devey may have smashed her own single glass obstacle: has she broken through the rest? Has she achieved a work-life balance, found a loyal and supportive team, a fair working culture, and everything else that women supposedly need to “have it all?” What personal self-sacrifices has she had to make?
She does not approve of networking or sponsors either. “You shouldn’t have to seek for that extra support just because you are a woman,” she argues, which is fair enough. But why not actively utilise help systems if they are there? A supportive working network is vital for success and more women are finding that having a role model or mentor at work is helping them climb the career ladder and navigate the path for promotion. If women find it harder than their male counterparts to get ahead, as Devey suggested, she cannot have it both ways. You cannot point out a problem and then not at least try to match it to a solution; particularly one which has already taken off so successfully in many working organisations.
A few moments in the programme were quite poignant. Shots of Devey alone in her home with her two dogs, looking at pictures of her children and talking to them on the phone amidst her long working hours. Just for a second, we see a brief glimmer of sadness that even the camera cannot hide. Perhaps this is a realisation that, despite her fortune, her £100 million turnover, her leadership traits that have seen her shoot straight to the top amongst a highly dominated male environment, she is a woman who still doesn’t quite have it all.
The title of this post takes its inspiration from the thought-provoking title of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winner. Even before I started reading it, I began to feel melancholy: I wonder if that was the effect Barnes had been aiming for! For me, the saddest word in that title is not “Ending,” but “Sense”. The word conjures up images of knowing and understanding the futility and inevitability of an event. You know there is nothing to stop it screeching into your life like a freight train, creating havoc and crashing out again.
I have not had much time to write recently. This post is a response to one I wrote in February (gosh, what a time ago!) at a frantic period when I was snowed under with lectures, coursework and seminars. (For those interested, “The Importance of Being Constant” is on my Facebook page and on this Tumblr account.) I knew even at that time that “Dragon Speaker” was drawing to a close. Now, in August, when the exams are finished and my time is freed up, I realise it is even more inevitable. Loyal readers who have stayed with me (and Tafari) for all this time know that the final title has been released and edits are well on their way. Hurrah!
I don’t mind telling you that coming up with a fitting title made for a terrible struggle. For more than half a year, I had another different working title, but it simply did not ring true. I liked the sounds of the words (oh, the curse of being a writer!) but did it bear relevancy and did it sum up the sense of an ending for Tafari? Did it heck! “It doesn’t make sense,” was the exasperated complaint of my loving brother. “How has it any point to the story?”
I reminded myself that family are amongst my harshest and most valuable critics, and I floundered on with other desperate suggestions, but none felt right. The final title, I feel, creats an arc over the entire series and forms an appropriate challenge for Tafari. I had to do my protagonist justice: this was not a book about four Element Dragons; nor was it a book about the location of his travel. The Code of the Gift is relevant only to Tafari the Dragon Speaker, his personal quest and his coming to terms with the inevitable. This third and final book is one that explores his finally coming of age as he accepts responsibility and the sacrificial demands of his power.
So, the sense of an ending for Tafari, and another for me, marked by the release of the third title. I am immensely excited by the prospect of The Code of the Gift’s release this summer. To you, my readers, I extend a grateful thanks for your support, and words of praise, feedback and encouragement. What an audience. What a journey. What an ending.
So, beginning with “The Balance of Four”, I reviewed a journey that I had begun many years ago, looking for examples of setting as character. I chose three specific examples from each book, starting with the moment the universe is created. Tuathal’s universe is not our universe, where dragons co-exist alongside humans, but the care with which he and his mate Valentia created it is evident, and the presence of the gods, if not physical, remains a comfort to Tafari and his friends throughout the course of the story:
In three days, the two gods fashioned the world. The sun was the first creation to burst fiercely into life, an everlasting ball of fire, set into motions by flames the gods expelled from their bodies. The sea and sky reflected each other, a marvellous radiating blue, swinging gently and rhythmically between dawn and dusk. The dancing water flowed with its own texture, its own rhythm and its own music, as the rising moon tugged with a gravitational force. The whole body of water swelled with a mysterious force, the rhythm of the very heartbeat of the universe. Dragon song rang through the cosmos, boundless, the sounds quivering with joy at what had been made.
Stack by stack, layer on layer, stone upon stone, the gods then formed the lush provision of the countryside. This formed the setting for towns and villages which gradually sprang up into great Cities. Amidst this rich and profitable landscape, they placed creatures of their own image, dragons, and produced humans to exist peacefully alongside them.
Moving onto Drakewood City, this urban setting is of the utmost importance to Tafari. It is where he has spent most of his life and it was one of my favourite landscapes to describe:
The beauty of the City was even more pronounced by moonlight and lamp-light. The darkened criss-crossing maze of backstreets and alleys, where Tafari felt perfectly at home, gave way to wide streets with walkways and arched bridges. During the day, wagons and horses trundled here and dragons skimmed gracefully just above the cobbles. Further out, the river split into tributaries, snaking in its branches along banks where grand buildings sprawled. Statues of Drakewood stood outside every ancient museum, gallery and Library which in turn boasted shows, exhibitions, productions and sales every day of the week. The starlight tinted everything with a ghostly milky touch, gleaming when the onlooker was far away and dulling when approached. Sweeping helical steps and concrete platforms with marble perimeters ornamented the outskirts of the main square. Tonight, to greet the revellers, the dragons had organised the setting of fiery torches into the ground, heralding the four entrances. Tafari delighted in seeing his City shown off and looked forward to basking in Drakewood’s reflected glory later that night.
Once Tafari is forced to leave Drakewood City, he is plunged suddenly into the rural world of Rustica, a region that is as wild as its namesake. However, the “wilderness” of Rustica does not emerge for a while, and very much like travellers in the well-known stories such as The Hobbit, the party is cheerful to start with and a sense of adventure is in the air:
A pattern set in over the next few days. They awoke just after dawn, fed and watered the horses, ate breakfast and set off for a few hours on the road. To pass the time, they chatted, told stories and jokes and sang melodies […] In the afternoons, they would strike out again across the countryside, heading south east for the Sea. The three humans snacked on plump, ripe blackberries they found growing from the miles of hedgerows alongside the road, while Melchior turned up his nose at the “squirrel food” and surged ahead in the air, his keen eyes scouting for what was to come the next day.
It is now time to move on and examine the middle section of Tafari’s journey which occurs in At the Edge of the World. This scene again describes a city, but it is Eirian’s Firebrace City that is now in focus. Tafari is not too impressed:
Firebrace City was not nearly as grand as Drakewood. It boasted no glittering river, no statues of Firebrace the founder and very few majestic sweeping buildings. If there was a main square, which Tafari couldn’t see from the gate, it had to be only a quarter of the size of Drakewood’s. Most of its amenities that gave it the name of City, such as the central library or cathedral, were comprised of grey stone and not colourful marble. Tafari shook his head. How Drakewood must have crowed over Firebrace and the other contemporaries of five hundred years ago when seizing the City to mark it as his own!
Inevitably, Tafari is soon on the road once more, and other sights greet his eyes as his party again strike out across Rustica:
At night, Vidar could be relied on to find them a tavern or small boarding house in a small town or village. Tafari would have liked to linger in these places for more than just an evening and morning; there were plenty of interesting events occurring such as small festivals, village competitions and fêtes, exhibitions and tours. When he looked back on the buildings in these short stops, his memory held one long blur of cosy kitchens, low-ceilinged rooms with the smell of wood smoke and a barbecue haze, squashy sofas with stuffing spilling out of the arms and old books crammed into shining cases just polished by a maid. There was something curiously attractive about these small communities, startlingly different from the looming and slightly clustering environments of Drakewood and Firebrace. There were no more Dragon Cities until near the edge of the Rustica border because of the specific east-bound route they were taking.
Things never remain simple and contented for long when Tafari and Vidar are around. The simmering mood in the air, coupled with the menacing aura of the Outer Lands that almost seems reluctant to allow them entry, sets off a new brooding scene immediately after they leave Rustica behind:
‘Dragons!’ whispered Tafari. Then a little louder, ‘Wild dragons!’
‘Yes,’ said Vidar simply. ‘They’ve come out to hunt over the sea. This is the best time to cross when the waves are high and the dragons are out hunting for food.’
It was an incredible sight. At least a hundred of them flew through the air, turning the sky a mottled black. It was a whole army; row after row dived into the seething waves, chasing the fish that scattered before their wicked jaws.
‘Wouldn’t Oadir have a fine time with those,’ Vidar said under his breath. ‘Looks like we came in time.’ He seemed entranced by the soaring figures in a way Tafari did not particularly like. Bet you’d have a fine time with them too, he thought darkly. His anger at everything Vidar had done swelled in him like a cloud and he had difficulty forcing himself to keep quiet until they reached the cove. It was set in the end of one of the beaches and the boat could not guide them right in. The three were forced to jump out of the boat and splash through ankle-deep water until they mounted onto the gritty sand marked in all directions with sharp stones.
I think I have answered my own question. Setting and landscape, whether rural or urban, are indeed extra characters in their own right. They are an epitome of the mood of the walking and talking characters, consciously or unconsciously. I think it is vital to respect the background and treat it carefully. Setting becomes unforgettable, and the scenes would be entirely different – and empty - without them.
I had the most fascinating trip on Friday, to see the “Writing Britain” exhibition at the British Library. This is highly recommended, not only from someone who loves all kinds of literature, but also to be able to soak up a little bit of writers’ history and think “Where were they when they wrote this?”
My favourite manuscript there was (surprise surprise) an original handwritten scrawl by JK Rowling of the first draft of “The Journey from Platform 9 and Three Quarters” from HP and the PS. You could even see little asterix, crossings-out, and all sorts of annotations in the margin that would eventually make up the copy of the book we all know today. Fascinating stuff. If you haven’t been, do go. The exhibition is until 25th September.
Descriptions of landscapes is not something that leaps to our minds when we think of a book. Characters, themes, plot, yes. Not so much the physical surroundings where our characters tread. The special selling point about this exhibition was that all the manuscripts from the authors spoke of the rural or urban settings - from Daphne De Maurier’s wild and cruel Cornish coasts in a passage of Rebecca, to Ian McEwan’s haunting evening chill on Chesil Beach, to Virginia Woolf’s sinister howling sea in To The Lighthouse. In all of these, and every manuscript in those rooms, the landscape were characters in their own right, and all of these brooding presences added superbly to the atmosphere of the books as a whole.
You only have to think of James Joyce’s Ulysses to recognise setting as “character” - a man walks around Dublin for 24 hours, visiting sites. It would have been remarkably different had Leopold Bloom simply sat in a pub for hours on end. Where would the Famous Five have been without their island? Ratty and Mole without the river? And lastly, on a more personal note, Tafari without Drakewood City seems to me a being with a limb missing - just not possible to conceive.
“Writing Britain” conjures up some amazing spectacles, some of them right outside your doorstep. Pick up your pen and writing pad, and come and take a look.
Because even great Element Dragons aren’t entirely infallible. An excerpt from “At the Edge of the World”, Chapter 7.
“Enki and Enlil, powerful though they might be, did not have the capabilities to play with time. All the Elements’ powers had at one point or another backfired on them: once, Darya found that she had unintentionally caused the Sea to rise and the salt had killed hundreds of acres of fertile fields, while Vulcan had spewed flame over woodland, causing a forest fire to rage for days and had stubbornly refrained from asking Darya for help. Enki and Enlil were also responsible for similar mishaps. These incidents had occurred long before the presence of humans had become commonplace and the Element Dragons were still struggling to learn and curb their powers.”
A quite odd experience today, bringing home to me how elusive that young audience that I write for really is. As you may know, I write for young adults and children, and their age is such is that you can never quite catch them. First you have to know where the keen readers are, and then you have to be sure they have the means to access your stories. I was coming home on a London bus when a strange and joyous sight met my eyes. A child of around 12 or 13 next to me was reading a book. No, not quite a book: a Kindle. But still! Who cares about the medium! She was reading! On public transport! With rowdy classmates all round her! Usually all the kids I see on Friday evening buses are plugged into phones or yelling at each other. This was a child after my own heart.
She has a Kindle! my mind shrieked. She likes reading! was my, admittedly shameful and lagging, second thought. (Why was I more pleased about the Kindle than the other fact? Oh, I knew why. There was an opportunity here.) Grinning widely, I plunged into my bag. My Kindle was lying within with my two books written on it. What a time to meet someone of my target reading age. This NEVER happened outside the classroom. Then I stopped. Maybe she would think it utterly bizarre if someone seated right next to her began launching into a sales pitch. Maybe she would think I was bizarre full-stop. How many authors suddenly announce who they are and what they do and catch readers unaware?
Buck up Rebecca! I told myself firmly. You are a teacher and author. You are PAID to talk to children! Fine, fine. ‘I have a book on Kindle you might like,’ I ventured finally. ‘Do you enjoy reading on your kindle?’
She was polite and looked up for all of five seconds while I faffed around trying to dig mine out so I could show her. At last I got the cover open and struggled to remember how to get to the beginning of the book as my mind suddenly went completely blank. The Balance of Four was set at the middle of the story and I suddenly could not remember for the life of me how to navigate. Some elevator pitch this was turning out to be. As I was trying to work out what to say next, she said she was sorry, it was too late, and this was her stop. And off the girl went, taking her Kindle with her.
Dangnabbit!! I suppose this teaches me a lesson in how to be more fluent in my approach to my audience. How wonderful it might have been if I’d had the chance to show her at least the title of the book, and she had been interested enough to check it out. Maybe a small corner of London somewhere might have been welcomed into Tafari’s world, if just for a few hours.
But never mind. In the grand scheme of things, it was nothing, and it could have been worse. One of the rowdy classmates could have told me to sod off.
When I’m not working on a piece of writing, I feel as if I am running on half my blood supply. This feeling, I’ve recently discovered, also occurs when I’m typing a story straight out onto the computer and not literally writing. This mini blog post is, of course, now on a computer screen, but before it was written freehand on a good old-fashioned A4 notepad with a trusty stream-lined black pen. (Always a V-5 Hi-Tech pen, nothing else will do. This brand of pen has contributed highly to WH Smith sales: I hope they’re grateful.) I wrote the entire manuscript of “Spirit Unbroken” with this type of pen. I then tried some of “Predator’s Trail” with another type, and additionally, it was blue. I decided it really was not the same.
Take the case of writing a story straight to the computer. It really is not anything like drawing out the fine strokes of words with a pen. You are robbed and cheated of shaping each letter yourself. It is bland, blank and almost bleak, nearing utter artificiality.
(Away from the tap-tapping of keys on a keyboard and writing out smoothly over this A4 pad, I can feel myself relaxing already. I’m on a train from Milton Keynes toLondon. Anything could happen. Inspiration could hit any second. How truly exciting. My pen is an instrument, waiting for thoughts to be dictated and exercised, permanently poised for action.)
There is something liberating about writing, pen to paper. I think that many fine books have been scribbled on countless rainy Sunday afternoons at the kitchen table in an A4 notepad and using something akin to my favourite Hi-Tech black-ink pen. No novel of mine has ever been written straight into the computer: even the thought of it makes me balk slightly. Thinking on this further, I believe this is why my progress on my current project has recently been stuttering and stalling like a rickety old steam engine. It is not ideal for me, and many times I’ve been driven to near despair, wondering why it was not as smooth as writing out scenes in Dragon Speaker and wanting to storm around and wail out loud “Why won’t it work?” I am not happy with the idea that this story might struggle because of the medium by which it is being created. So far, not a single word of it has been placed on paper.
There we are! Writing thoughts out like this really does help one to muse over what they are doing and how it can be rectified. It’s time to change, from keyboard back to pen. After all, we call ourselves “writers” for a reason. It is our calling and our purpose as tinkerers and wordsmiths. It is time to resume the storytelling where I left off. Who knows, I might now find it ten times easier to commandeer the words and explanations in my mind if I start to properly write again.
Wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted!
This is a bit of a belated blog post, but I was actually thinking about creating one the other Sunday, in honour of Mothers’ Day, to muse on the role of parents in fiction. This is spectacularly late; I’ve had a group presentation to think about, as well as events with The Boyfriend, not to mention piles of course material to read! So onto the topic: I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a parent-figure. We all know that to be a parent in children’s fiction is a dangerous livelihood. If you could choose to be any character, I’m guessing the parent of a protagonist would not be too high on your list.
SPOILERS, SPOILERS AND MORE SPOILERS AHEAD
The dead or absent parent.
Choral and Finch
We only have to think of poor Harry Potter’s parents, stamped out before the very first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone. For a younger audience, James and the Giant Peach portrays a life of misery at the hands of two horrid old aunts, following the death of parents. In Mortal Engines, Tom’s parents are killed by a moving city. A tactical if rather morbid device of authors to clear the path of authority so the child can go off and have an adventure without the parental reins. I am guilty of this, and if I could, I would apologise to my hero Tafari for all the misery he has had to endure without the guidance of his mother Choral and father Finch. One parent dead before the start of the book, and the other one discovered to have been dead for quite a while without his knowledge. In my mind, if he had lived, Finch would have been Tafari’s greatest friend, so alike are they in character. Choral is an unsung heroine, incredibly brave and giving herself up to protect her son’s whereabouts. The effects of a parentless and loveless childhood are immediately obvious in Tafari: he is a rebellious, angry, anxious and rather neurotic young man. Never mind that he has spent seven years under the protection of the kindly City Dragons: his mother left him at a young age, and naturally, he wants to know why.
Florian and Marianne
Rather similarly, it was a wrench getting rid of Eirian’s parents. Florian is shown to be a doting and protective father, utterly devoted to his only child after her mother has died. Of course, being the only single parent figure she had, three guesses for what happened to him! This is a tactic I was rather reluctant to employ, but there was no way that he would ever let Eirian out of his sight again after the events of The Balance of Four. Florian had to go, pure and simple, and it was planned that way in the original notes. He became a blockage and would not have allowed Eirian to develop as much as she has done if he had still been present. Eirian needed to move past her own rather protected childhood: in sharp contrast to Tafari, she is a sweet character, unafraid in affection, kind and attentive. Both Florian and Marianne clearly doted on their little girl and lavished her in an extended childhood: in The Balance of Four, she is by no means spoiled, but she is forever neatly dressed up, wears a permanent ‘young’ hairstyle, and is fiercely protected over secrets to do with her family, even years after her mother died. Eirian needed to mature fast, to help her cope with Tafari and eventually succeed in matching him as his equal.
If the parents are not dead or absent, they are usually neglectful, incompetent or sadistic. In fact, the original tale of Hansel and Gretel was that their mother took them to the forest; later changed to a stepmother by the Brothers Grimm to soften the idea of a parent leaving her own children to starve. Inevitably, these selfish and incompetent parents meet an unpleasant end, and the child heroes find comfort and love with a substitute. The two main sets of parents in Dragon Speaker, Tafari’s and Eirian’s, are nowhere near as incomprehensibly cruel as those found in the old-fashioned tales, but both children nevertheless are forced to look elsewhere for love and dependability.
The substitute parent
Whew! What a lot of dead parents! Was this an unconscious decision? Have I been reared on a book-filled childhood of cruelty, death and neglect?! On with the show!
After the loss of Choral and Finch, and finally Melchior, Vidar unwillingly finds himself in the spotlight to provide and care for Tafari. At first, he is a terrible example and flounders from one situation to the next, completely unsure how to take up the mantle. He becomes a dangerous person to be around in At the Edge of the World as old frustrations rise to the surface, and I would not be too surprised if he secretly blames Choral and Finch for leaving him in this position. A tempestuous and angry character, he nevertheless proves later on that he will do anything for Tafari and Eirian to keep them out of danger, perhaps willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep them safe. To his surprise (and Tafari’s, I’m sure!) both parties find themselves capable of giving and receiving sudden moments of affection throughout the three books as they learn to accept and appreciate one another. In one moment of crisis, Vidar is calmed by the wise counsel of Niall, who argues that Vidar’s behaviour is not what Tafari needs, and teaches him that he ought to treat the children as adults, inviting them into confidence and trusting them. Vidar is momentarily brought back down to earth by what his old mentor is telling him, and the matter is temporarily laid to rest. Vidar is the substitute parent for Tafari and Eirian; a feckless, wild and irresponsible one, who very much lives in the past with his best friend Finch, but time will show whether he will grow into his new role.
Melchior, Enki and Enlil
These three dragons all pride themselves on caring and looking out for the young Dragon Speaker. Tafari has only ever known the protection of the Dragon Guardians since age seven and as a result knows more about communicating with them than he does humans. Melchior has not quite taken the place of Choral, but nevertheless, the Chief Guardian is everything to Tafari – parent, brother and best friend – while he hopes for his mother’s return. Stunned beyond belief at the news of his mother’s death, it is not until the catalyst of Melchior dying that this prompts him to finally swear revenge for both of them. The Element Dragons Enlil and Enki are two other figures that Tafari starts slowly to depend on, and eventually, he cannot begin to imagine life without them.
Tafari and Eirian were not orphans to begin with. One had a parent whom he didn’t know was actually dead, and the other had a parent killed off half-way through. I wonder if this is a stray from the norm, and helped to mould these two children into what they will become. As these substitute paternal figures slowly leave one by one, Tafari always manages to latch onto the next available candidate for affection, whether it is Melchior, Vidar, Enki or Enlil. Unfortunately, if I were Tafari, I would be wary and concerned about the fates of Vidar, Enki and Enlil. Typically for children’s stories, the literature seems to dictate that the parent figure remains at risk of disappearing from the scene, leaving the young heroes and heroines to fend for themselves, and they will do so for a good while yet.
I adore dialogue. It is the life-blood of my novel. Never mind descriptive scenes; all very well and good when someone protests “But description is the most important of all!” Not so, in my opinion. An effective scene should aid the reader in visualising description without the help of too many adjectives. One reviewer commented that I did not tell you what my characters were thinking and feeling; instead I demonstrated and experimented with natural flowing dialogue. I liked that.
I remember mentioning in previous blog posts that my characters enjoyed talking to each other when I was not writing anything down. I can be walking down a street or in a park when lines of speech wander into my head. It is all I can do not to listen to them and give in to bossy demands that they be brought to life. Note: it always seems to be what they say that comes into my mind; not what they are doing.
So, what is the dialogue all for? Why is it so important it is used? Just like in a film-script, the speech moves the plot, with the actions and landscape propping them up. Dialogue directs a scene, creates a window into the characters’ mind, makes for natural conversation, acts as a reveal, and serves to explain a lengthy passage of time. An example:
Enlil waited days for them to reach Iceflame City and he watched the three’s progress from afar, becoming more exasperated and bored. The latest piece of news from Enki that irritated him still further was that the three of them were now aiming to stop at one more indistinctive town.
‘If you do not want the information, then do not ask for it,’ Enki growled, causing yet another snarling argument between the two.
Nearly fifty miles away, oblivious to the frustrations going on, Vidar led the way towards an array of sparkling lights on the nearest hilltop.
(At the Edge of the World, Chapter 7)
So what’s going on here? It’s a single line of speech in the middle of a passage of time, leaving the reader to imagine a great deal of tension occurring before and after, provoking “yet another” clash between two Element Dragons. It carves out a minuscule scene, not at all relevant to the hero Tafari’s personal story, but extremely handy for dropping hints about the mood and mind-sets of supporting characters; suggesting they have already had quite a few angry altercations without the readers’ knowledge.
Another role of dialogue is to let the reader catch up on a bit of “back-story” and allow characters to provide their own motives, opinions and confessions. This is the more “natural” kind of conversation I believe the reviewer was referring to: a flowing conversation with interruptions, protestations, wishes, explanations and other traits that are rolled up into a vocal bundle, much like any ordinary exchange between two people:
Tafari thought for a bit. ‘Oadir’s parents and sister were attacked by dragons even while they were in their house. There seems to be a lot of number of attacks; I thought City Dragons would be able to protect all the victims.’
‘You’re forgetting that there are a large number of people in the Rustica Empire who do not live in Cities. Away from the protection of City Dragons, their villages and towns lie vulnerable, and it is those places which are the most open and prone for wild dragons to wander around and catch their prey.’
‘I don’t understand why anyone would ever choose to not live in a City,’ remarked Tafari.
Vidar smiled wryly. ‘You almost did not. I’m sure if your father had survived and you did not have the Gift, your family would be living in a non-Dragon dwelling.’
‘If I did not have the Gift …’ Tafari began slowly and painfully.
‘But you do,’ Vidar brushed over briskly. ‘There is no point wishing for change. It has made you a target and I’m sorry about that; I really am. This is the last thing Choral would want for you. I know what it is to be hunted all your life. I understand what you and Choral have been though.’
(The Balance of Four, Chapter 13)
On other occasions, characters use speech to present two sides of an argument, both trying to appeal to Tafari. Ambushed by a group running wild in the Outer Lands, Tafari is pressurised and indoctrinated constantly into their way of thinking:
It was not an ideal situation and with Vidar ever distant, the only person he could really talk to was Eirian.
Kate was determined to change that. ‘We’re a team,’ she said persuasively. ‘Whatever you want to talk about, we’re all here to listen.’
‘They are not here to listen,’ Eirian argued later when they were alone. ‘They’re learning to fight, to build up a force against Oadir. They want to talk, and they want to bully, and they want to battle.’
But just like Vidar’s comments, Tafari did his best to shut out hers. He knew he was too integrated to back out now.
(At the Edge of the World, Chapter 17.)
Both girls have very different views on what they want Tafari to do. Kate uses enticing words, such as “team” and “listen”, and she does so persuasively. Eirian’s tactic is to get Tafari on his own and tell him just what he does not want to hear at that time. Is it any wonder that he tries to ignore what she has to say?
I am a great believer in the “show, don’t tell,’ adage, so on occasions, there are of course situations in which dialogue doesn’t work when I try to convey an emotion or description. In times of anxiety, Tafari doesn’t exclaim: ‘I’m really scared!’ – he bites his nails instead. Vidar is more likely to lash out than bother wasting words. Eirian is the most vocal in a stressful situation. On the occasion that Eirian tries to convince Tafari that the group in the Outer Lands are not all as they seem, I don’t choose to have him arguing back; it is left to the reader to decide how that particular scene ends. The dialogue above acts very much like the first example I gave: it isn’t a whole conversation but it is useful for allowing readers to fill in the gaps themselves using their own imagination and the experiences of what they have just read and understand.
Dialogue ultimately fleshes out characters. I enjoy mixing up speech with sentences to experiment and play with the effects. If I sense there is too much prose on the page and realise the experience of reading can become jarred, I would use one sentence of speech to break the text, as demonstrated. Equally, if there is too much speech, this might be a time to incorporate the “show, don’t tell,’ tactic: the reader does not need to hear characters talking all the time. It is my decision as the powerful, omniscient author who decides all things, and simultaneously as the director, producer and casting head. Every choice of character, setting, form and dialogue is mine to make. Creating the perfect balance is vital.