So, I get this phone call. David Henley, Brio Books, the Fantastica Prize. 'Oh, right, wow - good to talk etc.' I mumble. It's only about two thirds the way through the phone call, during which David briefly mentions some issues with the manuscript that won me a shortlisting, and offers some really useful advice, that the word 'contract' drops in a sentence.
It takes me a little while to summon courage to check. 'Sorry, you mentioned a contract. What would that be in relation to?'
'Did I not mention earlier? You won.'
'Oh, right, yes, no, terrible phone-line out here in the mountains, I can barely...wait, what?'
'The...the...thing? The prize? The Fantastica Prize? I won it?'
[heavy sigh over the phone, as Henley realises he's offering a publishing contract to an idiot]
'Yes. You won. Congratulations.'
'Great. Wow. Yes. I see. That's, um, good. I'm somewhat to quite pleased by that news.' I enthuse, struggling and failing to get my head around this turn of events. After the call ends, however...
The long genesis and process of writing this spec-fic beast (currently 127 thousand words) has unexpectedly resulted in a publishing deal. From early idea-shuffling, character-finding and narrative-structuring, in one of Steve Rossiter's excellent groups, to an ASA-awarded mentorship with Alyssa Brugman, twelvety-ten edits later the monster is a winner. Let's party!
Later, at the same party, I attempt to explain the plot to a guest.
So, I'm officially delighted, not just for the win, the feeling of validation, and the hope that now the Writing Police won't kick the door in, tear up the contract and tell me to get a real job, but so I can enter a new phase of learning - collaborative editing with the publisher. I get actual professional help to polish the t...to make my work shine. Beyond that, the thought of people reading a book with my name on it...no, even my imagination can't stretch that far.
Brio Books Fantastica Prize 2019 Shortlist - I'm on it!
After finishing a historical novel set at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, a trip to the future seemed in order. So I went there. And, just fifty short years in the future, post-Collapse, I found a terrible group of people, masquerading as a circus that travel the Post-Britain, Post-Europe northern hemisphere.
I travelled with them, writing The Last Circus on Earth, uncovering their mysteries, foibles, their good and their evil, exploring the world from former Britain to the remote Bogda Shan, the mountainous spot on Earth furthest from any ocean.
And, at the last moment, I chanced my arm by entering the Fantastica Prize competition.
And I made the shortlist!
In creating characters that readers care about, the reader doesn’t need to like them – at least at first. In those crucial first pages, the reader is still getting their bearings. They don’t know or understand the characters yet. But, if they don’t understand them, how can they empathise with them? Why would any reader care about a character with whom they can’t empathise, and why would they keep reading?
For a reader to begin a relationship with the person on the page, they need to see that character caring about someone or something other than themselves.
In the early paragraphs and pages, when we’re still luring our reader in to become hooked on our story, the plot or context is likely to be one of tension – internal, external or both. Our protagonist will be in the thick of it, or about to be. At this point, a standard trick in feature film scripts to engender audience empathy for the protagonist is to stage a ‘save the cat’ moment, where the hero or heroine steps out of their comfort zone, perhaps at risk to themselves, to perform an impressive act of kindness. In novels, however, this could appear too large a moment, unsubtle, and too obvious a technique for winning a reader’s heart.
In the first pages of Hunger Games first novel, author Suzanne Collins has her heroine, Katniss, worried about her younger sister. Anyone who cares about another person is inherently good, and is therefore worth caring about in turn. Readers register this kind of subtext with little or no analysis, but the questions remain – why does the protagonist care? What is the threat and what is the worst-case scenario?
In that cunning way we writers bind and enchant our readers to our tale, we’ve already indicated ‘here is someone worth caring about’. If the plot is high stakes, any altruistic thoughts the protagonist has are put into sharp relief – caring becomes an active, risky thing, and therefore admirable.
Even a selfish character or anti-hero has to care about something, otherwise there would be no dilemma and the reader would struggle to remain interested.
In the first pages of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, protagonist Charlie, acting against his parents’ strictures and his own fear, exits into the night, summoned to help his dangerous friend, Jasper. Without knowing anything else, Charlie wins the reader’s sympathy, and the author wins their intrigue. Either way, we’re hooked.
In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, the female protagonist, Aomame, cares for a piece of music, specifically composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Murakami uses stream of consciousness exposition as a curiously adrift Aomame is stuck in traffic, listening to music, letting her mind wander. She thinks, is thoughtful and therefore cares what she thinks about. Even if we don’t care, we’re curious about why she does, and see that she is a decent person as she considers the cab and its owner. In the tension of gridlocked traffic, stuck in the confines of a small taxi on one of the upper level freeways that fly high through Japanese cities, when Aomame decides to strike out and leave the taxi to get to an appointment, it’s an oddly daring risk - a flight to freedom and into possible danger. She doesn’t care about herself, but she’s likeable and intriguing, and we’re worried what’s going to happen to her.
In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, three teenagers are walking to an interview. The two in front are James and Julia, young lovers who walk hand-in-hand. Behind is the Quentin, desiring Julia but loving James, who, in turn, shows his love for the other two by wit aimed at easing the tension. Julia loves them both, showing it with silly banter. None of them are talking about the interview, but it hangs like a deep, held organ note throughout the first pages. Without knowing any more, we know all three care enough to protect the others from worry, despite their own.
Irrespective of plot, and even with minimal context, observing an act of caring raises questions that are inherently intriguing. Why is this person behaving selflessly? Are they wise or foolish to do so? Is the person or thing they care about worthy? Would I be as brave and generous in the same situation?
When characters risk something for someone else, perhaps against their own wishes, and even putting themselves in danger, readers perceive bravery, and cannot help but admire that character. Even a doomed romantic like a Don Quixote wins our affection by dint of his unrelenting love for the appalling Dulcinea.
To care is to love, and love attracts love. Thus we may ensnare our readers to read on, by falling in love with our characters who care.
In 2010 I wrote an anthology of stories on the theme of death, The Children’s Guide to Death. In 2011, I saw that Qpix – an offshoot of Screen Queensland – were taking submissions for short film scripts. I wrote one and sent it in. True Love was picked up by Ignition Films’ Simon Toy and director Robert Braiden, who turned it into a ten-minute film. In 2012, True Love won awards in Brisbane, New York and the Gold Coast for best story and best drama.
Though I write scripts for television, I’d never written a short film script, but True Love lent itself to conversion. It’s a single scene, set in an industrial wasteland, where a battered wife tries, and fails, to bury the husband she’s just murdered. A man walking his dog comes across her, and the interaction between them changes their lives.
Watch full version here
I was surprised and chuffed that the script was picked up, amused by the ‘payment deal’ where Qpix’s heroic and indefatigable Kerry O’Brian had to fetch his wallet to formally pay me the two dollars for the rights, and rapt to be able to workshop the script with L.A.-based writer, Richard Taylor.
We swapped versions and tweaks by email and consulted by phone; lengthy calls that highlighted the differences in how I saw the story, and how he did. I was focused on character, particularly the man with the dog, and less so on the overall theme, which Richard, Simon and Robert instantly saw as a redemption story.
I found it hard to pitch my understanding of the male character to the others. He is an extraordinary character based on two men I’ve met in real life – street fighters with nothing to prove. But hard men age, mellow, can have regrets, and therefore lend themselves to the possibility of redemption. Even in these ‘softer’ moments however, there is nothing soft about the men themselves; things are done because there is sufficient reason to do them. Emotion, what there is, is acknowledged as just another factor in the equation, and is not necessarily the prime directive.
These men are dangerous. Adhere to reasonable, polite and respectful behaviour and you’ll probably be fine. Make a foolish mistake and you’ll probably rue the consequences in a hospital bed.
So that was my focus; painting a character at a cusp, meeting another character at a cusp. Because I was so focused on this, I struggled sometimes with changes suggested by Richard that I felt weren’t consistent with my vision. Nevertheless, I decided early on that while the original story and script were mine, the film and expertise belonged to others to do as they wanted with it. It was my job to help them achieve their vision, not mine.
It was also a valuable learning experience, and one where it was better for me to listen and accept than raise objections and obstacles. Finally, after five or so drafts of my simple story, Richard Taylor was done with me, and we parted on the phone in cheerful fashion – Richard to attend a star-packed party in Los Angeles, me to throw the ball for the dogs in the empty section next door before making dinner for the missus.
Then the script went to Simon and Robert. I’d assumed that would be an end to drafts, but they workshopped their own take, and suggested and requested more tweaks. I had to balance my defence of dialogue and action against their need to be sufficiently satisfied with their script to the point that they could go ahead and shoot it. While we worked well together, and it was friendly all the way, I privately struggled with frustration that the script needed more work. But I kept to my role, which was to assist them and to learn everything I could about the process.
Finally they were satisfied, and the shooting went ahead over a single weekend in a graveyard of old Queenslander houses, perched on rusting scaffolding; windows winking with fallen blinds, doors sagging with rust and disuse.
I visited the location for a few hours to watch the processes of direction, acting and cinematography, and had the pleasure of hearing my words come to life.
It’s a rollercoaster ride, but one worth considering if you have an interest in feature film scripts. You will learn humility, and that the writer doesn’t always have the total grasp of his or her own concept. Sometimes it will be others that point out themes and issues you are blind to.
I'd encourage early scripts to be written as low-budget as possible. There is no money in short-film making, so the story and core idea it’s based around, needs to be simple and powerful – a fresh twist on a familiar theme.
Not that sort. The book sort. Novels. Etc.
“The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.”
That’s by Scott Westerfield from the first in his Leviathan series. He puts down a few brief, stylistically old-fashioned / steampunkish brushstrokes to give you a sense of place, theme and tension. A war is in progress, and if that tickles your proverbial, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
Lev Grossman kicks off his novel, The Magicians, with this little character flick, and follows it up with what I thought was a beautiful first few pages that efficiently paint time, place, character and the tension surrounding them. The first sentence hints at both the character and humour of the book. Nice. Efficient.
“The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room. He smiled sourly. ‘Just imagine,’ he said. ‘Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.’”
I’m partial to this approach; Chris Wooding’s start to the first in his Ketty Jay series, Retribution Falls drops you straight into a life-and-death situation, in which the flawed hero has to extract himself and his companion. If your story is an adventure, start as you mean to go on.
“Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.”
Craig Silvey’s start to his novel, Jasper Jones, hints at the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and the subject, is reasonably active – ie something potentially dangerous is happening – and creates intrigue. It’s no bad thing for a beginning to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next.
“I belong to Mister Splinter’s circus. I do the murders.”
That’s my first line of an MS I'm working on, The Pricking of Thumbs. I wanted to establish a scenario, a sense of intrigue, and give a little something of the darkness of the novel. I’ve seen worse first lines.
“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”
Ransom Riggs begins his tale, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with this first line. It hints at intrigue, but, if I’m being picky, it’s exposition rather than action, especially as he doesn’t immediately follow it up with an example of an ‘extraordinary thing’.
“I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job.”
Patrick De Witt starts The Sisters Brothers with a mild, unassuming sentence that sets up the brothers’ relationship – the narrator brother passive, the other brother the active leader – and gives a sense of intrigue; enough to read on to find out what the ‘job’ entails.
“There are plenty would call her a slut for it.”
Margo Lanaghan starts Tender Morsels with a first-person observation that hints at her narrator’s poor education and background, at the theme of illicit sex, and raises a certain intrigue about what ‘it’ might be. It's also dark, which accurately heralds Lanaghan's dark, twisted and surreal novel.
I haven’t touched on the vast non-YA bulk of my library, but if we’re looking at contemporary, commercial writing, then we’ve got a clear pattern forming.
Signal clearly to the reader that they’ve begun a story that will go somewhere interesting, raise intrigue and perhaps expectations, hint at the flavour or style of the storytelling, say something about the character of the narrator or protagonist, hint at the world they’re in, and don’t waste a word. Every good story starts with a question.
For those not familiar, this is a manga novel, and I found the story charming, the art breathtaking, the world created rich and fascinating. I was captured by the heart and compassion of this simple tale. It's violent in a fairy tale way, reflecting the real violence of human cultures that abandon their young. It's a very male story, but holds together despite that, as boyish imaginations transform their world, wistfully plunging between bravado and black depression. The art and story together create a magical-realist and consistent world that is forever crumbling, like ours, as we struggle through youth and age doing the best we can with what we have. Highly recommended.
Also highly recommended is the anime (with soundtrack by Plaid).
“It’s just a story.”
This is how Judith self-deprecatingly referred to her new novel after I complained my wife had grabbed it and, before I could get to it, started reading. My wife - a fast thinker but a slow reader - wolfed down Thicker Than Water. I watched her find time to read when normally she wouldn’t bother. A good sign.
When it was finally my turn, I was drawn into the story. A young woman, Lucy, born from a rape, sets out to avenge her mother. The man she seeks, her biological father, lives on the other side of the planet, is Italian, has a loving family, a business under threat from mafiosi, is well-regarded, and has everything to lose from having his crime exposed. All power lies in Lucy’s hands, and the main driver of the narrative is how she uses it.
The setting moves from Victoria, Australia to Southern Italy, both familiar to the author.
Colquhoun’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, and her naturalistic prose is a relaxed yet taut mix of show-and-tell that works well to propel story to just the right pace with just the right amount of context. Any exposition is brief and insightful. I never felt a sense of the authorial voice intruding. The portrayal of Southern Italy is rich without being verbose. Colquhoun paints a picture well. Crisp, clean writing.
I couldn’t fault this charming story – I was hooked, didn’t know what was going to happen next, and kept reading to find out. It may seem like faint praise to any non-writers, but TTW is also beautifully and efficiently structured and edited. And well proofed. I found one misspelling. Did I mention My Asperger’s side?
Despite the dark crime that is the seed of TTW, I’d describe this as a warm, humane and honest portrayal of human behaviour. “Just a story”? Sure, but one I have no trouble saying I enjoyed a great deal. Recommended!
*Disclosure: Judith is a friend and colleague. That said, I paid for my copy, and, trust me here - if Thicker Than Water had turned out to be a dud, I’d have slipped my hands in my pockets and walked away, whistling softly, never writing this review and hoping Jude never asked what I thought of it.
Buy it from Black Pepper Publishing
At the vet dog shelter, in a room stinking of fresh puppy shit, the Australian Kelpie-cross puppies who made all the stink and mess, are a mad scramble of canine characters. Out of that litter of seven or eight gambols one pup, not too manic and not too needy. He comes to me and smiles.
At home, Daisy, now five or six years old, doesn’t care too much for him, but we do. Again the routine of mopping up messes and training, but this one, whom we call Spud, is a sleek and shining black dog, invisible in the shadows, who wants to help, wants to do the right thing, even when his irrepressible high spirits get the better of him.
Fences are again an issue, especially as he can squeeze his bendy, skinny, flexible little body through all manner of tight spaces to get out and explore the world. Then he learns to jump, making the crap temporary fences redundant, and the construction of higher more solid fences the priority.
Out in the sun, he runs, gleeful, through the paddocks, chasing the alpacas until they, protecting themselves and the ewes, form an arrowhead and start backing him up, at which point he looks sheepish and ready to talk his way out. He runs to the high ground to watch over us, his Kelpie genes kicking in. Bounding and bouncing through the grass when it gets high. Swimming in the dam with who knows how many tiger snakes. Rustling through the reeds, joyful face appearing.
Fear of the car until the first trip to the park, and from then on a mad paint-scratching scrabble to get in the back seat and go anywhere, head out, long tongue flapping, barking.
At the park, working off that boundless energy, I use the ball-thrower to fling the ball as far as it can go, and set that black lightning streaking after it. Bounce, leap, mid-air catch. In the car after, soaking through towels, Spud, muddy and wet, tongue hanging, beaming and barking at white trucks and cars. Only the white ones. Loud as a bastard.
Breakfast sees that little face appear, hope writ large, joyful if there’s a slurp of milk in a bowl. Always happy, always wanting to have fun and do the right thing. A gentleman, ready to share anything he has, be it a ball, a bone, or a bowl of food.
Learning to ‘leave’, the crucial command to ensure he’d step away from snakes. Sit, stay, lie down, find it, this way, okay let’s go, okay – what time is it? All simple instructions he’s happy to learn and do.
Sleeping on his mat, almost steaming by the fire, or curled up on the couch, head on our lap, eyes open and drinking in our expressions.
After dinner Spud’s the mobile fat-trap, doing first-stage dish licking with earnest gusto, tongue flapping like a wet rag, determined to get every last skerrick.
The joy of the long drive to Queensland, stopping at footy ovals all the way, losing the collar out the window with the new Queensland rego tags. Arrival, and the joy of the new lake, of chasing the ball, the leaping, the grace, the on-shore leap and the off-shore landing. The final paws-up pounce on the ball, the big splash. Skimming the ball across the flat sheltered water of Hatch’s Bight, Spud bounding in the, to him, chest deep water, the pounce and then the reluctant but generally gracious handing over to the slower bully Daisy, then forced to watch her glacially slow return to shore with wistful eyes – a hiatus to the fun, but, later, the chewing of dead tree roots beside her in companionable work.
Spud’s favourite thing - his party trick; hiding behind a tree or anything, throwing the ball out from his hiding place where we can find it and throw it. At which point he emerges – surprise! – and chases and catches. That mischievous face, expectant and smiling, half-hidden behind a tree, in bushes, behind one of us.
Running off in the State forest after a kangaroo. Searching to find him again. The yawning fear we’d never find him. Twice. And then never again in that forest.
Always at our sides as we worked, outside or in. That, or lying by the fire or in the sun close by. Then, after a rest, that bright open face and smile appears with the implicit suggestion of a trip outside to play with the ball. Wouldn’t that be awesome? For a skinny black dog, he has a bark that will raise the dead, a Baskervillian boom that, unannounced, sends me flying upright out of my chair.
The joy of the beach. The dog beaches at Sunshine and Coolum – dog heaven, no leads, no territories, no hassles. Spud racing through the park to the beach to wait for the first throw, pounding along the hard packed sand or splashing into the smaller waves. It’s all about the chase, the bounce, the catch, preferably mid-air. Tireless chasing, running and catching. Then, after, sinking down onto his side of the back seat to rest, or sit up and rest his head on my driving shoulder to look forward, be close, and get the open driver’s window breeze.
Appearing in my doorway, he looks like a cartoon dog sometimes; the bright whites of his eyes with those beautiful amber irises, tail up, the smile of mischief and readiness. Every half hour – let’s go! A short run next door will do; anything together.
Lying on the couch, head in Brenda’s lap, looking at me as if to say life could not possibly get any better than this. An almost overwhelmed smile of complicity in such joy; a sharing of his joy.
That awful 2011 Christmas. A week before Christmas, Spud is ill, cause unknown. Within days, it’s clear he’s dying. Visiting the vet, Spud, as always, is a happy, gracious visitor, accepting, tolerant, generous and brave. The drug regime works to an extent but as time goes by the diagnosis emerges. He’s probably not going to get better, and we can only control symptoms. Still, the possibility of improvement spurs us to do all we can.
For the next eighteen months, the slow, incremental decline. Never in pain or distress, always happy unless weaned too quickly off the prednisolone. A process of learning what drugs and diet helps most to keep his tail wagging. In the end, that’s all that matters. If the tail wags, then we can do no more.
Walks become slower, less frequent, shorter. Ball play is still fun, but no longer the aerial acrobatics, only little catches. It doesn’t matter to Spud, who only cares to play with us, sharing the ball equally between us.
I take no chances with pain, and soon painkillers, three times a day, are part of the regime. The pressure sores begin, and Brenda makes padded pants and a harness arrangement that allows him to sleep, infuriatingly to us, on his side on the hard floor. Keeping cool is crucial as his metabolism burns out of control.
The air conditioner is bought. Would we have bought one if not for Spud?
Mats are everywhere. Places to rest his increasingly skinny bones are there when he needs them, dressings are twice a day, play time ten times or however often he wants.
After the big 2012 ‘low pressure system not quite a cyclone’ storm, the next door’s half-collapsed grevillea makes a wonderful green, leafy place to hide, and throw the ball out so I can give him the joy of springing forth out of hiding to reclaim it, then throw it back to me. That mischievous smile, those bright eyes, peering out, waiting for me to engage.
Always sharing joy and love.
And always, when there is any kind of food preparation in the kitchen, Spud is there, patiently lying on precisely that area of floor in a direct line between the counter and the stove. He's so trusting he never fears he’ll be trodden on. So we never tread on him.
Dropping down on a wooden floor, he sounds like a sack of logs when he collapses in front of the fire, or onto a cool floor in summer.
A year later, there’s not a single day goes by I don’t remember that sweet face, that big heart, the dozens of moments in every day he brought us joy.
‘Just a dog’.
Don’t use that expression around me. Ever.
Rest in peace, my sweet boy.
The premise: a Mars mission is forced to abandon the planet during a storm. In the chaos, one of their number, Watney, is killed. They don't even have time to bury him before they take off. Except Watney's not dead.
With no hope of survival beyond the limit of his food, water and air supply, our hero is doomed to die. And so the story begins.
Weir has taken a nice simple premise and played it out with a Hollywood scattering of bit players and an engaging heroic protagonist. It feels like it's either already in script form, or is about to be made into one, but I'm not criticising that at all – either way is a terrific way to construct a story.
The narrative is in plain, folksy language, and is a well-paced, engaging read with plenty of twists of the whatever-can-go-wrong, does-go-wrong sort. It’s a popular novel, especially in the US, and the Amazon reviews quickly piled up to sub-orbital heights. A big well-done-that-man to Andy Weir.
It’s mostly in diary form, which gives it an engaging first person feel, allowing us in to Watney’s stoic good humour as he tackles the slings and arrows. Overall, Watney was a little too stoic for me – just a touch of total despair, wretched, bowel-loosening fear and utter misery would, I feel, been appropriate to the context and enhanced his characterisation. Speaking of characters, I liked them. I liked them all. Gosh darn it - they were so damn nice, especially that swell kid who spotted the crucial satellite shots, and whose grumpy good humour added contrast to her gruff Right Stuff bosses.
Yeah, I’m making a point – the characters were well-drawn, distinctive and reasonably memorable but just a tad on the Hollywood side.
Remember, I’m nit-picking here for fellow writers, not damning this book with faint praise – it’s a good, ripping yarn and readers will enjoy it on that basis. The stuff about the characters just reminded me to remind myself that every character should have a purpose.
A whole bunch of research went into this novel, and it shows. Weir deserves some kind of research medal for the length, breadth and depth of his investigations to make every last detail not only plausible but sufficiently accurate to his readership in the OCD Engineers With Asperger’s community. There’s so much explanatory detail, sometimes I drifted off a little. Weir didn’t lose me, however, and generally threw in something new every couple of pages to keep me engaged. It’s a reminder to fellow writers to do the research, then ditch it and allow the characters to feel their way through story so we also feel the skinned knuckle rather than absorb the appropriateness of the particular sized bolt being tightened. Again, not damning with faint praise – the level of detail Watney gives in his diary is consistent with his fix-it-or-fuck-it engineer character. Just sayin’.
Finally, the character of the landscape. I love Martian landscapes sent back by the rovers, so I’m familiar with the colours and textures; with the desolation of low hills and stumbling rocky plains that, unlike Terran deserts, don’t beckon with the promise of an oasis just beyond the horizon. I get the feeling that my stored visuals and imaginings filled in some of the blanks of the Martian landscape because Watney wasn’t that forthcoming about it. For that reason, for me, Mars was more of a painted backdrop in this. It’s not a biggie, but I needed to taste the dirt, smell the sub-zero wind, and hear the aching silence or a muted thud through the almost non-existent atmosphere when spotting a rock-fall.
All in all, congratulations to Andy Weir on The Martian - a great premise played out well. If you enjoy a ripping yarn, enjoy.
There's more than one piece by Twain to try answering that question, but this is as good a place as any.
How Pudd'nhead Wilson was birthed is arguably, to writers at least, as interesting as the story itself. It was originally written as farce, but the unexpected calls of the emerging plot for logic and continuity pulled Twain this way and that, regardless of what he thought about it all. Along the way, certain characters turned out to be not as important as Twain had surmised, and other characters became a good deal more important. In the end, Pudd’nhead emerged as the unlikely hero of what, to Twain’s surprise, turned out to be a tragedy.
The fact that it is a tragedy was highlighted by some of Twain’s publishers, whom, perhaps for marketing reasons, called it The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, something Twain wouldn’t have done because the tragedy doesn’t belong to Pudd’nhead. Other publishers just called it Pudd’nhead Wilson, perhaps to save on typeface, or tried out Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, presumably to up the intrigue and extract dollars from pockets.
Either way, it’s still in publication, like most of Samuel Clemens’ work, and for good reason – he’s an insightful and honest writer.
Clemens is sometimes accused of holding to the racism of his time regarding slavery and of ‘negroes’ being from a ‘lower order’ of humanity. I understand why people might think this. Huck Finn does feature a ‘challenging’ portrayal of ‘niggers’, one in particular, as simple. On the other hand, Pudd’nhead Wilson creates the most detailed portrayal of Roxana, a free African-American of the servant class, and her illegitimate son, whom she raises up only to… Well, I won’t include spoilers but all does not go well. The point is that characters are served as characters, and not as ciphers for a racist mindset or ideology.
Clemens relishes great care on Roxana’s dialogue. Some might call this racist charicature, but I rather think Clemens was just a good observer, faithful listener and transcriber of the patois. Also, without giving away the tale, one character, raised a certain way, is unable to change his speech or behaviour despite his race being revealed to be other than what he thought it was – in other words, Clemens makes nurture, rather than nature, the main arbiter of human character.
That said, Clemens could’ve gotten away with any amount of outright racism back then, whereas portrayal of ‘colour’ is a fraught area for contemporary writers. As an Anglo-Australian, I could write a portrayal of an Irishman without censure, but I would, arguably, come under critical scrutiny writing a person of colour. I can live with that - it’s probably a good thing, as my white culture continues to crawl out of the post-colonial era, racist as ever.
As for the story of Pudd'nhead, it suited being made into a play, and was. The play probably had some success - it has an unlikely and engaging hero, a dastardly villain, a vile murder and a few plot twists. It also discreetly challenges the racist stereotypes of ‘negroes’ as inferior, and highlights the cruelty and injustice of slavery via the threat of ‘being sold down the river’. This sword hangs over every ‘happy’ slave should they lose favour with their ‘owners’. And centre-stage, much more than Wilson himself, Roxana’s agony to do right, her mistakes, her brave fight to thwart injustice and make amends is played out.
Roxana’s a complex character – clever but foolish, just but conniving, loving but aggressive, fearful but brave. The villain is a wastrel good-for-nothing, and the plain (white) folk of the town are alternately generous and judgemental.
The chapter-headings include bon mots, ostensibly from one of Pudd’nhead’s hobbies – words of wisdom to be included on calendars. These are, I suspect, the only remnants of the farce this tale was intended to be, and are clearly Clemens inserting his acid wit to signal the story ahead.
So, Pudd’nhead Wilson is still a good read, has compassionate and philosophical depths, and an honesty that might help ease any accusations of racism put to a Southern gentleman-writer living in a slave culture.
Whatever you think of Mark Twain, he was no fool, and, for this reason alone, I don’t think he was capable of believing slavery could ever be, in any way, right.