THM: That is a nice way of putting it Ė your cities have personalities. When you describe the Arundel Road leading down to Woolwich common and find the ďwild mix of town and countryĒ, one can taste the flavour, and itís one that different from Liverpool or Londinium or Lagos. Do you find it harder to characterize a city or a person?
BE: I donít really intend to characterise a city, it just happens in the act of writing because Iím very interested in describing and evoking place. Itís a way in for the reader and a good challenge for the author. Developing characters is much harder. One has to try and create interesting, multi-faceted people through which the stories unfold. Characters have to have depth and dramatic needs (as in a purpose). They obviously need to be distinct from each other, each with his or her own voice, history, idiosyncracies and so on. Most of all, they need to be as flawed as we humans are, and often full of contradictions. The racist Edith in Lara is also deeply religious. Love thy neighbour as onself doesnít seem to apply, does it? Zuleika is imprisoned within her marriage but is quite happy to imprison her two female slaves. Characters also reveal themselves through the act of writing, which is the magic of the creative process. How a character will develop is not pre-destined, but they unfold when pen is put to paper, as if theyíre directing me rather than me waving a wand and playing God.
THM: Yes, Edith is another enthralling character, and I did find the exchange between Ellen and Edith: ďBut I love him, Mummy.Ē / ďYou must love me more!Ē to be a sharply Christian figuration. Going back to your protagonists though, I found it interesting that both Lara and Zuleika are imaginative in personality though or because both are to differing degrees held back by their circumstances. Was that a structural necessity, or was there a common point you wanted to make?
BE: Actually, at some point I had this idea that Iíd write three books and each would feature a different female protagonist who is creative in some way. So Lara is an artist, Zuleika wants to be but ends up a poet and the final character, ah well, youíll have to wait for my new novel.
THM: Iím on tenterhooks already.
BE: Oh, alright then! Sheís called Jessie and sheís an ex-singer/comedienne. And youíre absolutely right, they are all unfulfilled in their ambitions. What can I say? Thatís itís much more interesting for me to write about people who have ambition that is not realised than vice versa? That creative self-expression and making oneís mark on society through the arts is a legitimate preoccupation? Mmm, yes, Iíll say that.
THM: And creative expression is one of your strong suits. The linguistic vitality in The Emperorís Babe especially is outstanding: daring yet sure. Thereís a recognition of how much language, or etymology, we can recognize. For example, we understand ďfutuo-offĒ not only by context and construction but by French ďfoutreĒ, or ďCivis Romana SumĒ by taking the sum of its parts, as it were. Thereís also the way you insert Mockney, as in ďLet me ball-of-chalk you homeĒ, and Scottish accents. In terms of the non-standard English and foreign languages, did you have a set of criteria for what you used and what you didnít?
BE: Well, the Latin was restricted to what sounded plausible rather than pretentious and to the fact that most people donít know it, so that most of the Latin used is either self-explanatory, usually because itís a root-word of English, or translated into the subsequent line. The whole idea is to communicate the story rather than to baffle the reader. In fact using various languages and vernaculars was incredibly entertaining, for myself! I didnít know if it would work but it happened organically/naturally as I was writing as opposed to an idea I had beforehand which I decided to implement, so it did feel right. Once it started to happen naturally, I felt I could exploit it, such as the Scots-pidgin-Latin spoken by the two slave girls, which is hopefully entirely comprehensible simply from context and character. The Emperorís Babe is translated into Finnish and Czech, God knows how they did it, but do it they did!
THM: Yep, Iíd like to see - and understand - that! In principle, on this particular aspect of the book, it should be simply transposing the element of play into their own languages. Some of the colour stands on its own, though - untranslatable because in a sense untranslated in your original. The bit of flavour that stands out for me is the food imagery Ė joll of rice, fish fingers and mash, and the sublime Bounty Bar, in Lara, and the exotic foods in The Emperorís Babe... though if I recall correctly wine history records no known instance of sparkling wine made and consumed before the early modern period. Is food an inspiration?
BE: Food - isnít it always! Food is an immediate and recognisable technique of evoking time and place, especially when itís historical, and especially when itís Roman with their sophisticated and sometimes strange, at least to a Western palette, cuisine. I did notice in Singapore that some of the Chinese food was similar to the Romansí. The meal in the poem ĎVenus Winks at Loverís Gameí in The E Babe, is also clearly constructed to be a metaphor for flirtation and a prelude to sex. The Romans absolutely did have sparkling wine, and indeed champagne, the latter having recently been discovered, as reported in the ((London)) Times in 2000. But if my use of it had been poetic license, then that would have been okay too. The E Babe plays around with anachronism a lot, but in this case, not.
THM: Ah, thereís still some dispute about what that sparkling wine was. Certainly the clay the Romans used would not have been able to withstand the 6-plus atmospheres of pressure we get in champagne. But no matter, itís something for the wine historians to sort out, if the champenois marketeers donít get there first.
BE: But itís not important to the story or my creativity. Weíre writers Hsien, letís leave archaeological quibble to historians Ė at the risk of sounding abrupt, but you know your questions have been fab!
THM: Where I was leading with that was marketing: how much input did you have into the marketing of The Emperorís Babe?
BE: Marketing? I did approve the cover image (UK edition), which was witty and modern and therefore made a novel-in-verse about Roman Britain appealing. Marketing is the publishersí arena, really. Iíve done a lot of touring, domestic and international, to promote my books. I donít believe in sitting on my bum and waiting for things to land in my lap. Iíve been very proactive in getting my career off the ground.
THM: Thatís a really interesting response. On the one hand you say that marketing is the publishersí arena, but on the other you say you do go out and market yourself quite actively with your touring and seeking of opportunities. In your experience, do you find, as we do in Singapore, that writers have to spend proportionately so much more of their time working their ground than, say, film-makers, musicians or theatre companies?
BE: Writing is a strange business and I do mean the word business. Thereís the creative side and then thereís the business side and one has to engage with the latter, especially in this era of hype and the highly competitive marketplace. Most poets in the UK do quite a lot of domestic touring to earn their bread and butter; this requires administration and an organised mind... hopefully. Itís an accepted fact that the film, theatre and music industries need to promote their products, but the idea of self-marketing, or self-promotion is generally seen as a dirty word within the world of writers. Publishers will promote your latest book, but rarely your entire oeuvre, which may cross into different mediums such as script writing. So itís up to the individual writer to put him or herself about. And yes, it can be tiring and time-consuming but one has to accept that some degree of promotion is inevitable, and that often it is very rewarding.
THM: Finally, what do you see for the future of the verse novel?
BE: I think it will continue to be explored by the odd writer here and there. There have been a few novels-in-verse published internationally over the past couple of decades and whatís interesting is that each book is so completely different from the other. Each writer uses very different forms of poetry which makes for considerable textual variety, more so than in prose fiction. It would be great if this quirky, hybrid form became the new rock and roll, but then it would lose its inherently unique quality.
THM: Thank you for a fascinating interview!
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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004