First time taking BTS… (Typical Bangkok.) , © benhourigan
A friend asks, “You lika Bangkok?” Well…
It’s been a mixed bag—I started out in this relatively awful hostel on the (also relatively awful) Sukhumvit 11, which has a distressingly strict no-guests policy … and bedbugs, which at the daily equivalent of close to THB 30,000 a month is not on.
But then the girl I came down here to meet took me to Chao Samran on the weekend with her friends for one of the best parties I’ve been to in my life, I spent a couple of days finding a new apartment to stay at off Sukhumvit 22, and I can finally relax at “home” and do some work again. And last night we went to Asiatique, which has a spectacular view over the river from the deck.
Comparing it to Chiangmai—well, they’re two vastly different things. Bangkok reminds me of Tokyo: it’s maybe Tokyo before the property bubble and the subsequent 20 years of stagnation. Chiangmai makes me think of a small Japanese city as it might have been 70 years ago. Bangkok (or at least this part) can be almost expensive as Australia, which makes me feel very lucky that business is good right now; in Chiangmai it’s almost inconceivable that you could spend as much money as you could back home. Chiangmai has a restorative, meditative quality and human scale; Bangkok has an immense, fractal variety and modern grandeur. They seem to belong to entirely different universes.
In April this year I took a three-week holiday in Thailand that ended up encompassing a new friendship with a mentor who talked with me about Joseph Campbell, and a terrifying scooter ride up to a town in a mountain valley in which I looked into the heart of fear and found the courage to quit my old life, which in many ways I hated and could no longer bear, to strike out on my own and find a new one. More on that elsewhere.
Campbell’s idea is that there is a universal mythic structure, in which the hero hears a call to adventure, accepts it as an alternative to stagnation, finds himself then gifted with mentors and allies, and travels into the darkness to bring back something that revives the world. My real-life hero’s journey impressed me with how vital this story and process remains, and I began to talk about it with numerous people, including my mother, who was reading The Wind in the Willows at the time.
My talk of the hero’s journey, she said, corresponded very well with some of Grahame’s famous children’s book, and so it was that I finally got to this, at the age of thirty-two, after never having read it as a child.
I do, of course, remember the stop-motion film version (1983) and TV series (1984–1989) by Cosgrove Hall, which played on the ABC in Australia when I was very young. But as with many children’s classics, the book itself holds surprises for the adult reader.
First, there is the quality of the writing. After some close inspection I realized that Grahame loads most nouns with one or even two adjectives, and most verbs with an adverb, and though this is not entirely to my taste as a writer, this book does make me wonder why I’m so strict about keeping things bare of descriptive embellishment. Here, that prolixity is charming, even bewitching, and Grahame combines it with a great economy in storytelling. The crucial opening of the hero’s journey, which combines a sense of disquiet combined with a call to adventure and its answer, is dispensed with in a matter of a page or less:
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him [Mole], penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing … he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor … and bolted out of the house … Something up above was calling him imperiously … he scraped and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came into the sunlight.
There is further surprise in the enchantment of the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” an otherworldly interlude in which Mole and Rat go looking for Otter’s sun, Portly, and find him on the river, called by the pipes of the demigod Pan, in whose protecting embrace they find Portly nestled. It is an occult, pagan experience that one suspects would sit uneasily with contemporary squeamishness about religious and spiritual matters.
Wind in the Willows is, in fact, open to be seen as rife with adult concerns. Mole is the stolid adult who must come to love and be comfortable with his own modest and vaguely boring self; Rat, the poet and boatman, is tempted away from his beloved home on the river by unrealistic visions of a life more adventurous and bohemian than his already is; Toad, more genuinely troubled than I remember from the TV series, seems to struggle with a relatively severe personality disorder involving narcissism and delusions of grandeur, which sees him thrown in jail for stealing and crashing a car.
Toad is reportedly modelled on Grahame’s son Alastair, or “Mouse,” who committed suicide in 1920 two days before his 20th birthday. This is one of the easiest roads in to a biographical view of the story. In an article with a headline that overdramatically reports that Grahame “drove the son who inspired him to suicide, Harry Mount of the Guardian writes:
For all his fame and fortune, Grahame remained a tortured soul until his death. [#]
This article as a whole follows a “smear the famous dead” model that I don’t approve of, and reminds me of a documentary I once saw on Bertrand Russell that blamed him for his children’s troubles. Mental illness seems a more likely explanation than parental neglect for Alistair Grahame’s suicide, particularly if Toad is any fair reflection of him.
But, knowing from a little reading about Grahame that he was driven early into work instead of study, spent a long career at the Bank of England and worked his way up to being its secretary—while writing only one major work in his lifetime—one may fairly wonder how much parts of The Wind in the Willows express his repressed longings for a different kind of life. Was he able to congratulate himself on being a reliable householder, as Rat and Badger do Mole? Did he suffer from Rat’s temptation to abandon everything for the life of a vagabond, and settle similarly for mere dabbling in literature?
Perhaps I could find out, if only… I find myself now, as often, wishing that particular works, in this case Peter Green’s Beyond the Wild Wood: The World of Kenneth Grahame, Author of The Wind in the Willows, were available as ebooks, as I am currently in Bangkok and without a permanent address, living the life of Rat’s alter-ego.
In any case, this is an intriguing and classic work, redolent in parts of the hero myth as Campbell lays it out, full of adult significance that child readers will be blind to, and well worth a visit or a revisit by the middle-aged (a category which I am increasingly sure includes myself).Read More
A discovery in my notes for Seize the Girl:
Today, apropos of this New York Times piece where Moshin Hamid and Zöe Heller talk about whether we should be concerned that fictional characters be likeable, a friend asks me:
when you write your novels, Ben, do you keep likeability in mind at all?
And I do think about likeability, because it’s something that readers discuss. It comes up a lot at book groups when people discuss The Slap, just for one example, where the characters are uniformly loathsome, but enthralling to read about nonetheless. Agents, and presumably publishers, discuss it, too—one writer friend of mine has had feedback about a manuscript of hers to the effect that the main character is unlikeable and that this is a serious flaw.
But although I think about it, I wouldn’t say I adjust my work with likeability in mind, unless it is so that unlikeability, or badness, is offset by something else that makes us continue to want to read about these characters, and make an emotional investment in what happens to them.
Both of the star characters in my two books (soon to be three, as I finish off the No More Dreams series), are bad people in various ways, often as a consequence of thinking themselves superior to others (see this review by Justin Evans, who puts it better than I might).
But I came to find Joshua’s contempt for others amusing, especially if I exaggerate it and make it worse than is perhaps realistic. Lily, who completely took on a life of her own as I wrote the book, is just delicious to write (and I’m told, to read), since as a kind of villain, she represents what many people think they might enjoy being if they only dared.
I also like to see “unlikeable” characters experience some kind of justice, even if it is only that we come to understand that their personality and their actions trap them in a mental hell of their own making. This probably reflects my worldview rather than an artistic imperative: I actually do believe that this kind of punishment is inherent in most versions of “being a bad person.”
The thing is it’s quite unpredictable how readers will respond to characters like these (or other kinds of characters). Some people find Lily and Josh genuinely unlikeable, rather than entertaining; these same people might enjoy the characters of a more mainstream novel like Nicholas Sparks’ Message in a Bottle—who I personally found so insufferably dull that I was unable to figure out why they’d bother to fall in love with each other.
One person’s likeable is another one’s unlikeable, and so for writers, as the saying goes—you can’t please everyone, so you might as well please yourself.
Image: Hello Kitty Darth Vader, CC 2005 by JD Hancock.Read More
Since my employers made the official announcement today, I can finally share a piece of news I’ve been keeping to myself for some time.
From 10 September I’m taking a year off to finish my next two books, Seize the Girl and Open; freelance; and work on some other personal projects. For most of the year I’ll be travelling in Southeast Asia. the first stop is Chiang Mai, where I spent three productive weeks on a writing holiday this April.
I’ll post details of a farewell party to Facebook soon. Until then, enjoy this TEDTalk by designer Stefan Sagmeister, which gave me the idea for my writing sabbatical when I first saw it in 2009.Read More
Tonight, 21 August 2013, I’m talking at RMIT with fellow Melbourne author Darrell Pitt at a Q&A-style forum hosted by broadcaster and creative writing teacher Sian Prior. The subject: self-publishing and e-publishing.
For those who land here after seeing me onstage, or who might be doing some preliminary research, I’ve collected a few posts on writing and self-publishing that have appeared here over the years:
- Markdown and distraction-free writing apps for authors
- Writing as your best self
- Where’s the vanity in self-publishing (an impassioned personal favorite)
- …in The Age on self-publishing, and a new book
- The Next Big Thing with Ben Hourigan
- Six-steps to help your friend promote their ebook
- The post announcing availability of my first, self-published novel
Looking at that last post, you might wonder—where can I get this book of yours? And the answer is that right now, you can’t get it anywhere. As you might hear or have heard me discuss this evening, there’s a legal issue involving the book, which may require me to censor some of it, that I’m currently receiving advice on. Such is the lot of the indie author, who bears responsibility for everything to do with their own book, from writing it all the way down to marketing and legal matters.
Until that matter’s resolved to my satisfaction, the thing to do is subscribe to my sporadic email newsletter below or using this link. (All self-published authors should have a newsletter!) Then you’ll get a message letting you know as soon as Kiss Me, Genius Boy goes back on sale.Read More