Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mini-review of The Well and Interview with Author Peter Labrow

The Well by Peter Labrow is masterfully paced -- it almost made me miss my subway stop, a sure sign of a good read if ever there was one -- and contains complex, morally ambiguous characters.

Although it contains a supernatural element, the crime-novel aspect of it was as gripping as anything by Denise Mina. Though, since I love witches, I was pleased to find them pop up in the midst of all the gritty realism. That realism, incidentally, is what really endeared the book to me. The novel's heroine, Becca, who is trapped in a well, is a swimmer (which scored points with me) with a will -- and lungs -- of iron. This stands her in good stead, but not before she has to endure countless horrors. Most of all I loved the fact that, a few hours after she falls in the well, she realizes something very important: I have to go to the bathroom. I mean, come on, isn't that always the first thing you worry about in any entrapment scenario? Finding a pee corner? So score extra points for that.

Also score extra points for ingenious uses of iPod and condoms (just read it to find that one out). Finally, one more point for the sheer horror of one little girl's fate that involves an, um, medical scenario so icky I almost fainted. The female regions are always a fertile (ahem) locus of horror, and they are used to great effect here. Actually, there's a strong sexuality/birth subtext in this book that's pretty god damn resonant. To wit: Becca is about to lose her virginity when she falls down the well. Becca's mom is off on a fuck-holiday with her new husband while this happens. There's a pedophile on the loose. Girls are violated on more than one occasion and mourn their loss of innocence. And the theme of children and birthing runs throughout. Water in many contexts symbolizes sexuality, along with dreams, visions, femininity and intuition. Like water, The Well is symbolically rich and psychologically complex.

But mostly it's the excellent plot handling and nuanced characters that got me. You'll breeze through this book in no time, alternately loving and loathing every cast member in this drama. The slightly downbeat ending will stay with you, too, I imagine. Nothing is simple when you're trapped in The Well.

So -- how do I write a book like that, you may be wondering? Read on as Peter Labrow shares insights into his process, the adventures of self-publishing, and his favorite kind of pie.

Why did you decide to self-publish? Did you initially want to go with a traditional publisher?

It wasn’t an ideological decision, it was a practical one. I could either pound the streets of London for months (or more likely years) looking for an agent or publisher, or I could publish it myself. I decided that doing the latter didn’t stop me doing the former – and it enabled me to build up an audience and prove my commercial worth. I’m glad I did it, at least now I have affirmation that people mostly like it – not only via sales, but also via direct feedback too.

Did you query agents? And if so, what were their notes?

Not with the manuscript for The Well but I had for a previous manuscript. It was helpful in most respects. It made me realise that a book has to sell itself quickly in order to be bought, for the first page to be read, the reader has to be hooked and really want to carry on reading. On the downside, it made me realise that a lot of agents aren’t looking for something new – they want something that rides the current wave. I guess that’s OK, but it’s not how I wanted to write. I also learned that they are very busy people and you’re not likely to get their attention very easily. Again, self-publishing should prove commercial worth.

The pacing of your book is indeed gripping. What was your process/method for accomplishing this?

I have several answers to this. The first was to be aware of the reader and of the need for pace – at least in this book, or a book of its kind. Careful plotting is important, so that the story is always moving forward and the characters always on their own particular journeys. Things shouldn’t stand still for long. Also, I wanted the way that life really works to influence the narrative – in real life, unexpected things happen. In Greek theatre, that would be referred to as a ‘thunderbolt from the gods’ – something out of the blue. That keeps the reader guessing and the stakes high. But also, normal things need to happen. Some genres frustrate me, in that they suspend reality a little too much. What I mean by this is that every book, TV series or film lives within its own set of rules – usually at least one step away from reality, or the ‘what if’ couldn’t happen. But they go too far. If my house was surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, I’d still want to go to the toilet at some point or have a cup of coffee. I wanted The Well to be supernatural, but really grounded too – so the stakes were genuine.

Do you have experience in another medium (I'm thinking screenwriting, based on your ability to handle pacing)?

I do a lot of copywriting for a living and have for many years. This seems unconnected, but actually a copywriter does have to think about language, pace, plot (really) and so on. Not to the same degree, of course – most of the copy I write is just a few hundred or perhaps a couple of thousand words, but it still needs a tight structure. It has to sell, to persuade. So does a novel. The structure of The Well is very intentionally that of a television drama – in three or four parts. This was mainly because applying that structure allowed me to think clearly about the changes taking place within the book at various points, more than anything else. I also think visually (I’m a designer by training) so I like to think about how each scene looks, how it’s bookended and so on.

What inspired the story of The Well? Where did the idea come from?

The truth is that I’d previously tried to write a novel and, after getting halfway, felt overwhelmed. I had too many characters doing too many things. It was plotted out, but it still felt a challenge too far. I decided to write something with one character, in one situation. I’d rather liked the way that Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game starts with a couple, her chained to a bed in a remote cottage and him in his underwear, playing sex games. He dies straight away and you wonder how the idea can be sustained through an entire book. The same was true of this, originally it was to be just Becca’s story, trapped down the well. Nothing other than her point of view. Once I’d plotted this, I realised that not only wasn’t this enough for a novel, the stakes could be far higher if we looked at how those around her were affected by the simple fact of her disappearance. From that, I decided to weave in two terrors, one supernatural and one horribly everyday. Of course, what happened was that the second book took on the same form that the first had – multiple storylines and characters woven together.

One interesting thing about your book was that the heroes and villains were not cut and dried. Abby and Helen definitely did some dubious things, and Sarah could be selfish; meanwhile Tom Randle, while evil, actually served a purpose in his own way. I liked that complexity. Who was your favorite character in The Well? Who did you find despicable? Or were you continuously on the fence due to their moral ambiguities?

I feel very strongly that all people have some ambiguity about them. Even Hitler was an accomplished watercolour artist, though perhaps that was his only positive trait. For me, Superman is dull, because he’s just too darned nice. Batman is interesting because of his ambiguity – are his actions for revenge or justice? In many ways, his actions are very close to those of the villains he pursues. Good people can do bad things when pushed into a corner, or have particular personality traits (which would have otherwise remained hidden or manageable) vastly amplified. I hope this is what makes the characters real. People can do very unpredictable things in extreme circumstances. Tom Randle is the closest to being a black and white character, but that was mainly because I felt it wouldn’t be acceptable for someone of his nature to be sympathetic. My favourite characters would actually be Abby and Helen – I adored writing them, it was wonderful to write about two people so in love, so in touch, and so connected to each other.

Patricia Highsmith once said she liked to take naps when she was experiencing story problems and when she woke up she would know what to do next. How do you work through tough story problems?

I seldom find that you solve such issues sat in front of the screen. I had some revelations when waking, daydreaming or in the shower, while conversely some seemingly trivial plot points took several solid days of thinking to resolve. When in doubt, I walk away. Also, it’s not always right to solve a story problem for your own convenience, otherwise it can be too contrived. Sometimes creating a problem in the story is good for it – it forces change that can enrich the narrative. Let’s face it, that’s what happens in real life. Inconvenient things happen and have to be dealt with – from that point on, everything’s changed. I also have a good friend, Emma, with whom I discuss such things – she’s a massive help, and, although I don’t always agree with her, I always benefit from her input.

Which authors/books most inspire you to write?

Stephen King. Oh, I know, it’s a trite answer. But he has a gift for writing words that evaporate as you read them, so reading the book is like watching a film. That’s a gift. I adore the language of writers such as John Irving, but I get distracted by the beauty of the language itself. I don’t aspire to be a worthy writer, with intellectuals dissecting my books on late-night television or radio. I just want to entertain. Yes, I want what I write to have themes, but they’re an optional pleasure.

Do you have any future books in the works?

Yes, I’m at work on my next book. It’s second in a currently planned series of six, all set in the same general location but definitely not a single story. They will each be very different, though interrelated tales where some characters reappear. But it’s not like Harry Potter – with a single clear hero, pursuing a single clear villain. Like many writers at the start of the curve, I still have to juggle my day job, which this year has been so demanding that I’ve not had much time to write, sadly.

What is your favorite kind of pie?

Almost any. Pie is excellent. Although I’m not a fan of rhubarb and I dislike crumble.

1 comment:

Daniela said...

What an enticing review (and interview). I'll be seeking out The Well to test the depths myself.