Giving a Story Scale Even When the Focus is Narrow
A Session with Peter Murphy
The unplanned trilogy
To begin with, I should tell you that I never intended to write the story of Danny Boyle as a trilogy.
Life & Times happened because I made three separate efforts to tell Danny’s story from different points in his life. Each grew to about one hundred pages before the weight of “flashback” scenes, and the complexity of constantly switching evolving “tones,” bogged them down.
In fact, one of the later chapters in the final book, All Roads, was the original opening chapter. And that, along with a number of other “lessons” learned along the way, has led me to believe that a writer may not actually know what his or her book is really about until it is finished.
In my case, I had set out to write about the sixty years of one man’s life adorned with all the details; the folly of youth, the supressed confusions of the middle and, finally, the reluctant acceptance that comes with being worn down by time.
Life & Times now spans the better part of a hundred years of a family and two millennia of historical shadings. The three books are Born & Bred, which covers Danny’s life when he was growing up in Ireland; Wandering in Exile, about his emigration to Canada and all the changes that, and growing up, demanded; and finally All Roads, when Danny’s angels and demons take him down dark paths to that point where . . . perhaps I shouldn’t spoil the end on you.
Framing the back-drop.
I have always been a fan of those arcing stories that are set against the slow turning of the world. Stories that are about one or two lives, but also let us see the times they lived in; Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is the first that comes to mind. Yes, it is a love story, and yes, it is very Russian, but the stories behind it – the stories of the conditions that led to the revolution, the impact of the revolution, and the aftermath – were, for me, the things that made it enduring.
Now, while I have always admired the imaginations of writers who create universes and timelines to play out behind their stories, Frank Herbert (Dune) and J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) being two, it is the stories that are set against real and examinable history that really pique my interest.
At the back of it all, I consider myself a storyteller. In my opinion most art, be it writing, painting, music, or dance, is telling a part of the story of what it is to be human. And at times like these, when our humanism is under great stress, these stories are of huge importance for those of us trying to make sense of it all and, especially, for the readers of the future. This was central to how I wanted to tell Danny’s story. I wanted this story of haplessness and hope to be a record of life in the vortex of these times.
In this excerpt from Born & Bred, Granny takes a young Danny to visit his mother in the psychiatric hospital – one that had been provisioned by Dean Jonathan Swift, once Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and author of Gulliver’s Travels.
“He gave the little wealth he had,” they used to chant in unison as they approached the front door, almost skipping along the path.
“To build a house for fools and mad
“And showed by one satiric touch
“No Nation wanted it so much
“That Kingdom he hath left his debtor
“I wish it soon may have a better.”
Granny had taught him that verse when they first started to visit, when Danny was very young. It made it all a bit more normal and she always said that she loved to hear him laugh and sing. “The great Dean Swift left the money to build it when he died,” she had explained. She had given Danny a copy of Gulliver’s Travels, too. Sometimes he brought it with him and pretended to read while his mother and his granny stared at each in stony silence only broken now and then by banalities.
Exercise 1 Make a list of all the major events that happened during your protagonist’s life. This list can be political, cultural, or social, depending on the character and the story you are telling.
Decide which of these events have significant impact, and how that impact manifested itself in behavior, attitude, and demeanor.
Now, instead of having your protagonist just cry “the day the music died,” write three different scenes across the time span of your story to show the impact this event had on the character’s life.
Narrowing the focus
In its essence, the story of Danny Boyle is about a sweet, innocent boy who has been twisted by what had gone on before him, makes poor choices, and goes spiralling down dark paths. Simple enough to tell, assuming the writer’s tool bag of deep understanding of humanity based on observation, experience, and empathy. But when the story decided to turn itself into a trilogy, more was needed. Danny’s life needed to have all of the depth and resonance that a real life would. He had to be a naïve child of those times, a surly adolescent, a bewildered young adult, a compromising parent, a disillusioned middle-ager, and finally old enough to see his own life’s meaning. And he should have friends and family who would do all they could to help him – whether they were actually being helpful or not.
All of these people had to be products of, and participants in, the times they lived through.
In this excerpt, also from Born & Bred, the older Bishop has a conversation with his younger educated secretary about the changing times that were washing over Ireland in the 1960s.
He scanned the headlines in The Irish Times, a paper he distrusted but read to keep informed. It had a long history of reporting things that, to his mind, would have been better left in the hands of those who actually steered the ship of state.
Not that he was against open dialogue and people having a say, but he had seen what could happen when moral authority ceded to populism. Europe had torn itself apart following Pied Pipers and generalissimos. Even Ireland wasn’t immune with “the Troubles” in the North boiling up again, the old simmering sore that incited acts and reactions that were a shame to God and Man.
His old friend, Seán Lemass, was remembered in the editorial and not too kindly either, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The “Contraceptive Train” had pulled into Connolly station the day before. The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement had gone to Belfast to bring back the dreaded contraband and flaunt it before the Humanae Vitae of all that was holy.
“What kind of women are these?” he asked Mrs. Mawhinney when she stuck her head around the door.
“They are the product of the changing times, Your Grace.”
“You’re not condoning them, are you?”
“Of course not, Your Grace. I was merely answering your question.”
“What’s the world coming to when our own women are out acting like hussies? I blame television, you know. Is there to be no end to the corruption it spreads?”
“Apparently not, Your Grace.”
The Bishop stopped fuming for a moment and tried to read her face. She was an educated woman who still took courses down at the university. And she painted. She would know something of the minds behind it all.
“How is it that we’re supposed to lead such people?”
“It was Gandhi, Your Grace, that once said: ‘there go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.’”
“You’re not suggesting . . .” He couldn’t even finish the thought.
“Of course not, Your Grace. I just came in to tell you that Father Reilly is here.”
Exercise 2 Repeat Exercise 1, but from the perspective of one or more antagonists. Using more than one may prove to be a complex effort but will allow for greater “debate” and impact. Opposing views of the same events, or a focus on different events, will enliven and enrich the result.
For instance, on February 3rd, 1959, the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died, American Airlines Flight 320 from Chicago crashed killing 65.
Widening the scale.
To have resonance, the character of Danny and the characters of all his friends and relations needed to be seen to grow and change with the times, even through life and death. And they, friends and families, had to have stories of their own. They all had their own lives and times to go through and, fortunately for me, history, in its most unbiased form, provides a rich and wonderful backdrop. But it had to have relevancy to each individual story.
So, when the enormity of the task made itself apparent to me, I had to sit down and prepare a chronology of historical events that spanned almost two millennia – and some two hundred pages.
Why? Because the past shaped almost every moment of the characters’ lives whether they acknowledged it or not.
Nor did it matter which version of history – and there are a great many – they choose to subscribe to. They were all a part of a human story, not unlike the rest of us, no matter how much we try to fence ourselves off by race or creed. This is true of every person I have met in my own life and it had to be true for Danny and everyone he met.
As well as a global (to the story) historical chronology, I had to create one for each individual character and one for all combined. That meant making long lists of the events of each year the characters lived through. And it meant deciding which events to select and, in an effort to maintain some sort of balance, which character should address what, depending on their politics and point of view.
The balancing act
Balance was hugely important for the books to have a “real” value in the grand scheme of things, and especially in these times when the ability to consider both sides of the story has become very, very rare. But one thing a writer has to come to terms with is that fictional characters must be far more balanced and multifaceted – or run the risk of appearing one dimensional.
The doing of this created its own set of ripples as each character’s opinions and beliefs demanded reaction from the other characters around them. And, like in real life, each character was a part of a generation that assumed it lived in a freshly created time, only to discover that it has all been done before. All the mistakes, all the savagery of selfishness, the nobility of sacrifice, the wickedness of good intentions – it’s all been done before.
My task was to filter through it all and select those parts that had significant impact on the lives I was writing about. That in itself was a very interesting task and, much like evolution, there were some dead ends that had to be discarded. There were interesting and clever innovations that had to be abandoned, though some were recyclable. What I had to do was to take the backdrop of history and highlight the parts that my characters would stand against.
In this excerpt from Wandering in Exile, a very bitter Danny and his mother remember Danny’s recently deceased father.
He wasn’t her son anymore. He was a man full of bitterness and badness. He had a meanness about him, a dark bitter meanness that burned like a fire inside him. She wanted to tell him to snap out of it for the children’s sake if nothing else, but it wasn’t all his fault. It was like a hereditary disease and she could see the same look in little Grainne’s eyes that Danny used to have when he was a child. She hadn’t been able to chase it away then, and it wasn’t for her to do now.
At the back of it all, Jacinta still blamed herself. She shouldn’t have gone running off that night with the baby in her arms. What did she think was going to happen after that? And she could have gotten out of the hospital sooner. Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for herself, she could have just gone along with all they told her and she would have been out years earlier. She could have done it for Danny’s sake. It was no wonder he was turning out the way he was.
“What are you crying about now?” he asked.
“I was just thinking back, pet, that’s all.”
“There’s nothing back there that’s worth crying about anymore.”
“Ah don’t say things like that, Danny. It was where we were all born and bred, and it’s where your father was laid to rest. It wasn’t all bad between him and me, you know? He and I had a lot of good times, too. It just took us some time to get to know each other.”
“Jazus, Ma. Don’t be trying to make a saint out of him, for Christ’s sake. He was a miserable, gutless bollocks. He was the one who let them put you in the fuckin’ loony bin.”
It hung in the air between them for a while, then slowly wafted away, out toward the hall.
“Don’t be saying things like that, Danny. That’s all done now.”
“Well, maybe you can forgive him but I never will.”
Jacinta choked back a few tears but she was determined to try to set him straight. “We all make mistakes, Danny boy, and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. I made my fair share too.”
“Tell me about it. And I’m the one still paying for them.”
Exercise 3 Now, taking what you have created in Exercises 1 and 2, allow the differing focuses and reactions to play out.
In the example given in Exercise 2, the protagonist might spend his days mourning the loss of great musicians to the chagrin of an antagonist who lost friends or family the ill-fated American Airlines flight.
Sitting back and looking at it all
The finished trilogy, which was written over a four-year period of constant (almost every single day) immersion and long (ten-to-twelve hour) days spans more than a thousand printed pages and something in the region of three hundred thousand words, but it wasn’t the writing, editing, rewriting, and reediting that cost the most time. It was the research. I spent days burrowing down through old and ancient texts (electronic versions) to understand, and place in context, the voices of history. I spent hours reading counter-points of view because my story had to have balance.
You see, many of the characters in Life & Times have strong, and differing, points of view – much like people in actual life. They do not always agree, and they don’t have to. What they have to do is to bear witness to the times in such a way that I, the writer, and you, the reader, can feel part of.
In this scene from All Roads, Deirdre, now raising her teenage children, Martin and Grainne, alone, talks with her old friend, Miriam, a childless woman who was once a nun.
“Is Martin serious about her?”
“And how do you feel about it?”
“I really like her, only . . .”
“Only I wish they had met when they were older – after they had been in a few other relationships.”
“And not make the mistakes you made?”
“What’s the ketchup for?”
“Your princess? You know you’re not doing her any favors?”
“You’re beginning to sound like Martin.”
“Well he’s right. She needs you to show her some proper direction. All this tit and ass wiggling has them confused. It’s not girl power unless you want to empower bimboism.”
“Oh, Miriam, you’re still such a nun. What about Madonna? Don’t you think she’s smart?”
“She might be, but that’s not what she’s selling, and we’re all selling some part of ourselves.”
Exercise 4 Having established and played out, the conflict in the previous exercise, place your protagonist and one or more of your antagonists in a situation where deeply held convictions are exchanged.
Now, it occurred to me a great many times that, particularly in these days of insularisms and entrenched ideologies, that what my story had to say would ruffle some feathers. It did: it provoked a wide range of strong reactions, and that, I assume, is a sign of a job well done.
Well done, I say, allowing for the limited understanding I had going into the task. I firmly believe that each book written makes the writer better and writing Life & Times has, hopefully, taught me a lot about the craft, life, and myself.
And, no, for the record, it is not autobiographical. It is more the story of what has been going on around me – and you.
About the Author…
Examiner.com called Peter Murphy “a natural storyteller,” and Savvy Verse and Wit said, “Murphy’s style is as complex as his characters, but readers will be absorbed in the forlorn myths and legends created and expounded upon.” Peter Murphy brings Ireland – both the real land and the land of legend – to life in lyrical, nuanced prose that has a music all its own. http://www.peterdamienmurphy.com