Open Roads... What Price Wonderland?

The Third Revelatory Interview - part two
By Phil & Sarah Stokes, 3 April 2002

Clive : "Right, now this may seem like a gender-fixated remark so you can help me out, but I think women are better with their memories of the past than men are - any comment on that?"

Revelations : "(Sarah) - Ah, I've never been very good at being 'one of the girls', so you're talking to the wrong person there!"

Revelations : "(Phil) - I'm so glad she confessed otherwise I was going to have to do it for her. I have a really good memory for solid things like dates, numbers, faces etc, but not a good memory for feelings or many other things."

those elusively named schoolmates...

Revelations : "(Sarah) - I tend to forget things like the date of our anniversary or things like that - "

Clive : "Well that's a reverse of the cliché"

Revelations : "(Phil) - Oh no, I am such a girl - "

Clive : "Now how long have you guys been married?"

Revelations : "Nine years this year."

Clive : "It may be wrong of me to suggest that women are better at it than men but I know that, certainly in my mother's case, my mother can remember just endless detail and my father would just sit there speechless... I'd be afraid actually that he'd go in with something that was just completely wrong...
"I was with someone recently, a young girl, well someone younger than myself, who was talking about her schoolfriends and just naming them, just rolling them off her tongue and I can only remember two or three of my old classmates. I'd be very hard pressed naming five or six, at the most five or six."

Revelations : "I heard an old man, around 70 years old, on the radio the other day just reciting his class register."

Clive : "I could never do that, I mean let's share this, the three of us are obviously in some other place. Why is it that some people just have an uncanny ability to recall detail? I mean not just class registers but how the weather was on their first date or what the movie was they went to see?"

Revelations : "Well we're driving toward a consideration that, if the detail is the only thing that's really important to someone in their life, then they stick to it."

Clive : "Yeah, that may very well be right. Do you remember Jacob Bronowski? He was the intellectual, a very smart man, who created a show for the BBC called The Ascent of Man which was a very significant piece of documentary movie-making The Ascent of Man and I think probably The Ascent of Man is still marvellous... He said he never remembered anything he didn't need to remember - he never remembered anybody's second name, never remembered anybody's telephone numbers, he just deliberately made a note not to remember, because he said, 'My brain has a number of very important jobs to do which are not about remembering anybody's telephone numbers,' and I remember taking that to heart and thinking maybe it's not so bad that I can't... Now this is apparently a true story: about a month after my Mum and Dad were married, my father met my mother on the street and couldn't remember who she was..!"

Revelations : "No !"

Clive : "I don't know if that's true or not but it's gone down in family legend."

Revelations : "It would certainly explain why you think he had a worse memory than your mother - "

Clive : "He had a wonderful memory for faces - 'I know that person, but who it is, I just haven't got a clue...'"

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 
1884-86 Oil on canvas

Revelations : "In terms of some of the theory on short term memory, they say you need to refresh 'learning' at regular intervals; first 24 hours after learning it, then again after a week, then again after a month and then, if you do it again after six months, it sticks forever."

Clive : "It's interesting - and my imagination, and I suspect the imaginations of many of the people that are going to read this, are fuelled by forward momentum. They are not actually going to have the time or the desire to be refreshing the domestic details 24 hours after it happens - or a week after, or a month after. They are going to be moving forward. There's a wonderful Sondheim song called 'Move On'. It's the final song of 'Sunday in the Park with George' his wonderful musical about Georges Seurat, the French Painter and there are many excellent versions of this song but I think the best is by Bernadette Peters, it's a song that is just about, 'Move on. Don't be content with what you've got, or what you've done in your life, what you've seen in your life. There's more to feel, there's more to do, move on.'"

Sunday In The Park

Revelations : "Lots of that echoes your early work in the plays - get the text done, the performance right, perform it - one night - then move on."

Clive : "Yes and that was agonising in its way, but I think it was more agonising for Doug and the others who were pursuing me as I raced off to the next project. I feel sometimes like some crazy inventor who is running through his life tossing off things to the left and to the right and having people picking them up behind him.
"I saw a documentary about Picasso last night. Late Picasso doesn't much interest me as art, I don't find it very sympathetic but, in his 90th year - his 90th year - he created 200 paintings and drawings and exhibited them, in the order in which they were created, with their dates and even their times, isn't that amazing? And what is extraordinary is this almost pathological need to create. And if you have a pathological need to create, I think you also have a pathological need to forget, because there's only so much you can hold in your head. If you were to ask me the names of some of the characters in my plays, I would look at you like, 'Uh - sorry...'"

Picasso - Embrace, 1971, oil on canvas

Revelations : "But you don't need to know them - "

Clive : " - they're written down - "

Revelations : " - and that's why you write."

Clive : "Really, Sarah, that's incredibly important, you just said something so incredibly important. You're right - I write to remember and I also write to forget."

Revelations : "You've always said that it's a cathartic experience..."

Clive : "That's right, and if that's true, it's an experience you want to move on from."

Revelations : "It also plays to not writing for any commercial imperative. You write because you need to get these things out."

Clive : "Yes, and if they work, they work, and if they don't, it frustrates the hell out of people."

Revelations : "It goes to something... We were kicking around some ideas ahead of this conversation and wondering, with each book that comes out taking you a few more steps along your own metaphysical journey, how different will something like the final book of the Art be now to how it might have been if you'd put it together five years ago?"

Clive : "I think it will be a much better book, because I think that I have a different vision as to what death is, I have a different vision as to what the creative urges... I don't think I would have been able to say with such certainty what I said just two minutes ago which is that I write to remember and I write to forget a couple of years ago. Someone said to me just a couple of weeks ago that there's a Jewish saying that you're not a man until your father dies, so that has also changed, I'm not sure I believe in that strict rule - "

Revelations : " - but the sense of it - "

Clive : "Yes, there's something different about who I am. I think there's a part of me that thinks the books wait in me until they really, really, really need to be written. There are lots of false starts in my bottom drawer, lots of false starts. And, very often, they're false starts that have later been taken to full completion very happily. Lots of false starts for Weaveworld, for instance, which were written before the Books of Blood - not necessarily about a carpet, but about that mixture of Tolkien and Blake and Lewis Carroll, you know, that invented world which eventually ended up as being Weaveworld was attempted many times before finally it found its voice. I think that's probably true of the third book of the Art, I know it's true of the next book of Galilee - I have a very real sense of what that book is going to be and do. There's also a sense in which your life is teaching you when it's ready.
"Going back to this Picasso documentary last night, it finished off with this image of Picasso saying, 'I don't know what I am going to do tomorrow. Tomorrow will be tomorrow, and I've already forgotten what I did today. I am just fresh every day.' Now a writer can't do that. Picasso very often finished a painting in the morning and a painting in the afternoon. Goya did the same thing. A writer is, particularly a writer of large novels, is a string of lifeboats connected to a huge vessel which is sailing at great rate into a storm, and the writer is somewhere on the ninth lifeboat, hanging on for dear life, wondering where the fuck this is going... but connected to the huge engine in the lead ship, but only loosely. When you get to the middle of a novel, and I'm not the first person to say this, Peter Straub said this very nicely once, he said that he didn't know what he'd written until he'd written the first draft. That he didn't know what he was writing about until he finished the first draft. I usually don't know what I've written about until somebody tells me!"

Going Aboard - Rockwell Kent illustation for Moby Dick, 

Revelations : "I picture you almost as the harpooner out looking for that whale, and if you get the harpoon in and it takes you under, so be it."

Clive : "I think that's true too, and I think that's a nice analogy too, and I think what's different about your analogy is that you've given me the proactive analogy with the harpooner being proactive - I give myself the passive analogy of sitting in a lifeboat wondering where the fuck I'm going. And I think both are true, but I think there is one sense in which an author is very passive, an author is very often trailing behind as the last - that's what I'm trying to get at, I guess, the analogy of the Titanic in the storm, No, let's hope it's not the Titanic, pick another ship, the Queen Mary, whatever that vessel is, sailing into storm and darkness, and you just have to follow on behind. This analogy works for me, because every now and then, in the process, you leap from lifeboat to lifeboat to the main ship and you get onto the bridge and you say, 'Oh that's where I'm going!' and you wake up the following morning and you're back in the fucking lifeboat. And there's a sense in which each book is just like that! They have a life of their own, they have a momentum of their own, they're like a massive vessel which you have marginal control over."

Revelations : "Which is why it's scary to get on board in the first place."

Clive : "Yes - it is, it's scary and exhilarating. I mean, who in their right mind, Sarah, would get up one morning and say, 'OK, now I am going to go write Lord Of The Rings'? Or write Imajica? The sheer act of ego that it takes, the sheer act of will, the suspension of doubt. Forget suspension of disbelief, how about suspension of doubt? Of self-doubt? All the voices that rage in an author's mind saying, 'You can't, you can't you can't.' I think the difference between me and the many people who come up to me at a signing and say, 'I want to write a novel,' or, 'I've tried,' or whatever and me is I suspend my doubt. There you go, next question!"

Revelations : "OK let's try and pick off some stuff on our upcoming projects and other rumours we've heard. Let's start with the status of From Oz To 42nd Street - the documentary that Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe are putting together on you."

Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe on the set of 'Lost In La Mancha'

Clive : "Well, they've got a huge amount of footage. They've actually got a huge amount of footage, which is now sort of historically very important footage. They've got me painting a lot of Abarat pictures and I'm a different human being, I'm not the human being I was 5 years ago - who is? So what they have to do is find someone who is going to spend the money to put this into an organised state, it's not a cheap amount of money. But they're looking around right now to find somebody who will eventually help them organise this, and shape this up. If Abarat is a successful book then I think it will happen."

Revelations : "They're getting some good press with the 'Lost in La Mancha' Don Quixote project they've put together with Terry Gilliam."

Clive : "Yes, it's amazing and their skills are amazing. They have this way of just being there and Lou would be... I would be painting and I'd suddenly remember, 'Oh, Lou's here - what have I been doing? Wait a second - have I been passing wind? He's just been sitting quietly in the corner, you know! I've put on music and I've been bopping around - I hope I didn't do anything really embarrassing!"

Revelations : "I heard today that Stephen Sommers is going to test one of your old Dracula quotes - he and Universal are planning a movie called Van Helsing."

Clive : "The fool!"

Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema 2002

Revelations : "Having re-invented The Mummy, he's sending Van Helsing in a single movie after Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the wolfman."

Clive : "Well that's fun, that is fun, well we'll see - one of the things Steve Sommers knows how to do is throw effects at a movie, and even though I couldn't bring myself to see The Mummy Returns again, I had fun with that movie and I'll be there to see Van Helsing against Dracula and all the others."

Revelations : "The Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema starts this week and we saw you were maybe going to direct the trailer?"

Clive : "Yes, I was - I just didn't have the time and I just couldn't do it - there was something else though - I wanted to do something really kind of sexy, but they were not going in for that! They said, 'How many bottoms do you want in this? This is Philadelphia, this is World Cinema! And you want bottoms!' "

Revelations : "Couldn't you tell them it was French and arthouse?"

Clive : "I said it was arthouse, I said the French would love this..!
"Trust me, everyone is so damn serious here - there's not enough laughter going on - I just wrote a joke into Abarat 2, and David Dodds has this fabulous sense of humour - I read it to David and he just laughed and laughed and laughed, then we looked at each other and said, 'We'll never get this in the book, will we?' It's a flatulence joke, you know..."

Revelations : "Another out-take..."

Clive : "Yes... that's for the Benny Hill version!"

More from Clive on Abarat (Book One)
More from Clive on upcoming Abarat projects

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