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Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Sonia Kilvington on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Sonia, which book are we talking about?

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – The best plot ever!!

What’s the synopsis?

A poor orphan called Pip has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict in a graveyard on the marshes. Afraid for his life, he steals some brandy, a pork pie and a file from the blacksmith’s workshop; an act which will change his future irrevocably. A year later Pip is summoned to ‘play’ at Satis House, the home of the very mysterious Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella. The house appears to be trapped in time, along with its creepy occupants. Pip falls in love with the beautiful, but heartless, Estella and subsequently becomes dissatisfied with his life and ashamed of his upbringing. At age twenty he receives a strange endowment by an undisclosed benefactor offering him a substantial property along with ‘great expectations’. His new life as a gentleman begins, but tragedy awaits…

So, a classic of English literature. What do you love about it?

I do believe that Charles Dickens was a genius, but there are a couple of reasons I like the novel so much. Firstly, I think it has the best plot of any book I have ever read – it’s so engaging, complicated and has a fabulous revelation, which ties up the actions of the seemingly unconnected characters and different strands of the plot! Not only has Pip been deluded about his benefactor; he has placed his trust in a future which doesn’t exist, believing that steel-hearted Estella was meant to be his wife. Secondly, it was the first book I read as a child that completely captured my imagination; I will never forget that beautifully grotesque scene in which Pip first enters the dining room and sees the decaying wedding breakfast, rotting away and riddled with mice. It’s wonderful!

I like this the best of all Dickens’ books, too. I think I remember more from Oliver Twist, which had great villains, but Oliver himself was too angelic for my taste. Pip is a more complex character, and not entirely likable. Which makes him more interesting. What does Pip do for you?

Children usually have very tough lives in Dickens’ novels! I agree that Pip is a complex and contradictory character. He has a lot of charm, which endeared him to Magwitch in the graveyard at the beginning of the novel. Pip has a big heart and is very loyal to Estella, Miss Havisham and Henry Pocket, although he does treat Joe appallingly due to his snobbery while living his new life in London. I love Pips’ sense of adventure and the way he grasps his new life and lives it to the full. Pip has an enormous capacity for love; we see this when he burns his hands trying ‘put out’ Miss Havisham while she is on fire. He is nearly murdered trying to get Magwitch out of the country and then risks his own life trying to save him during the doomed escape attempt. Having been cured of his snobbery, Pip visits Magwitch in prison, and he doesn’t care that Estella is the daughter of a convict, and is proud to declare his love for her. Social conventions are less relevant to him at the end of the story, and he is a much better man for it! I appreciate his capacity to grow and change due to life experience.

Is it a less sentimental novel than most of his books?

There are degrees of sentimentality in his novels, but that doesn’t detract from his amazing accomplishments in fiction. If anything, Pip is a victim of his own naive sentimentality in this novel. He is besotted with Estella, who has been emotionally damaged beyond repair by Miss Havisham’s eccentric parenting. A modern psychological interpretation would suggest that Miss Havisham is an abusive and narcissist parent, who uses Estella as an extension of herself to wreak havoc on the male population; without empathy or any respect for Estella’s wellbeing. In turn, Estella becomes a cold, narcissistic nightmare, incapable of feeling much or giving anything to her relationships. The end of the novel is somewhat disappointing as Pip still believes ‘love conquers all’ and he is still fully immersed in his delusion. In this case, Dickens has given into a dangerous type of sentimentality. If you prefer the romantic ending, try and imagine Estella being a loving wife and mother…

Miss Havisham’s revenge on men is fascinating in that she’s cruel to Estella and to Pip, but also to herself, which she ultimately realises. Pip might still have a romantic view of life at the end – do you think Estella, in a sequel, could truly escape the ice Miss Havisham has put in place of her heart?

I would love to read a sequel to Great Expectations! I think Estella is incredibly damaged and it wasn’t just Miss Havisham who abused her – she married Bentley Drummle, a physically abusive bully who treat her appallingly! Surprisingly, she actually chose to marry him herself, continuing the cycle of torment. After a lifetime of abuse, both psychological and physical, Estella may have suffered from P.T.S.D., possibly experiencing nightmares, blackouts and memory loss. I think the only real hope for any lasting change would be if her new life and happiness with Pip were seriously threatened, forcing her to adapt, change and hopefully rediscover her heart. If the threat resurfaced from her past, it would be much more engaging and dramatic. Estella’s mother, Molly is still alive and working as a housekeeper for Jaggers. We never found out why he took her in after defending her, perhaps that would be an excellent place to begin a new chapter in their lives?

What’s Dickens’ main theme in Great Expectations? There are always so many it’s hard to know where to start, but one of the big ones for me is the disdain for the times’ ambitions to be a gentleman – a useless, snotty ambition. What’s your biggest takeaway?

Yes, I agree with you on that point – it’s not until Pip has been working as a clerk for his living for a couple of years, that he has any respect for the value of money; he wasted so much on frivolity and then got into serious debt after losing his benefactor. There are two central themes for me, personally. This is a novel about terrible parenting and the harm it causes, not only to the individuals, who suffer terribly but also to others who care for them. As a teenager, I was fascinated by Miss Havisham and the danger of making one disappointment control the events of an entire lifetime. Miss Havisham literally transforms herself into an embodiment of her own unfulfilled past. If you can’t move on from unfortunate circumstances, then your life will rot before your eyes, Mr.Dickens informs us in this wonderful tale. I used a similar theme for a short story I wrote, called, Gatekeeper of Memories, which was influenced by Miss Havisham and her plight. The story will be in my collection, Nightmare Asylum & Other Deadly Delights, which is to be published by Near To The Knuckle in February of next year.

That sounds great. Did Dickens inspire the whole collection?

That is the only Dickens reference, although there are influences of other amazing writers to be found lurking about in the darkness. My story Perfect Love is in part, a modern version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A companion android (sex toy) called Ted (named auspiciously after Mr. Bundy) is given human emotions in an experiment in order to provide a more satisfying experience to his female purchasers – unfortunately it all goes very wrong, and Ted goes on the Rampage – almost as badly as Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations! Other influences are Helen Dunmore, especially in Winter Baby and Chuck Palahniuk in almost everything. The title story, Nightmare Asylum is the scariest thing I have ever written, it even spooked my writer friend, Chris Roy, and that takes a bit of doing I can tell you! This story is an attempt to capture a reoccurring nightmare I had when I was young. It felt so real, I lived it in my dreams; obviously, it’s been embellished but I aim to terrify – and I hope I have succeeded. I am delighted to have my short story collection published by Near To The Knuckle, and I can’t wait to see Craig Douglas’ illustrations and cover; it’s so exciting.

Thanks for adding to my TBR list. Your short stories are, well – short and snappy. When you write long-form do you like to get all Dickensian? As in – you go deep, you go full descriptive, your characters have a million complex attributes?

I am not quite as descriptive as Mr . Dickens… I write a lot of flash fiction and find it an exciting challenge to realise a full story in such a short number of words. Nightmare Asylum is a much longer story with layers of plot and a distinctive structure. Describing events in a horror story is something I have learnt to do over the last couple of years, it’s important to try and fully immerse your readers in the experience if you want to scare them! My characters are all psychologically damaged in some way; that is something I feel very comfortable with in my writing. Male psychopath is my favourite P.O.V. as it gives you a lot of freedom as a writer. I also enjoy a bit of paranoia; disturbed psychology is essential to my writing. I hope that answers your question in a short and snappy fashion?

A recent article said if Dickens was writing today he’d be a crime writer. Do you go along with that? Which themes would flood his work?

Great Expectations is saturated with crime! At one point in a carriage on the way back to the marshes, Pip feels the danger of it surrounding him, physically, like a hot breath lingering on the back of his neck. If Dickens was writing today, I think there would still be a lot of crime in his books, but there are many other themes such as the dangers of psychological torture as in Hard Times, and physical bullying as in David Copperfield ( also in Great Expectations, when Mrs. Joe repeatedly assaults Pip). There is more than one book that draws attention to terrible prison conditions; the debtor’s prison being a constant threat in all of his novels, especially so in Little Dorrit. I think that most of his themes are timeless and could shape-shift into modern day writing, without too much trouble. These days, he would probably be a multi-genre writer – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Dickens did say David Copperfield and Great Expectations were his two favourite children. They both feature children as protagonists and the spectre of debtor prisons – which Dickens very much feared in his personal life growing up. Do you see any other similarities?

David Copperfield was a thinly disguised autobiography, as Dickens was sent out to work at aged 12 in a blackening factory (which sounds very grim) after his father was incarcerated in a debtors prison. The theme of child abuse, both psychological and physical runs through both of these books; child workers were exploited mercilessly. There were few things more frightening than to be an orphan in Victorian England according to Mr. Dickens. David Copperfield also admires Steerforth, who is supposed to be a gentleman but turns out to be a nasty piece of work. The value and purpose of being a gentleman are questioned yet again in David Copperfield!

Never trust a gentleman. Which film version of Great Expectations do you like best?

It’s got to be the 1946 David Lean version, which is so dramatic, atmospheric and full of fantastic actors such as John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons, and Martita Hunt. There are a lot of liberties taken with the plot, though. In this version, Estella doesn’t marry Drummle and takes to Miss Havisham’s chair as if history is about to repeat itself.

Miss Havisham looks exactly as I had imagined her from the book, and the decaying dining room is perfect! I hate the ending with Pip and Estella running off into the sunset like a pair of love-struck teenagers, its just too Hollywood and superficial for my liking. I think this film is a product of its time and is terrific despite its many deviations from the novel; it’s a beautiful, timeless classic.

It’s been years since I saw it, but I remember the feel of the film, if not the details. Who’s in your perfect film version, if it was made right now?

I wouldn’t remake it, Jason, new versions are always disappointing in some way. Best to leave the classics alone…

Armando Ianucci is adapting the novel. I think I can get behind that. If Dickens was alive now, what would he be writing about? Is Britain still obsessed with class?

He is apparently adapting David Copperfield this summer… maybe even as we speak! I think that particular novel could take some updating, the original film of that book wasn’t as exciting as Great Expectations. I read that Armando Ianucci is doing a more improvised version, so hopefully that will have a less ‘staged’ feeling than the old black and white film I remember. Mind you, I loved that adapted boat/house on the beach. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere cooler than that!

Nobody seems to convey social anxiety quite as amusingly as Dickens. If he was writing today, I think he would still be covering similar class themes, perhaps adding pointless celebrities to his list of societal problems?

Of course, I confused the two. 

Is there any modern work out there which has come anywhere close to the novel’s impact on you?

Books are very special to me, and I tend to reread them in times of stress and uncertainty. I have lost count of how many times I have read Great Expectations! The only other book I gravitate towards is Your Blue Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore. I wish I could have written that book! It’s unusual and challenging, written from the perspective of a character (Simone) living on a knife edge of debt and disaster. Given her already precarious circumstances, a dangerous ex-lover emerges from the mists of the moorland, turning her chaotic existence into a world of fear and darkness. Edged into a corner what can she do? What terrible things are we capable of to protect ourselves? It’s a fantastic story; beautifully written, and full of poetry and psychological insight.

Sonia, you’ve been great. Thanks a bunch.

It was fun, Jason!

Further Reading:

Time magazine rates Great Expectations as Dickens’ second best novel.

My Favourite Dickens: Great Expectations

Beyond Expectations: Rereading Dickens

You can buy Sonia Kilvington’s books at Amazon US and UK.

Remember by Shervin Jamali

Shervin Jamali’s Remember continues the author’s exploration of heaven and hell, wrapped up this time in a quite beautiful love story.

The story starts, Up-like, with a couple parted by cancer and the husband left devastated and useless without his better half, confused about her last words that though they had met late in life they had known each other before.

One visit to an enigmatic hypnotherapist sends Daniel onto a wild journey which shows how he died, goes to heaven, and looks to reincarnation for reunion with his wife.

The stakes are high – what if he never meets her and they forget each other forever? The romance is buffeted by darkness, some intense brutality, some bitter humour – but highlights Jamali’s light at the end of his cynicism.

The book is not my usual cup of tea. It has its flaws. I would have liked a longer story which explored events a little more deeply. It sometimes skirts over complex events that could have done with more drama. And I wish he didn’t use “baby” when talking to his love. It makes it sound a little cheesy and dated.

But those are small gripes in what is a soaring love letter to the romance life holds if you fight for the love of your life.

You can buy Remember from Amazon HERE.

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Shervin Jamali on Bradley Ernst’s By Vardo, Mostly

Hi Sherv, which book are we talking about?

Sherv Jamali: By Vardo, Mostly, written by Bradley Ernst.

What’s the synopsis?

Cleveland’s got diversity and missionaries and sewage-surfing and bookstores and autistics: I’m one of them—Belle. Come have coffee with me and I’ll tell you about myself. Wait … I’m mute, so I can’t.

I’ve got a cat aptly named Queequeg, a Tourette’s-afflicted Myna bird named Epiphany, a mother who suffers from RBF (resting bitch face), a father who performs acrobatics on a ladder, and a beautiful sister who doesn’t, in fact, have chlamydia.

Don’t pity me, I won’t have it. Things could be worse: I’m neither a cutter nor a stabber nor a public masturbator, and I’m loved. Are you?

Beneath the awkward mask fate painted on me, I do have a voice. Try having complicated opinions whilst unable to communicate them—the awareness of great words you’ll never say aloud.

If you stop dwelling on masturbation, I’ll point out that despite the hassles I create for my loved ones, I deal with my autism more than anyone else.

Hear me?

When I think of autism in fiction I think Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. How does Ernst write Belle? Is it a book about her autism, or is it a characteristic?

Her autism is not central to the tale, rather an impediment. Ernst makes Belle explain it initially and then it’s only mentioned again when it causes Belle frustration. She is well-read, a voracious reader in fact, and incredibly intelligent, but lacks the ability to communicate her thoughts. She is also outraged by social injustice. Much of the story is her inner monologue on display. This plucky young protagonist will steal the reader’s heart.

Belle is mute. Does Ernst convey her thought processes through action as well as internal monologue? Can you give an example?

Yes, definitely. Some of her interactions are with her father, a wonderful character in his own right, who adores his daughter. He used to have breakfast with her sitting on his lap and read her the comics from the newspaper. One particular one elicits laughter from him. Here’s what follows:

Caught up in that moment with my father’s belly shaking, I’d wanted to share a joke too. Since Dad focused harder than anyone to decipher my squawks into understandable messages, I took a chance. One of my triangles of bacon had curled into the shape of a little duck. I bounced it along on the newspaper to make it walk. What I said to Dad was, “Look at my little bacon-duck, Daddy.” And laughed. But what Dad heard, because it was the nonsensical sound I’d made, was “Eeeallabeee?” Dad either thought I was scared, upset, or overwhelmed…something more or less terrible rather than elated, which was the emotion I’d attempted to convey. We never shared bacon again…or even the comics.

One review, in regard to one of Ernst’s thrillers, said the work is a genre in itself because it felt like nothing he’d read before.

Does By Vardo, Mostly fit into a category?

In my review of the book, I specifically mention that I would have trouble defining its genre. Ernst himself calls it a tragicomedy and chose to categorize it as dark humor and satire. I might go so far as to call it metaphysical/visionary.

That can sound quite cold. Is the novel a mental exercise or does warmth run through it?

I can’t say for certain, as I’m not inside Ernst’s head, but wish I could be for a day (haha)! I suppose it was a mental exercise for him to write, striving to create unique fiction. Oh yes, there is plenty of warmth throughout the bugger, that’s for certain. All the way to the wonderful climax, which I can’t reveal, but there may be some sort of parade involved.

What’s Belle’s motivation in life. What’s she aiming for?

Ultimately, to be heard, I think, rather than pitied. To find her voice and the confidence to use it. To make a difference. To crawl out of her own skin where she’s been held prisoner. It’s a wonderful journey of self-realization and finally actualization.

Does she have an antagonist?

You have to remember it’s been near two years since I read it last and probably over a hundred books since. I don’t recall a clear cut antagonist. Perhaps she’s her own antagonist. She has to overcome herself, her limitations. Or her antagonist might be conditions: fear, awkwardness, silence, etc.

How did you discover Ernst’s work?

We met on Goodreads. I sent him a message inquiring about his debut novel, Inhumanum, offering to read/review it, and perhaps he’d be interested in The Devil’s Lieutenant. Quid pro quo. To which he responded, quid pro sure. We gifted one another copies. Mine being a novella, he got through it before I finished his, but I remember saying to my wife halfway through the read, “This is brilliant. I’ll never be able to write like this.” Anyway, that’s how we became friends.

By Vardo, Mostly is more a coming-of-age tale. Does Ernst slide across genres with ease? Which do you prefer?

I can’t say I have a preference. His writing chops are also on full display in his other books, both thrillers. Having read all three of his books, I think Made Men is my favorite since the characters are so memorable. I think the best way to describe Ernst’s writing is that it’s not just good, it’s also got a lot of soul. There are a lot of good writers out there, but maybe only a handful where, after reading one of their books, you wish you could meet them for a beer.

Ernst said he laughed and cried as he wrote By Vardo, Mostly. Did he push your tears out in floods?

That doesn’t surprise me one bit. I recently experienced that with my own writings. He’s the type who gets a lot of AHA moments whilst writing, immerses himself in his characters completely. As to my tears, maybe a dripping faucet, not a flood.

You said you wouldn’t be able to write like Ernst. We all have our styles – do you think you have reached a style now that is up there with Ernst?

Yes, we all have our styles, but we’re also constantly evolving, aren’t we? Having written three books now, it’s probably safe to say that I’ve developed a style of my own. Whether it’s on par with Ernst, I don’t know. That’s for others to decide. I think we’re both good at telling stories. Mine tend to be crazy and out there, maybe even campy. His are more down to earth and thought-provoking. I think I excel at dialogue whereas his strength lies in prose. We each have strengths and weaknesses, don’t we? Then again, maybe Ernst is a rare breed of author. With no weaknesses. Two out of the three books he’s written are probably in my top five all-time favorites list. That’s quite an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say?

That’s some praise. Which 3 other books make up your top 5?

Way to put me on the spot (haha). Definitely The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is another potential candidate. The last spot is a toss-up between The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen, and just about anything by Alexander Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers. What about your top five, Jason?

In no particular order, I’d go with American Tabloid by James Ellroy. That thing scared me under the nearest pillow.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks. It has a great meandering quality to it which you can live in, though it ends in a murder uncovered.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. I’m not a man for fantasy novels, but if they were all like this I’d read them all day.

And Matador by Ray Banks. Bleak, cruel, and has a drive which forces the pages to turn.

Is By Vardo, Mostly film-able?

I loved The Shadow of the Wind also. I’ve heard good things about Iain Banks but have yet to dabble. I’ve pushed away from mainstream reading. Those authors don’t need my readership or reviews and they charge an arm and a leg for their Kindle editions. For the past two years I’ve been focused on finding Indie authors, like yourself for example, and certainly Ernst, building relationships and friendships in the process, a support community if you will. But I digress…

Definitely film-able. If one could make the argument that The Book Thief and The Reader had movie chops, then I would put Vardo in that vein also.

Who would play Belle in the movie?

Oooh, I don’t know. Dakota Fanning maybe, made up to look less cute? Or is she too old? Perhaps some unknown young newcomer.

You’re about to release your new book, Remember. Who would star in that?

If you’d finish reading the bugger, you’d know the answer to that question. Haha. Maybe Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for the younger version of the couple. I recently watched La La Land for the third time. Love that film and their chemistry. As for the older version of the couple, Streep and Redford, although the latter might be looking too old for the part. As for Michael, Tom Hardy or Brad Pitt.

Sherv, you’ve been great. I’m looking forward to reading Bradley Ernst. You’ve got the third part of your Hell series on the way. When’s it out, and what comes after?

Thanks for having me, pal. The next book in the series is titled The Unholy Trinity. I don’t know when it will be out but I have 8K words penned toward the bugger. I’ve also written the ending already, which means there will be a fourth book, likely to be titled The End of Days. Also working on an unnamed project based on a strange dream I had. You’ll enjoy Ernst. Start with Inhumanum. That’s what got me on board.

You can buy Bradley Ernst’s By Vardo, Mostly at Amazons US and UK.

You can get your hands on all of Sherv Jamali’s books here: US / UK.

Press the links to buy Jason Beech’s books:

City of Forts


Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

Bullets, Teeth, & Fists 2

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Kate Laity on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall

Hi Kate, which novel are we talking about?

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall.

What’s the synopsis in 30 words or less?

In the midst of WWII a woman finds herself in trouble: her husband’s somewhere in the south Pacific and her daughter is being blackmailed by a thug. When the thug turns up dead, things get worse: he’s got a partner and the price has gone up.

Raymond Chandler rated Elisabeth Sanxay Holding as a great suspense novelist. How has her star been hidden under a bushel all these years? Or has it?

Because dudes are afraid to be seen admiring women; well, quality men like Chandler aren’t afraid, but a lot of mealy-mouthed pathetic excuses are. It’s a sad thing, but you can see it now, too. A big part of it is friends promoting friends, but most men are not friends with women — and they lose out because of it. They don’t see women as people. Unless a woman is someone they want to make time with, infinitely cooler or much more famous, they just don’t recommend them, review them, invite them to events. When people like Sanxay Holding and Hughes were more famous, they got the props — but they don’t have the ‘cool’ factor like the hard-drinking, dying-young dudes to keep them famous. These women led happy and productive lives — the horror! Middle-aged women are invisible in our culture. I wrote a story about a hit woman whose success rested in that fact (“The Bride with White Hair”).

Agatha Christie has remained a staple over the decades, though in a genre considered cosy. Is it that noir is considered unladylike and therefore a male domain?

Oh completely! Look at the sneering cosies get (I never know how to spell cozies/cosies? They both look wrong. I have the same problem writing on the board in class). It’s not far off the contempt for romance novels — you know, the biggest selling genre on the planet. There’s a bit of angry competitiveness mixed in with a posturing of cool. You can look around and see it: the guys who put so much effort in to trying to be cool. Real cool requires no effort. I guess maybe some of it comes from the ‘write what you know’ edicts, Iowa school stuff (they were CIA funded, did you know?). You don’t have to be a sleazy low-life junkie jazz musician thief etc to write noir. It’s a kind of backhanded romanticism about writing. I teach a course on films about writers. Hollywood hates writers, people who seem to conjure stories out of nothing. They don’t trust anything you can’t buy and have. So the films always hinge on suffering for the art and recycling your real life as fiction. Hollywood doesn’t believe in imagination. But a real film about a real writer would be like a Warhol movie and nobody would buy it. Like the man said, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

And yet The Blank Wall was made a film in 1949 as The Reckless Moment, and remade in 2001 as The Deep End. Have the movies been divorced from their originator?

As it happens, I have recently given two conference presentations on the films. Oddly enough, Ophüls’ film The Reckless Moment continues to be unavailable apart from its appearance on YouTube. It doesn’t really capture the tension of the novel, though the stars are great (James Mason and Joan Bennett). The subtlety of Lucia’s anxiety, that constant inner monologue, is difficult to bring to the screen. It does give Francis E. Williams an historic moment; she’s the first African American woman to drive a car onscreen apparently. Williams would later spend more of her time as an activist both for actors and more broadly, founding the first black theatre group in Los Angeles. But the importance of the relationship between Lucia and Sybil gets lost.

Lucia is only able to maintain her façade of normalcy with the help of Sybil. Her maid really manages the house and helps the housewife look good to her family and sort of normal, which she struggles with. Lucia’s trust in Sybil gives her strength to keep on as things fall apart and the criminal world pervades her own. So it comes as a shock to her when she learns the truth about Sybil’s life and her grief and loss — these days we recognise that as Lucia finally understanding the scope of her own privilege. It rocks her. What she’s been patting herself on the back for surviving suddenly seems like nothing.

The Deep End completely whitewashes the story. There is no Sybil. I love Tilda Swinton but the story is just about a plucky woman who deals with problems. It’s even less noir, which is a real missed opportunity. The story has been moved to Reno, which has a lot more noir potential, not to mention a large Latino population. It would have been interesting to give Sybil a different approach that fit the situation.

How did the era in which the novel was published react to Sybil’s agency?

I don’t know that there was much commentary at all. I haven’t found a contemporary review that does, but I have to do more digging. It’s interesting that Ophüls credits the original, shorter version that was serialised in the Ladies Home Journal. Maybe that’s the only version he read, but at least one scholar has suggested that he did so to give a stamp of untroubled wholesomeness, the ‘woman’s film’ genre was usually thought to be ‘safe’ and Ophüls was often categorised as a woman’s film maker — until of course his genius was recognised by later filmmakers and he was restored to being a filmmaker (-_-).

The inciting incident has the man dating the protagonist’s daughter turn up dead – from there Lucia’s world is plunged deeper into turmoil. Jake Hinkson has noted that noir is about weakness and hardboiled about strength. Where does Lucia stand?

I’m not one to believe in hard and fast rules; never met a rule I didn’t want to test anyway. Lucia is very weak; for the first time in her life she realises how weak she is — and yet she pushes herself to do things that terrify her. Mostly on behalf of her family, but there’s a part of herself she discovers that has a little flint to it. She’s relied on Sybil’s strength so long — and after Donnelly, the other blackmailer, starts to fall for her we see the weakness in him. There’s a throwaway line about his almost joining a monastery that drops a huge clue about what’s going on in his head, though she’s mostly blind to it. But when he’s in a tough situation, Lucia flies in the face of everything she told herself was right to try to save him. She feels a giddy freedom that she’s never had. But there’s no happy ending: this is noir.

Is the book an exploration of a woman’s place in the world in that period, especially a woman of her class? Her husband is at war, she’s left alone with her children and Sybil, and she must cope with the disasters piling on her. What’s a poor woman to do without her man?

I’d certainly never define it that way. It is about the war and those left behind, but it’s more about what happens when your safe world collides with the criminal. Her husband’s last act before deserting her to go to war was moving them out of NYC to be ‘safe’. Her life does include the endless numbing tasks women are left to do, coping with wartime deprivations, yet still expected to ‘keep the home fires burning’ the same as always. Lucia’s whole family treats her with contempt. Her father thinks of himself as ‘man of the house’ yet does nothing for anyone—and unknowingly commits a grave crime. Her daughter’s stupid rebellion puts them all in danger. Her barely teenage son harangues her for any deviation from what he perceives as ‘normal’ — even going out for a swim on her own. The police condescend to her and the criminals do, too. Lucia surprises herself as much as anyone when she discovers her anger after doing everything she can to take care of her family.

What is it about noir that grabs you?

Desperation: people on the edge, where their desires push them past all logic and reason, make for fascinating stories. I think of noir as filled with people who don’t feel they have many options and inevitably choose the wrong ones. Even if they survive you feel as if their world has been scarred or poisoned irretrievably. There’s a rawness and simplicity when your world gets reduced to the essentials—or at least what you think is essential. We humans have a great capacity for self-destruction. A lot of noir captures that fall in slow motion, like a fly stuck in amber. You can almost hear it saying, ‘where did it all go wrong?’

What’s the push and pull for Lucia? She wants to protect her family, but as you’ve said – they make it hard for her. Are there moments she wishes she could be alone? Or is blood so thick her instincts demand she works to protect them?

I think at first it’s about holding onto normalcy. With all the upheaval that the war brings there’s almost a kind of superstitious attempt to hold fear at bay. If she doesn’t tell her husband the truth about how much they’re struggling, everything will be fine. If she just gets this guy to leave her daughter Bea alone, everything will be fine. If she just hides this body—

But at a certain point Lucia begins to allow things to unravel in an almost reckless way: fatigue really. When you’ve done every possible thing to fix what’s wrong and it’s not even close to enough to save everyone, maybe it’s time to let go, or do the impossible, or trust people you don’t think you can trust.

Lucia’s the kind of person who had never struggled for anything, fought for anything and she discovers there’s an exhilaration in daring, doing and not caring. She’s surrounded by people who care very deeply about shallow things. Lucia never wanted to be like them, but she always thought it was the right thing to do to pretend that she did. By the end of the story, the life around her is unchanged—or appears unchanged. But she’s someone completely different.

Who’s the antagonist, and what do they bring to the story?

The original antagonist is Ted Darby, he’s a sleazy crime figure who uses the art world to make connections. Lucia’s daughter Bee is taken in by his façade—mad, bad and dangerous to know, as it were. All the things that she knows she’s not. Clearly he’s trying to put the moves on her but she’s not easy to persuade, though her frank letters to him betray the intensity of Bee’s naïve desires. Lucia assumes she can just meet with him, tell him he’s doing something wrong and he will stop. Instead, he’s amused by this angry mother. Darby’s got a good knowledge of psychology — crime requires an ability to read people well or you get caught real fast. He knows that when Lucia tells her daughter, Bee will be embarrassed by being treated like a kid (she’s 17) and cling to him even more. And he knows that Lucia is almost as afraid of public scorn as she is of her daughter taking up with an ‘unsuitable’ man. Lucia has a kind of child-like faith in the various systems of polite society. Ted Darby throws her into the deep end of some very choppy waters. It’s the first crack in her shell of safety.

If they made it a movie again, and you’re in charge of casting, who plays who?

Oh, I’m terrible at these. I think I’d move it to a small British village on the sea coast during the war, for a more immediate sense of danger. Helen McCrory who is so fantastic would bring a great twitchy sort of slow burn to Lucia, especially when she breaks. Maybe Paul Anderson as the sleazy Ted Darby since he’s well practised in criminal life. And it might be a little too on the nose, but Colin Farrell as Donnelly because he’s good at trying to be a bastard and failing because he’s got that ‘almost a priest’ hole in his heart. Sophie Okonedo would be great as Sybil because she was so fierce as Margaret of Anjou in the Hollow Crown. She would be the strength at the heart of the story.

You write noir as Graham Wynd. Has Elisabeth Sanxay Holding influenced your writing at all?

Probably: it’s hard to see influence in your writing. Everything I’ve ever read influences me. I can’t always see it but I know I have read and re-read Sanxay Holding, Hughes and Highsmith a lot since I started writing noir. Hammett, too, but these three really have been on my mind. They were at the core of my crime fiction class I just finished teaching. And I keep writing about them, which is a way of assimilating their magic. I never became an English major because I was afraid that diving deeply into books I loved would somehow make that magic disappear. Oddly enough, it just strengthens it.

Do your students absorb the magic the way you have? Any dissenters?

Oh, I doubt it. Students in those courses are usually non-majors taking what they hope will be their last English course. I have to say that a surprising number of them actually kept up with the reading and enthusiastically argued plot points and their significance. They accept a little too much on face value, which makes it hard for them to get to grips with Highsmith especially, Millar too. I didn’t know how much they would sympathise with a character who is about their mother’s age but they seemed to have a connection with Lucia because of how bad her family is. They understand getting picked on. They questioned Donnelley’s motivations, though. Despite being at what used to be a Catholic college they didn’t buy the idea of sacrifice, which amused me.

Is sacrifice the main theme? Is The Blank Wall What you could call family-noir?

No, I hate all these sub-genre splittings. Noir is noir. Sacrifice might be a theme but Lucia learns that it gets you nowhere. But by the end of the novel everything has changed, but no one realises it except her and Sybil. The family were deluded before and happy to be deluded again. Most people are happy with their illusions — their pipe dreams. What I like about the end is the feeling that Lucia might just walk out the door one day and never return.

If I’m going to do an Elisabeth Sanxay Holding deep dive, which of her books should I read after The Blank Wall – and why?

A lot of her books are hard to get hold of: The Innocent Mrs Duff is packaged with The Blank Wall in some editions, and it’s a good one though quite different. A guy who thinks he wants to get rid of his wife and take up with his kid’s nanny embroils himself into increasingly dangerous shenanigans — more Highsmith-like than her other books. Net of Cobwebs is a really fascinating book because the main character can’t trust his own point of view while accused of a string of murders. In the Stark House edition, it’s doubled with The Death Wish, where another guy starts thinking about killing his wife after his friend confides he has a plan to kill his. Lady Killer is intriguing because it takes place on a cruise. A wife begins to have doubts about her husband’s behaviour and then gets caught up in the life of another woman who might be in danger and it all ends up being much more complicated than she’s even imagined. Miasma, paired with it in the Stark House edition (thank goodness they put these out because even out of print, they’re the easiest versions to find) is about a doctor who’s failing so he takes a position in a private ‘clinic’ with a shady doctor and things turn out to be a lot weirder than expected — not to mention deadly.

Or any: like Hughes’s early novels, I’ve heard a lot of people say the earlier books are not worth reading which is a load of rubbish. Holding is always quality with great characters and wonderful, vivid dialogue even when the plot isn’t as finely tuned as her best stories are.

How is Your Love is a Grift coming along? Have you finished the edits?

Ha! One more academic thing to get done (June 1 deadline!) and then I can make a final run-through. But there’s also the song to record which won’t happen until August at least, so I suspect this won’t be out before fall. Reminds me, I should ask my publisher what her plans are!

Kate, your answers have been fabulous. I’m off to add The Blank Wall to my reading list.

What you up to?

Right now I’m wrestling with celticism in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and teaching a short online course. After June 1st I am back to inveterate idling which means writing mad stuff without any rules. Academic writing requires discipline, so it’s good to be able to throw rules away for a while. This has been an intense and not particularly pleasant year, so I am glad to be back in Scotland and *almost* relaxing. Soon, soon. Enjoy The Blank Wall — it’s a fabulous book. Thanks for all the probing questions. I have an idea to write a book on Holding and Hughes and maybe Highsmith, so this has all been useful for me to think.

Thanks, Kate.

Further reading on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding:

The Godmother of Noir by Jake Hinkson at The Criminal Element

Lisa Scottoline on The Blank Wall at Women Crime Writers

Persephone Book No. 42

Kate Laity’s noir novels, written as Graham Wynd, can be found at Amazon US and UK.

Here’s a couple of Graham Wynd short stories to get a taster:

The Oven at Spelk Fiction

Bloody Collage at Pulp Metal Magazine

You can find everything to do with Kate Laity at her website,

Stuff I Wish I’d Written … Beau Johnson on The Dark Tower

Hi Beau, which book are we talking about?

The book I’d like to talk about is actually eight books, all of them combining to form Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

Were you already a Stephen King man?

I was, I was – ever since my younger brother wasn’t into a present (Misery) I gave him for his thirteenth birthday. Not wanting it to go to waste, I’ve been hooked (a Constant Reader in King-speak) ever since.

I’ve not read much King. I read Christine when I was young and literal, and the premise annoyed me. I loved the movies Misery, Stand by Me, and The Shining, but I haven’t gone back to the books. His horror books could be construed as twisted fantasy, but aren’t The Dark Tower books out-and-out fantasy? A departure in King’s catalogue?

I think that man is able to write anything, so no, I can’t see it as a departure for him. It’s his longest work by far, in pages as well as years, but it becomes as rewarding as it can get if you are a fan. But yeah, if I have to get concrete, a little more fantasy would populate those books than some of his others. As I’ve been told: there are other worlds than this.

Buy prints of the book via Michael Whelan’s website.

Your writing is gritty and planted firmly in the here-and-now. What attracted you to the fantasy of The Dark Tower series?

Ha – yup, I do love me some grit. As for what attracted me to The Dark Tower – it’s really two things. One, when my young punk self understood what King was saying about reality: that our world was but a blade of grass in a sea of grass, hence “there are other worlds than these.”

Second: when I realized how connected his books were. Easter eggs, guest stars, whatever you want to call them. But the connective tissue running under and through the spine of his stories … consider this the point in time when my youthful mind was blown.

Does each book in the series have a beginning, middle, and end? Does it leave a thread in, say book 1, and not pick it up again until book 6?

They are self-contained, sure, but each connects to the overarching narrative. It is basically a quest, to save the Tower, which stands as the nexus of all realities. If it falls, we all fall. Purdy cool.

Stephen King has told of the influence The Lord of the Rings has on the series. Do you see it?

For sure. Tolkien’s influence can’t be denied. Lord of the Rings is flat-out fantasy , whereas The Dark Tower has a good chunk of its time rooted in our world. A good mix, if I do say so myself. Mother Abigail would be proud.

Who is The Dark Tower’s main protagonist? What do you like about him?

Roland of Gilead. The Gunslinger, himself. We are all searching for something. Acceptance. Tolerance. This world is not so fucked up as we think it is. Roland’s quest is not only a hero’s journey but a redemption story as well. For whatever reason, those two ingredients have formed to become my Huckleberry and why I continue to come back for more.

What is Roland’s redemption all about? Has he failed someone. Has he committed a great sin he must rectify?

A great sin encapsulates it quite nicely. Roland chooses the Tower over a boy named Jake about halfway through the first book, the boy in turn falling to his death because of this decision. Heartbreaking, especially when it comes back in play later in the series. Hang on, I need a tissue. Okay – I am now ready for the next question.

Here’s a hanky, your face is all contorted. What about the antagonist(s)? As epic as Sauron?

I would say in league with, yes. Randall Flagg is one bad-ass dude. You may even remember him from that fine adventure called The Stand. That Dude, the WALKIN’ Dude, he gets around. More of the connective tissue I mentioned earlier. He even pops up as a Merlin-type in another book called Eyes of the Dragon. As for the Big Big Bad? The Crimson King? He was serviceable, playing his part , but if I had to, I’d go with Flagg for the win.

What does Flagg represent in the books?

Anarchy. Chaos. An agent of change. On the whole, a nasty piece of meat.

So he’s more Joker than Sauron?

Not so much a Joker, no. Purdy sure Flagg has more on the ball than Mar Napier. Bigger goals, too. Bringing about the end of all there is puts him in a different league, methinks.

What did you think of the film? A masterpiece? Good, but flawed? A miserable waste of everyone’s time?

Option 3. And to be honest, I couldn’t even finish it. I don’t mind Idris Elba as Roland, but McConaughey – man, was he woefully miscast. Grrr … aaargh…

Going back to the novel, King is a big advocate of pantsing. Does the series read like that? Does it go off on incomprehensible tangents, or does it have that shoot-from-the-hip thrill?

Doesn’t read like that at all. Makes me jealous, is what it does – me being a pantser as well. The man is just too good at his craft. You hit it on the head, too: it very much has a shoot-from-the-hip thrill. From the Tick-Tock Man to saving Eddie Dean, to Roland losing his own fingers, to what King calls Lobstrosities.

Do you pants from the start of your work? You have no thought of the end until you get there?

I think my writing process is maybe a beast unto its own. I sometimes get the ending first and work back from there. Sometimes it’s the opposite and the first line comes to me and boom – the story takes me where it wants. My least favourite is when somehow I start in the middle and find myself working toward both ends. As John Locke from Lost has been know to say: “It’s never BEEN easy!”

Have you ever pantsed to the end of a story and thought, “Sod that, I need to scrap it and start again”?

Nah, can’t say that I have. Now that’s not saying I haven’t switched perspectives when I feel it’s not quite working. I mostly write in first-person, but if I’m not feeling it I sometimes switch to third just to see what’s there. It has worked for some pieces, others not so much. When this happens I usually scrap the whole thing. Bottom drawer business, if you catch my drift.

I get your drift. Do you go into a story thinking of plot, or an emotion?

A little from column A, I guess, a little from column B. I’ve always considered myself a What If? guy.

Has The Dark Tower affected the way you write? Has King’s style influenced you at all? Is there a bit of Roland in Bishop Rider?

When I first began writing for sure I was influenced by King. I have always liked to write, but hands-down Uncle Stevie is the reason I put in the effort. I had limited success in his arena, however, and it wasn’t until I came upon crime fiction that I found my voice. That is not to say I am successful, far from it, in fact. I am having fun, though.

As for the Bishop/Roland comparison? Up until I read your question I would have said no. I can’t quite commit to that anymore, as both men are single-minded as a man can get, now that I think about it – Roland for his Tower, Bishop for every piece of scum his boots can crush. Looking back, then, yes – it would appear a seed had been planted.

That King – always looking out for me. Ha!

One reviewer said The Dark Tower is “high-falutin’ hodge-podge,” but “more than delivers on what has been promised.”

How would you sum up the beast?

One word – Epic. His magnum opus, for sure.

You’ve had some hot recommendations from highly regarded writers such as Tom Pitts, Joe Clifford, and Paul D. Brazill for your short story collection, A Better Kind of Hate. What’s next, and do you feel the pressure of such kudos?

I would say there is some pressure. I’d be lying if I didn’t. But I learned a long time ago I can only write for myself. If people happen to like my stories, hey, that’s the cake. If not, so be it. You can’t please everyone.

PS – Clifford, Pitts, and Brazill all made me pay for those blurbs. Three figures, too. Nah, I kid. Great bunch of writers to know, each one. I have been very fortunate to be accepted into this community of ours. The fact is not lost on me.

Beau, you’ve been a star. Thanks for your time and best wishes for your future work.

Jason, m’man, my thanks to you. Quite accommodating of you to give me time and space. Good luck on your newest work as well: City of Forts! For those of you who haven’t already, go grab yourself a copy. Have some fun.


You can get a taste of Beau Johnson’s work through the following links:

My Kingdom for a Fenceat Spelk Fiction

Hostile Takeoverat Shotgun Honey

Moments in Timeat The Flash Fiction Offensive

The following are other interviews he’s given:

Short, Sharp Interview with Paul D. Brazill

The Interrogation Room with Tom Leins

You can buy A Better Kind of Hate from Amazon US and UK

City of Forts


Bullets, Teeth, & Fists

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