Liz Jensen’s latest book, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, finally seems to be getting the English author some of the credit and profile she deserves. The cynics may suggest that the book’s prominent placing in bookshops has as much to do with the fact that it has been snapped up, cinematically, by Anthony Minghella, director and screenwriter of films like The talented Mr Ripley, Cold Mountain, and, of course, The English Patient. For once, cynics be damned. Jensen’s work has consistently been inventive, engaging, and thrillingly strange. Whether it be a surreal examination of Darwinism (Ark Baby), Corporate dominance (The Paper Eater) or the exploration of memory and old age (War Crimes for the Home), her books have managed to be remarkably different from each other, while carrying certain trade mark touches like humour, surrealism, and a brilliant capacity for characterisation. Three Monkeys Online had the pleasure of exhanging emails with Ms Jensen, to form the following interview:
Chuck Palahniuk, an author whose work has been turned into a film (Fight Club), said of books in general “books are the only form of mass media that address risky, potentially offensive topics”. Would you agree? You’re an author who’s had differing experiences with the film world – to what extent is there a process of compromise when turning a novel into a film?
I don't totally agree with Chuck Palahniuk, because plenty of risky and potentially offensive topics have been tackled by television documentaries and in newspapers all over the world, and there are assassinated journalists to prove it. But perhaps what he means is you can't have as much fun, or take the liberty of being outrageous, or offensive, or subversive, or transgressive, or pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, in the regular mass media. Because there are sponsors and market forces to consider, plus there's this sacred cow called ‘Good Taste’ and the kiddies might be watching. With art, and fiction I think especially, you don't need facts to portray and explore an emotional truth. You can sometimes tell the truth better through something invented. Look at Alice in Wonderland, look at Lord of the Flies, look at Animal Farm, look at Fight Club for that matter. Fiction can go straight for the jugular.
There probably is a process of compromise involved in turning a novel in to a film – but fortunately I'm not the one who's going to do it. I wouldn't know where to start. Part of Anthony Minghella's talent is to capture spirit of a book, and then create a whole new dimension which makes it his own. I don't want him reproduce The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. I want him to metamorphose it. I've already seen the story through my eyes: now I want to see it through his. I actively want it to be different.
You set The Ninth life of Louis Drax in the south of France – how important was the location to you? It’s an interesting choice, because by choosing a French location and characters, there are a range of questions about language. For example, at certain points there are titles or references that you put in French, but for the most part these could be English characters in terms of the language they use.
It was a tricky one. I set it in France for several reasons. I know France well, and have lived there: my French is fluent and my kids have dual nationality. Next, I was sick of writing about Britain. I feel more European than I do British, and I wanted to write a European book. There was also a commercial factor: my previous novel, War Crimes for the Home, was full of 1940s war slang which made it impossible to translate. I needed the money, so I had to write a book that would have a chance of attracting foreign publishers. As for the language, I wanted Louis to speak typical boy-speak – and I wanted the luxury of using English playground expressions. But since Louis is French, every now and then I used French words or expressions – usually the ones my own boys (who are bilingual) use when they are being sloppy, and can't find the right word in English. So it was quite organic in that sense – but I didn't know at the time whether it was going to work.
Sarah Hall, author of the Electric Michelangelo, speaking about the influence of cinema on modern writers said: “It's pretty inescapable, even if the intake is modified”. Isn’t it fair to say that, while it may not be the motive for writing, the modern novelist always has at the back of their mind the dream that someone will take their book and turn it into a film?
No. I never had a film at the back of my mind with any of my books – least of all Louis Drax. When I delivered it to my agent, I said, `Here's another novel that's never going to be made into a film: it's about a boy in a coma, who never wakes up'. It didn't seem cinematic to me. Although, I did use more visual images in Louis Drax than I had done in previous books, it's still all a mystery to me.
You’ve worked previously as a journalist. How, if at all, has that informed or changed the way you write fiction?
I was a producer of radio documentaries and features, which was wonderful training for fiction writing, because I was meeting and interviewing people, and then editing what they said – cutting long stories short, and then mixing their voices together with music and sound effects to make a story-shaped whole. I loved it. I learned about dialogue, and I learned about structure. If I hadn't had that career, I'd be a very different kind of writer. Or perhaps I wouldn't be a writer at all. Now, I find that most of my ideas germinate from news stories I've read, so journalism is still important.