Q: You are a noted writer for film and television. What do you get out of novel writing that you don't find in screenwriting, and vice versa?
A: Film and television are much, much smaller canvases. I suppose this is obvious, but it's worth stating. I did the screen adaptation for my previous novel Rare Birds, and it was a triple distillation process. That all the principals involved in the production read the novel beforehand was the salvation. They were all aware of, and relatively loyal to, the author's intent. It has sometimes been my experience, when writing an original script, that directors and actors can be rather too liberal with their interpretation. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, they get it wrong.
There are very different responses from the audience, too. Readers are active participants, using their imagination to expand what you've given them. They typically make a painting of what you have sketched. It is altogether more rewarding for the writer than dealing with people who mostly want a spoon feeding. This isn't a condemnation of the motion picture media. There are many times, after a long day, when I want nothing more than to sit down and, making no effort, have the story wash over me. For children, it's just plain dangerous, limiting their ability to imagine and then to think at all.
Q: What was your inspiration for The Nine Planets?
A: Around the same time that I had a late-night whiskey-heated discussion on the relative merits of public versus private education (me coming down in favour of the former), I happened to be reading a book (I cannot remember the title) that discussed, among many things, the relationship of Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Nearly simultaneously to this, on the occasion of some relative’s passing, I wondered to my brother John about the family roots. He suggested that we came here direct from Elizabethan London. His scanty support for this speculation was that a John Riche was Queen Elizabeth I favourite physician and that another Riche played a central part in the doomed expedition to the Virginia’s that is said to have inspired The Tempest. Curious, I made my own lazy dilettante’s inquiry and found more intriguing, if ultimately meaningless, gems. I learned that a Barnaby Riche’s Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581) contained stories that were the inspiration for The Merry Wives of Windsor and Twelfth Night, that Measure for Measure comes from Barnaby’s (Pythonesque titled) The Adventures of Brusanus, Prince of Hungaria (1592). And then, in the midst of all this, I read that the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Hamlet were actually Danish diplomats and that—wait for it—that Tycho Brahe had this same Mr. Rosencrantz do him the favour of accompanying and providing security for Kepler during his relocation from Graz to the seat of The Holy Roman Empire, Prague. Against this was the boom in St. John’s and the consequent collision of developers and preservationists.
Q: How are all of these "meaningless gems" that inspired the novel related to astronomy, which has a substantial role in the book?
A: Again, it's to the book's nascence back in the spring of 1997 when the Hale-Bopp Comet hung over St. John's. Sometime around then I read how it was not uncommon for comets to be discovered by amateurs, an observation that made it into the novel. I tripped then into Kepler and his metaphysical connection of the motion of the planets to mathematical principals that governed all things, the rules of musical harmony for instance. An architecture for the story seemed obvious, nine chapters taking place over nine months in the year 1999; and nine planets, each chapter using as a point of departure some of the mythology and science of each planet. Thus Mercury, the first chapter, was about commerce and the communication of messages, through to Pluto and death, the end. I'd read, too, somewhere I've forgotten, that numerologists connect the number nine with judgement. And then, as I have already said, there was the connection of Kepler to the Elizabethan world where and when the Newfoundland I'm from was made and where and when our English literature, falling mostly from Shakespeare, had its origin. I wish I could be plainer, more causal about all this, but it seems, in retrospect, to have all come to me at once. And it's all just the framework in which a story is told. Mostly it's storytelling, all that architecture is, I hope, invisible to the reader.
Q: The Nine Planets offers an unusual and very urban portrayal of St. John's, Newfoundland—rich, private-school kids involved with drugs and sex, their big-business parents, an international arts community. Is this an accurate depiction of the city?
A: St. John’s is more urban and cosmopolitan than other Canadian cities many times its size. It was thus before Toronto was incorporated. A relative of mine was at anchor here, with other European mariners, in 1669. You’ll have to check with First Nations people to find what was happening on the shores of Lake Ontario at the time. The social dynamics of wealth and poverty, corruption and vice, have long been features of life here. The international arts community is relatively new, but all too real these days. I’m starting to find the traffic a trial. So, yes, it is an accurate description of the town. Not to create the impression that it is a throbbing metropolis, but it is vital (especially lately) and yes, urban, and yes, modern. The private schools here are nothing like the one described in the novel. The Red Pines was a flight of fancy, and really just an instrument.
Q: In Chapter One, Marty thinks he is "fully formed, knew exactly who he was, detested people who 'discovered' things about themselves late in life." He softens throughout the book, but we never find out what becomes of him. Where would he end up if the story had continued?
A: I believe Marty’s sentiment is shared by many people. I should say that I am nothing like Marty, that I designed him to despise people like myself. (My politics are more like Meredith’s). And while I don’t share his disdain for “people that discover …,” I am uncomfortable with them. Perhaps they raise a mirror of doubt.
At the conclusion of this tale Marty’s head is opened wide. Because of what he has been through, he is ready to go to a new and certainly higher level of consciousness, one less self-absorbed, less poisoned by ambition. What, specifically, becomes of him, I can’t say, except that he will be a better, wiser, less self-obsessed man. Were that I could say that of myself.
Q: Cathy captures teenage angst and insecurity perfectly. Who was the inspiration behind her character?
A: I had a terrifically heartening experience when a small bookstore owner, a woman who read an advance copy of The Nine Planets, said to me, “I didn’t know you had been a teenage girl." Indeed I hadn’t, but I’d been a teenage boy and it’s wonderful to know that the experience is less gender specific than we all thought. If I had known it at the time, I would probably have been better equipped to talk those girls. The inspiration, I guess, was all the fabulous girls I have known and the fact that I thought more about them and their circumstances and the prejudices they must have endured once my daughter was born.
Q: Are there any plans to make a film of The Nine Planets?
A: There are no plans yet for a film adaptation. I fancy the idea of a multi-episode television thing, three hours each, three planets sort of thing. That I write "visually" will make it easy, the peculiar nine-month time frame and the double protagonists make it hard. Frankly, I'm too shell-shocked from writing the book. I need a few months before considering making the leap.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working as a writer and sometime performer on a CBC Radio show called "Sunny Days and Nights." I am also serving as a story editor on two television pilots. I don't think it would be appropriate to identify them. I am also completing a pilot script for a television series set in a boutique real estate firm.
To read more about The Nine Planets, click here.