It’s great to have CM Taylor back on the blog on publication day for his new novel, Staying On. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this and I stayed up half the night to find out what would happen. It’s a funny and very moving (I cried!) story of a family that needs to face up to its past – a situation that’s brought to a head when Brexit comes along and their life in Spain no longer seems quite so sunny.
Craig, in the teaching you do, theme is a crucial element in guiding the story and the theme for me that came through strongly in Staying On is guilt and culpability. How it manifests, the twisted nature of it that makes people believe different things about the same situation. What made you want to explore this theme in this novel?
Shouldn’t a book in the final instance be about something – have a take on the world, an angle, something to say about how people are, how the world is? That’s what strong theme gives you.
One of the things I write and teach about is the idea that narrative art maps human change, and that characters in stories move from the denial and repression of certain feelings, into the awareness and exploration of those feelings, and then on to acting on them – either positively or negatively.
When you say there’s a strong element of guilt and culpability in the book, it’s true, and that to me is part of character development and theme, of how character carries theme across story, beginning with denial, (“It wasn’t me.” “That’s not how it was.” “It didn’t happen.” “I haven’t got a problem.” “There’s nothing to see here.”), moving into flashes of light, (“Maybe there is a problem.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.” “Maybe there is something I need to look at.”), then into acceptance or conscious surfacing, (“God, I do have an issue here.” “There is something I need to look.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.”), and on into being galvanised, (“I really do need to apologise.” “I really do need to make that clear.” “I do really need to tell the truth.”).
People use denial as self-protection. People lie to themselves about the things which are hardest to entertain. But denial has consequences. If you lie to yourself about one thing it seeps over into other things and leads to moral corruption. As Saul Bellow wrote: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Denial surfaces elsewhere in many negative ways, it squirts out hot and sideways into anger, addiction, failed intimacy, extreme competitiveness, self-harm.
I don’t think that this gap between how different characters see things, or the gap between how a character sees things and how it really was, is necessarily just a theme of this novel, I think it’s a part of every character for me, because it’s part of this journey from denial and repression to acceptance and action. Human change has a pattern and self-deceit is part of that pattern. Guilt is an aspect of repression, and accepting your culpability is a stage on the road to accepting the world as it is.
One of your main characters, Tony, is adept at not saying the things that really matter and putting a brave face on things. Never letting people know what’s really going on behind that bright surface. Did you know when you set out how things would turn out for Tony or did he take you places you hadn’t planned?
As above, Tony – as with us all – is on a journey from repression and denial to (ideally) expression and health. Crucial with Tony on his particular journey is his generation, which is that post-war generation, brought up in a world where emotional connection was scarce and rationed. Imagine being a kid where most adults around you had PTSD and didn’t even know it. Jesus. Decode that. And many of that generation, those post-war babies, tend towards the stoic and repressed. They’re very non-presumptive. Or they can be.
So Tony’s particular brand of suppression is influenced by that generation. That’s in the mix, but then it’s also just him. I know lots of older people, volubly acting out their fear and confusion at the world through anger and nostalgia, but then I also know a lot of older people, like Tony, who radically suppress their own needs – sublimating their impulses and being less clamorous, living for other people. I find it beautiful and generous. That said – and this is the rub of Tony’s dilemma – there come points in life where you need to say, “No. I need something here. I need sustenance and nourishment. I can’t suppress my own needs all the time.”
And that’s Tony’s dilemma, a modest, sweet guy who’d always put himself second, who urgently must realise that if he puts himself second again, then there’s going to be none of him left. That’s hard. Especially when you have no skills, no practice in putting yourself first, and all the social and emotional grooves in your life run against it, run for decades against what you now must do.
All that is in the mix with Tony. I knew he was repressing, and I knew what he was repressing, and I knew that it would have to blossom for him to have his emotional denouement, but I didn’t necessarily know how that was going to happen. I knew the suppression but not the expression. He had that wriggle room.
Tony’s story of dealing with a failing business alongside family dramas is told with humour and at the same time is also very moving, it is sad and hopeful and funny and melancholy, and really very true about what it is to be human today. As writers, this is something we all aspire to achieve in the novels we write so what advice can you give to the readers of the blog on how they can create such compelling narratives within what appears to be, on the surface, just an everyday story of a family.
Stay right behind the eyes of your characters and process what events mean for them. There are high stakes in everyone’s life. Success, failure, love, rejection, hope, desire. Are people going to get what they want? Are they going be rejected and not get what they want? Are they going to learn or keep making the same mistakes?
The trick to making an ostensibly everyday story compelling is to dwell on the internal, on the emotional stakes at play. The word, “No,” might be a single word of dialogue externally, but internally it might mean, “Everyone always says no to me.” Or it might mean, “I am never going to get what I want.” Or it might mean, “Right, I had enough of people saying no and now I’m on the march.”
The key to rendering everyday situations into dramatic material is to dwell behind the eyes of the protagonist of the scene, to show the emotional stakes, and to show at what point this person is in the development from repression and denial to expression – to show how does the moment charge that journey. Does it crush them into further repression? Push them over into expression and self-activation?
What is at stake? How does it move the journey? Find that and you have found drama.
With Brexit coming very soon this is a very timely story but the politics of the situation are largely irrelevant in this family’s life as they face up to the past in order to discover if they can have a happier future. Do you think despite the large role politics plays in the collective psyche, mainly due to the way it’s presented in the media, that this is true for us all. That it’s the human stories that go on irrelevant of what the politicians are doing, that really matter to people?
Well Brexit gets things going, because the book is about a British expat couple in Spain who wonder if they might get kicked out. One of them, Laney, wants to stay in Spain, and one of them, Tony, wants to go home to England. And Brexit puts pressure on that, because Tony is emboldened from his meekness by the situation with Brexit, whereas with Laney her reasons for wanting to stay now appear more flimsy and unlikely. So, the larger political situation acts as a trigger for the internal repressions of the main characters, plus it brings to the surface the subterranean conflicts locked into their marriage. It brings things to the boil.
As to whether it is more human stories that really matter to people, well the book-reading public is a broad church, and political non-fiction is selling well, while political fiction – which is hard to do without coming across as hectoring or didactic – can sometimes do well. So, I think some people want work which is in-tune to the internal verities of love and relationships and self-development, whereas others seek more politically-attuned work. Personally, I want both.
But a strong aspect of the art of the novel is its ability to offer a sense of human closeness, and I strongly wanted to tell a personal story about Brexit, away from the headlines and the slogans and the politicians, to show how normal folk trapped in a normal situation were being affected by a broader political situation, and how crucially it mapped onto issues with their own pasts, and their own relationships. So, yes, I focused on the personal, the internal, because I believe that is the strongest suit of the art of the novel. Though as I say above, seminal political fiction has been written – it is just most obtrusively political fiction is sophomore and partisan and dull.
Now that Tony and Laney’s story has gone out in the world, what are you writing next?
Oh God, this question. It may make me cry.
Well, in no particular order, I’ve just finished the final draft of a TV pilot based on one of my novels. And I’ve been commissioned to co-write a movie which I can’t really say too much about, so I’m tucking into the first draft of that. And I’ve had interest in republishing a couple of my early novels, so I just spent a few days giving them a haircut, purging them of juvenilia, before sending them out. Then, because I’ve got a book coming out, I’m writing blog posts and articles.
And yes, by now you can see that I’m avoiding the real intent of the question. I’m repressing the truth through guilt! And there’s a reason for that. I’m developing two novels simultaneously, and I haven’t worked out which one I want to lead with. One is a character-led thriller series, quite socially realistic, and the other is a stand-alone tech thriller, more heightened, but again character-led. I’m flip-flopping between these two and am not sure which one of these two works of fiction will emerge as my next book, to be quite honest.
Thanks for giving us this insight into your new novel and your writing tips, Craig.