Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Son of So who in their right mind writes a sequel?

bc_strange_tn When I finished my first draft of Living with the Truth I was, as all of you who've written your first novel will know, pretty damn chuffed with myself. I had had no aspirations to be a novelist. I had never intended to write a novel in the first place. It just happened. And what kind of excuse is that? Er, Dad, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to write a novel, it just kinda happened. Don't ground me.

I'd love to say that writing it was a Herculean task but it wasn't. I sat down and wrote it from scratch over what felt like a couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember how long it took. But it wasn't long. It wasn't months. Granted it took me another five years to polish it up and another ten to think about getting it published but that's something else.

The point is I had a first draft which I let people read, Helen, a woman I worked with and Iain, a mate from an old job. They both loved it. It was just a bit short. So I took the last chapter and with depressing ease and speed inserted a complete second day into the proceedings. This they liked better although Helen still hated the ending. When she gave me feedback on that first draft her opening remarks began with: “How dare you.” You don't forget stuff like that. The fact is she had become so emotionally attached to Jonathan that she let herself become aggrieved on his behalf. Now, if that doesn't tell you that you've done something right I don't know what will.

Iain passed this second draft onto his secretary and one of his mates (people I had never met) and I asked John, one of my bosses, to read it too. It was the response from Iain's mate that got me the most because there was no need for him to flatter me; the fact that Iain was passing the thing around proved to me that his own feedback was genuine enough so I breathed a sign of relief: I hadn't embarrassed myself. “Who is this guy?” his mate wanted to know, “I have got to meet him.” Well, we never did meet but, along with generally positive comments from everyone, I was pretty sure that I had the best part of a novel written. It had a beginning, middle and end. It pleased me. Now, I thought, maybe I can get back to doing what I do best, writing poetry.

And that was the plan. 'Onest, Guv. The book was a one-off, like the play I tried to write when I was nineteen and the children's story I'd written when my daughter was born. It was a blip, nothing more. They say that everyone has a novel in them. Well, I'd got mine out of my system.

The thing is they wouldn't let it go. They wanted to know more. But as far as I was concerned I had no more in me. That I'd had that much in me in the first place was a complete delight and surprise. Iain – a sci-fi enthusiast like me – was especially taken with the possibilities of the character of Truth; he pestered me to try and write something else with him and maybe include some more of the Powers that Be. It was perfectly doable. It was a good idea. I could have Truth interact with anyone from history. Maybe I could try my hand at some short stories, I thought, but when I sat down to write I found I couldn't get Jonathan out of my head. But his story was finished. I was sure it was finished.

I started thinking about going back to Living with the Truth, and adding in yet another day but another – and, thankfully, sensible – voice picked up its megaphone and said: “Step away from the novel. Put down the pen and step away from the novel.”

Iain wasn't the only one who wanted more. Helen wanted to know what happened between Jonathan and Jan. Did they make a go of it? In my head they didn't. Even after Truth's intervention in Jonathan's life I expected nothing to change. I once wrote in a poem which ends:

No, I don't believe in destiny
but I do in inevitability.

This was to be something that I would explore further in my third novel the notion that people will bend over backwards to become the people they were always going to become and that even when something out of the ordinary happens – like the personification of truth waltzing into their life – as soon as that external influence is removed they will naturally – and inevitably – revert to type. Jonathan had been a sad git before he met Truth and he was going to be a sad git after Truth went on his merry way. The only change would be a raised level of awareness. He'd had a delusion-ectomy. The rose-tinted glasses had been thrown on the ground and stomped all over. Now he could see clearly who he was but that wasn't going to change who he was. The book would have failed if I'd allowed that to happen. So I couldn't add a Hollywood ending. Sad gits don't get Hollywood endings.

vladimir-estragon But the more I thought about it the more I realised I wanted to know more about these characters and not just Truth. Like Didi and Gogo or George and Lenny, Jonathan and Truth were a double act in my head. I didn't want to write about either of them on their own or with other people.

The question was, how, believably, to bring Truth back into Jonathan's life.

One thing that most people recognise about the first book was that it is difficult to classify. There are clearly fantastic elements to the work but it is not a fantasy novel in any of the clichéd ways most of us who don't read fantasy novels think about them. Incorporating Truth as an actual character that Jonathan could interact with was a literary device although I never thought about him as such at the time. I just kept writing them words and hoping I wouldn't dry up.

I have racked my brain and I can honestly say I have no idea where the notion of Truth came from any more than I can say where the concept for the second novel came from. I simply sat down one day and typed:

Jonathan Payne woke with a crick in the back of his neck.

I hadn't a clue where I was going but it seemed as good a place to start as any. The first book began with Jonathan in bed so why not the second? Besides now I wasn't staring at a blank page. I continued:

He was lying, as was his wont, in the foetal position in what felt like his bed and what would look like his bedroom when he finally got around to opening his eyes. He might’ve listened to the early morning birds twittering outside, only there didn’t appear to be any. Not being much of a bird lover—at least not the feathered variety—this didn’t trouble him overly much. As he started to come to he found himself becoming aware of music, no instruments, no lyrics, simply voices in the distance. Where might they be coming from? No, it didn’t matter.

First paragraph out of the way in which I had inserted two clues and two reminders of the kind of character Jonathan is. New paragraph:

Nothing much mattered really. Not now. Two days earlier it might have, perhaps, but that was before, before the personification of Truth had waltzed through his front door and his life decided to take a nose-dive down the lavvy-pan, before he’d learned that there was life on other planets, that fish have a spiritual side, that he’d managed to get his one true love’s name wrong, that there was a God, that his postman was a latent gay, that the little old lady who worked in the Indian carry-out had four nipples and that his sister was just about the world’s worst undiscovered actress. It had been an eventful couple of days. But on the whole he was handling things well, somewhat well. Well, as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Well, he wasn’t actually handling anything. There was no hands-on contact as such. That was not his way. Things were on hold—he’d get round to them in time. There was always time. Far more than he had imagined.

Great, a quick summary of the events of the previous novel in under 200 words, a teeny bit more character description . . . and a third clue.

One of the problems with many sequels is that they're not genuine sequels, the action is not progressed, it's rehashed. Thankfully as I was writing Stranger than Fiction I never thought about any of this. I wasn't writing to a formula. I wasn't even that sure I could pull it off a second time. The first time I had just sat down to write. This time I had sat down intent on writing a novel. That's a whole different ball game.

Being objective now all these years later I can see that there is a pattern to both novels. They begin and end in much the same way and the sticky filling my characters have to wade through is much the same, Jonathan learns more about himself and the nature of the universe than he ever wanted to know (only it's the macroverse he learns more about in this one). And then, right at the very end, I fall for it – hook, line and sinker – and tag on an ending that would lead straight into a third novel realising full well when I did it that that was what I was doing. I excused myself by saying that that was what the book needed to round things out (and it does I assure you) but then I looked in the mirror and imagined myself writing about Jonathan and Truth for the rest of my life. And that made me shudder.

I never wrote that third book. I never even sat down and tried to write it.

And there was a reason for that. My life was just about to go to hell in a hand-basket. You don't want to know the details. Yes, I know you do but I'm not telling you. Suffice to say both books got shoved in a metaphorical drawer and forgotten about for the next five years by which time I was living a completely different life which I'll maybe tell you a bit about when we get onto the writing of that third novel.

So, enough waffle, what's Stranger than Fiction really about, Jim?

Okay. If I explain where a few of my influences originate that might put this novel into perspective. My aim with this book was to reveal more about Truth. Truth, in my universe, is a being, one of a host of beings collectively known as The Dunameon or The Powers that Be. These Powers are briefly mentioned in the Bible but never fully explained. It's where I got the name from and a part of the idea. That the apostle Paul appears to have believed them to be the invisible agents behind what really happens in the world is seen in Ephesians 6:12:

We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (New Revised Standard Version )

“Dunameon” is the plural of “dunamis,” which is usually translated as “power”. “Workings of powers,” could obviously refer to the operation of all the gifts of the spirit, but this gift works in a specialised area of miracles. It is an operation that changes natural law and material things, and produces seen miraculous effects. It produces miracles in man's material environment.

Now, before we get all tied up in scriptures let me just state that I was just looking for a name for my collective. Yes, God exists in the book's universe but I don't dwell on the fact. I'm more interested in his subordinates, the beings who get their hands dirty on his behalf.

The_Sandman-_Endless_Nights_Poster_by_Frank_Quitely A band of beings like this has been done before. Everyone familiar with The Sandman will automatically think of Neil Gaimen's 'Endless'. I indeed tip my hat to Gaimen in the first novel where Truth, in conversation, says to Death: “I thought you were running around as a skinny punkette these days?” to which Death replies, “It seems I was in infringement of copyright of something.” There is an earlier group that I also had in mind though. British viewers of a certain age will remember a television show entitled Sapphire and Steel which starred David McCallum (a.k.a. Illya Kuryakin for those familiar with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Joanna Lumley (the more attractive third of The New Avengers). These two were 'elements' – Lead and Silver also feature in the show – Operators as they are known and clearly part of some larger unnamed organisation. Fans of the show have expanded the roll of named operatives to over one hundred.

Unlike the Eternals or the Operatives, the Dunameons are more like characters Sir Terry Pratchett might have dreamed up and I owe him a debt of gratitude. Although I had never – and still sadly haven't – read any of his books I was aware of his universe although not of the Gods of Dunmanifestin which I only learned about just now when looking up 'Discworld' in Google.

In Living with the Truth Jonathan only got to interact with Truth. Others get a mention but Truth is the only one who manifests himself. In Stranger than Fiction Jonathan eventually gets to visit Dunamea and meet Reality and Destiny. It's only after this visit that we start to appreciate who Truth is and why he acts the way he does.

Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people.” (Yes, No Exit is a definite touchstone for the book.) In Jonathan's case Hell is also himself. At the beginning of this novel I wrote that he awoke “in what felt like his bed and what would look like his bedroom”, well what he wakes up in is effectively a manifestation of his memories, what I describe in the book as “concretisation extrapolated from his own mind.” Apart from Jonathan and Truth just about nothing is real in the book. Only things he remembers can exist. And, of course, that means that in this place both his mother and father can appear as if they were alive and he can get to meet them again or at least what he remembers of them. In the quote “concretisation” is a word I lifted from the film Solaris (the Russian 1972 version) and “extrapolate” is a word used so often in Star Trek that I can't imagine it defining anything else and, of course, Star Trek is where the holodeck lives. And if you don't know what a holodeck is where have you been for the past twenty-two years?

solaris Solaris is a Polish science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem which is about the failed attempt at communication between humans and an alien life form on the planet known as Solaris. While the narration suggests that humans are studying the planet, the reverse seems also to be the case; Solaris has been examining the secret and often guilty thoughts of human beings. These secrets and thoughts are given physical form on the space station which hovers above the planet. The novel is pervaded by a powerful and moving poetic sense of remoteness and loneliness.

The film had a huge impact on me the first time I saw it, far more than the book did when I finally got round to reading it. The 2002 remake starring George Clooney was well-intentioned but didn't really work for me.

In my book Jonathan doesn't have the luxury of calling out: “Computer, end program!” This is how things are explained to him:

     Jonathan looked around at the empty streets. “So tell me,” he began, “If this isn’t the Rigby that I thought I fell asleep in yesterday, what is it?”
     “Good question.” Was this Truth’s new catch phrase? “Actually, we’re in what we call in the trade a “MeGeLan Field:” a memory generated landscape.”
     “You mean if I forgot what the street looked like we’d fall through a hole in the ground?”
     “In theory, yes, but in reality you can’t ever forget.”

This was the closest I could get to wandering around inside Jonathan's mind. Not that he is in control of everything. Where would the fun be in that? For me one the best bits to write was a short section near the end of the book where I insert myself into the novel. I have a cameo in the first book, just a couple of lines, but here I get to face my creation. Jonathan does not take this well:

     “No, wait a second. You’re telling me that in some god-forsaken universe you just sat there and made me up?” Actually, if Jonathan had thought about it, Truth had told him earlier in the day. At the time he’d thought he was just being facetious. Sometimes it was so hard to tell.
     “Well not simply just made up. I’m not that good. I put a lot of thought into you, into developing your character and background.” Wasn’t he supposed to be asking the questions? This was one of a talk show host’s greatest fears: that the interviewee will take over.
     “But essentially,” Jonathan was still trying to fathom this out, “Essentially, you decided to write about a character who ended up being me?”
     “Well, yes.” The writer could see there was more forthcoming. In fact, since he’d created Jonathan, he pretty much knew for sure there was. But he couldn’t do anything now; the roles had been well and truly reversed.
     “So, why did you have to make my life such a blasted mess? Could you not have written a little more happiness into the thing?” He felt like Dan Milligan arguing with his author about the state of his legs.
     “I created Truth, too, you know. He brought some fun into your life didn’t he?”
     “Yes. Yes you did and thank you very much for all that fun but I honestly would’ve settled for a quiet, simple, uneventful contentment. Was that too much to write? I’ve never wanted to be rich or famous, to go places or meet people but I suppose I’ve never wanted any of that because you never blessed me with those desires.” He was getting angry but he wasn’t sure why.

Puckoon The “Dan Milligan” reference is, of course, to Spike Milligan's little gem, Puckoon.

Stranger than Fiction invariably has a lot in common with Living with the Truth but whereas the former, despite its fantastical elements, is in the tradition of Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) or even Sue Townsend (Adrian Mole), the latter stands firmly in the camp of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Philip K Dick (Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said) but I still wouldn't call it a science fiction novel even if it shares its sensibilities with one . . . well, many actually.

But like the first book Stranger than Fiction has a serious heart. Yes, a lot funny happens but most of it is sad-funny – you'll smile, I'd hope you'd even laugh out loud, but then you'll feel a bit guilty for smiling. When I read through this book again recently I expected to hate it. I'd not read it in years and so I have to hold my hands up, I'd forgotten a lot of it. What struck me what just how many loose ends I actually did manage to tie up. The only character from the first book I probably should've included but didn't was Jonathan's sister, Mary. There were some issues there that were never resolved but it's too late now to go back and fiddle with it. A time comes when you really do have to walk away from the novel.

Anyway, if you've reviewed Living with the Truth before you can expect a copy of Stranger than Fiction to be winging its way to you right now. I know some in the UK have already received theirs. I'm holding my breath in pregnant anticipation. Those of you who were kind enough to purchase Living with the Truth can now order a copy of Stranger than Fiction from the FV Books website.

I have taken a close look at the prices we're charging and have reduced them slightly. The price in the UK is £5.99 including postage. The price of Living with the Truth has also been reduced to £5.99. I was never happy with £7.99 as a RRP. I don't care what the market will bear.

If you've never read either book then you'll be pleased to know you can now get both books for a combined price of £9.99, again postage (airmail) is included in that price. Non-UK prices have been similarly amended. Here is a complete list:


Stranger than Fiction


●  United Kingdom - £5.99


●  European Union - £7.50


●  Rest of the world - £8.50


Stranger than Fiction and Living with the Truth


●  United Kingdom - £9.99


●  European Union - £11.50


●  Rest of the world - £12.50



And if any of you still have the energy (or indeed interest) to read more about the book then visit my website here where there's also a sample chapter.


koe whitton-williams said...

Congratulations. . . I can't wait to read Stranger than Fiction!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, I guess then you don't have to, Koe. The review copies went out a couple of days ago so I'll be holding my breath now until I get my first feedback.

Rachel Fenton said...

Great stuff Jim, you got me trying to guess the plot so that's always a good sign...also, your first book made me think of there a hint of that in there?

Ken Armstrong said...

Great Jim! I am excited to see this out in the world and I wish you every success with it.

The first one was on my wavelength in so many ways, I look forward to this one.

Jim Murdoch said...

In some respects Jonathan is an Everyman, Rachel, but he's also quite untypical too. At the time I started writing about him there was no grand plan and it's easy to make claims now because who is there to argue with me but what I can see I've done is take my life down a different path and imagine, at its most caricatured, where I might have ended up at 53, which is only three years older than I am at the moment. About the only thing I got right was that I look older than I am but that wasn't a hard one to guess because I have always looked a lot older, ten years easily. Jonathan was a 'worst case scenario', my own personal Krapp which is effectively what Beckett was imagining when he wrote Krapp's Last Tape.

As for the plot, you have no idea how much I fretted about how to approach this post because I didn't want to give away the ending of the first book in the hope that at least a few of my newer readers might have their interest sufficiently piqued and decide to take a chance on both books. I hope some do.

Jonathan may not be an Everyman but he is an underdog and people love rooting for the underdog. And could anyone be up against a more daunting opponent than the personification of the truth?

And, Ken, thanks for that. I am really looking forward to seeing what you make of the book. As nervous as hell but you wouldn't expect me to be anything else.

GO said...

dynomite bro! looking forward to reading

while reading your post I was reminded of the Polish movie Angel in Krakow, it starts out w/ a somewhat bumbling angel in Heaven sitting w/ Elvis learning guitar tunes and smoking a jay... but then he gets tutored by all of the Great masters and he is supposed to be sent to Holland on a "mission", but ends up walking out of a tree in a field in Poland... if you can get hold of it at least a good laugh, but might give you some inspiration too, I found it at our local library

i like your cameo, i like you keep the flexibility to do a cameo, good work

Jim Murdoch said...

You shouldn't have to wait too long, Gabe, as your copy is winging it's way to you.

The film sounds cool I have to say. I love quirky things like that.

John Ettorre said...

A hearty congratulations!

Mariana Soffer said...

Hi jim just a quick comment, cause I did not finish reading your post yet. Fist I do love sandman, I read it so many times when I was a teenager, he is great. I wanted to ask you if you know if stanislaw lem has a book that is all about prologues of non-existing books, of course he invented those prologues himself.

Thanks for your time friend, I ll be back and finish your super interesting reading

Jim Murdoch said...

A hearty thanks right back at ya, John.

And, Mariana, yes, I had heard of Lem's book. As for Sandman, I read him faithfully. I was collecting comics at the time so I was buying them as they came out. There was some really good stuff being produced back then. I've only actually read one book by Gaimen, a collection of short stories, which was quite excellent. I quite fancy giving American Gods a go too when I've maybe cleared by feet a bit.

I do hope the second half of the post is as good as the first half seems to have been for you.

Dave King said...

Jim, the most significant part of your post for me was:
I have racked my brain and I can honestly say I have no idea where the notion of Truth came from any more than I can say where the concept for the second novel came from. I simply sat down one day and typed:

Jonathan Payne woke with a crick in the back of his neck.

I hadn't a clue where I was going but it seemed as good a place to start as any.

That is how most of my best work has come about. Perhaps I should have said the work that most pleases me - but actually, I think it is a good omen for any writer it happens to.

It suddenly occurred to me as I was reading: You are the 21st century's thinking man's John Bunyan. That makes your story allegorical, unless I'm mistaken. Excellent post.

Jim Murdoch said...

So many of the things I've written have begun with a line that's come from nowhere, Dave. The most striking was the opening line to my fourth novel. I was walking across the footbridge across the Clyde and just as I was setting foot onto Glasgow Green the following line popped into my head: 'Milligan and Murphy were brothers,' and I knew immediately that this was something worth developing. By the time I'd crossed the green I had the opening paragraph and I knew, I just knew this was the start of a novel, not a short story, a whole novel. The problem was that I didn't have a pen on me – bad writer – and so I had to keep that paragraph in my head until I got to work whereupon I scribbled it down as fast as I could. I think I wrote another paragraph after that and then didn't touch it for weeks terrified that I would muck it up.

So many writers have a 'fear' of the blank page. I never have. I could sit down right now and start something. That's not the problem. My problem usually comes a page or two into the work, where to go next. I knew with Stranger than Fiction that I wanted to start off in a similar vein to the first book but I really didn't know where I was going until the words began flowing.

Now, as to whether my work is allegorical, it was never intended to be but what we intend and what we end up with are often two different things. You're the reader and so if you find you can read into the piece then all the better.

GO said...


Wings landed in mailbox yesterday... and reading... reading... laughing... the arrival made my day.

Stay anticipated!


Jim Murdoch said...

As long as it's not derisive laughter I can live with it, Gabe. And I'm so anticipated I'm thinking of going to see my doctor about and maybe get some anticipation tablets or something.

GO said...

Jim: my laughter WITH you would never be derisive... "It didn't last long before the governments had to bring in strict regulations to control them because all the pictures ended up with nothing but sex and violence." That for me elicited one of those spitting fluids (or cole slaw as it was) through the nose laughs... lately I have been getting the impression that sex & violence is the end-goal of the proliferation of flash on the net. Bravo!

Conda V. Douglas said...

With writers it's a strange, strange process, Jim. Congrats on the courage to write a sequel! I've written series, spin-off short stories from a novel, but never a sequel, for some of the reasons you list.

Shelly said...

Congratulations, and thanks for the insight into your writing process. That is a great read in itself.

I was reading some of Ray Bradbury's essays on writing the other day, and he says that you better enjoy the writing of the first draft, because that's just pure joy. After that, you'll have plenty of more drafts over which to feel the anxiety of editing and so forth.

Jim Murdoch said...

Gabe, I'd love to say I'm delighted but that sounds just plain awful. May I recommend that read the rest of the book away from the dinner table? I do have to say I thought there were funnier bits than that, at least I intended them to be funnier, but I'm not complaining.

The first draft for me, Shelly, has always been hard work. I love the editing process. I could sit down and edit every day without warming up first but getting the bare bones down on the page is always a bit of a chore for me. I literally spent years prettifying those first two novels and I think they're the better for it.

And Conda, I will never cease to wonder about how little control we really have over the writing process. We think we are but if our head wants to go in one direction then that's us. I would love to get stuck back into my novel at the moment but all I seem to be able to write is poetry. It's not bad poetry, most of it, so I shouldn't complain.

GO said...

Yes, many many funnier bits but I do not want to be a spoiler. The joke, if there is one, is in the context of that one line and how it struck me.

Maryanne Stahl said...

thanks for the review copies, Jim! please don't hold your breath on my account, though, as I am beginning school and SWAMPED with reading for the semester.

congrats, tho!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for letting me know, Maryanne. Take your time.

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