David Rocklin Found a Novel in a Photograph.
While researching his first novel about the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, David Rocklin was struck by an image she had taken of the Prince of Abyssinia. The image wouldn’t let him go and despite his hesitation and fear in taking on such an enormous topic, he wrote his second novel, The Night Language, anyway.
Based on a real person who lived in the time of Queen Victoria, Rocklin’s novel sprung from a desire to give Alamayou, the prince in the photograph, a happier ending than he received in real life. We discuss David’s concerns about writing the book in the first place, how he researched the book, and when the story began to take on a life of its own.
I am loving discussing how people incorporate history into writing and the ways that novels force us to look at stories different than our own and to do them justice. In addition, fans of Julia Callahan’s episode on small press publishing will be amused to hear David’s impression of Julia and to hear about working with a small press from a writer’s perspective.
Discussed in Episode 79 with David Rocklin
- “I’ve got tea and crumpets, motherfuckers.”
- Fictionalized account of Julia Margaret Cameron. Interested in her life because she was so transgressive for her time and her photographs were so arresting.
- “I long to arrest all beauty that came before me.” (Cameron quote that is tattooed on his arm.)
- David goes deep into research on this book and finds a photograph of hers of a young African boy. Puts it aside and continues The Luminist.
- After that’s published he returns to the photograph and starts researching.
- A photograph taken roughly in the 1850’s turns out to be the inspiration for a novel written in 2015. Something an artist did ends up resonating in someone else’s life and creativity.
- “I’m about to cross so many boundary lines.” On writing characters unlike oneself.
- “Do I have the right to do this?” On the responsibilities of writing other cultures.
- “I have no right to do this. What I do have is empathy, curiosity, and a desire to do this in an honorable, respectful, non-cliche way.”
- Went deep into research to try and learn as much about the real person as possible.
- Came away with the desire to write for this person a life that they didn’t have the chance to live.
- He researched what was true and then made notes about what he’d like to change.
- Through two and three drafts, a minor character steps forward & becomes central to the story.
- “Whenever you’re depicting a character in a scene, you have to know what’s happening behind the character.” Literally, in terms of staging, and more deeply.
- What is a character’s relationship to their world? How two characters experience the exact same physical situation will be very different based on their experiences. As a writer he wants to be sure that his descriptions of the world are in sync with how his characters inhabit it. So he needs to do research on social, political, geographical, etc. issues.
- “I could pick up The Night Language right now and red pen it to death.”
- “In some ways you’re never done.”
- When the story stops feeling like something he’s researching and starts to feel like a memory, then he’s ready to go. The writing part of the writing starts.
- When he’s fives senses into a scene, it’s ready to be written.
- But this could be scene-by-scene. Research and writing were taking place together.
- David loves the research and geeks out about it. Finds the idea of writing meaning into contemporary culture daunting.
- “There’s something poignant in the idea of something that is no longer here. Being able to reach back, hold it still and shine a light on it and say “this should not be forgotten.”
- “This should not be forgotten.”
- “Every single thing that has gone before us there was a story.”
- His next novel is “the same damn thing.”
- “I’m a complete Luddite on the first draft.” On starting out with a stack of legal pads.
- The outline is a lot of ‘what if’ questions. And a lot of meanderings. It’s almost like a first draft.
- “If I get to the end of the draft & I’ve adhered to the outline, I’m screwed.” On letting the story go where it wants to.
- When a character steps up and says ‘actually we’re going over here,’ that’s when David knows the book is going somewhere. Then he just writes. No more planning. He just needs to see where it’s going.
- “I did not anticipate that this was a love story.”
- The best, most rewarding stories are those when after he’s done with the book he still wonders how the characters are and what they’re doing.
- Initial research for the book was around a year.
- He had to define, as much as he could, the boundaries of his research.
- Two drafts took another year-ish. Total project around three years.
- “Maybe the time to hang it up in a permanent way is when you’re dead.”
- Until then, don’t give up on the story.
- “You’re never done with anything you write.”
- “There’s no such thing as writing that doesn’t matter.”
- “Writing always transports you somewhere.”
- “Nobody can write the story that you’re working on right now except you.”
- “None of us see things the same way.”
- You need to know, even if you don’t write it, what happened to your character before the book or scene starts.
- You chose to begin your story at one point. Why that point and not any other? Why not five minutes earlier or later?
- You have to know your characters.
- The Yellow Light Test, a writing game. Your character is in the car heading towards an intersection. The light turns yellow. What do they do? Then, crucially, why did they do what they did? What if they did it because of X? What if they did it because of Y? What if? What if?
- “That ‘What If’ is where the story lives.” On the imaginative power of story.
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