Conversations With The Press
"It's good of you to see me. Not everyone in your business welcomes the attentions of the press."
Sebastian Vetch looked out through the glazed door that led to his carefully tended garden. The carefully trimmed lawn, the neat flower beds surrounding it were a picture of order. "Miss Barton, you should realise that I, of all people, would be pleased to see a nosey reporter."
Alice Barton smiled. He was right of course, she thought. His series of novels and short stories with their descriptions of the unfortunate incidents in the life of Suzie Tackles, an investigative journalist whose main talent appeared to be getting into the bad books of some very unpleasant people, were awaited with enthusiasm. They were among the most popular in the country.
"Of course it would be even better if you were to open your blouse." Vetch was standing with his back to the girl; his attention had been drawn to something moving in the garden. He could almost hear Alice Barton blush. It was a common enough experience for, although his writing was now widely read, many were uncomfortable when he displayed the same attitudes and behaviours that he wrote for his characters in real life. Alice wasn't even really certain if he had meant to say it out loud.
"Perhaps it would be better if we spoke about your latest work," Alice said to Vetch's back with a slight testiness. Vetch, for his part, was pleased that she managed no outrage, either real or manufactured. Other similar encounters he could remember had ended before they had started.
In spite of Alice's reaction though, when Vetch turned to face her again he noted she had unfastened one button on her blouse revealing the faintest hint of white lace and a smudge of cleavage in the V of the collar. Oh well, he thought, there's hope yet.
In fact thought Vetch, surveying his visitor, there was more than hope. He wasn't sure if it had been an intentional act on her part but if she had wanted to feature in one of his novels she certainly looked the part. It was a combination of a careful selection of clothing – the straight, pencil thin skirt and the crisp white blouse – and the look – studiously bespectacled, hair worn up – that encouraged Vetch. He could have imagined her in any one of his many tales.
"Do you mind if I?" Alice waved a small voice recorder.
"Not at all," Vetch responded. It would have been too much, he knew, to have expected her to produce shorthand pad and pencil, some skills were gone forever, he suspected.
"So what are you working on?" Alice turned the recorder around on the table and pointed it towards Sebastian. They were sitting in what Alice took to be Vetch's study. The house was a curious one, an arts and crafts masterpiece according to some; a fantasy of medieval driven into the twentieth century according to others. The study was a small area opening off the large central hall of the house. Alice was sitting on a stone bench that ran along the wall under the range of windows framed in heavy, unpainted oak. Even the decor of the room looked unusual. On one table stood a veritable magician's kit; decks of card, cardboard tubes, a top hat, a white tipped black wand. Alice wondered if Vetch enjoyed conjuring for a hobby.
Vetch sat down at the desk. Alice noticed that the curious, curved, bronze handles on the drawers exactly matched those on the doors of the hall and the window catches. He turned towards his interviewer. "So many things. Miss Tackles has another peril to overcome, of course. There is a collection of short stories for BondPrint; the screenplay for the next movie; the graphic 'novelisation' as I believe they call it; the TV series. It's a treadmill, Miss Barton."
"And the musical?"
"Indeed; although my involvement there is less. They are merely adapting some of my tales. I have script and production approval, of course, but there is little actual effort involved. I cannot count music among my talents. This is the only instrument I play." He pointed towards a an iPod nestling in a small docking station the one piece of modern technology in the room.
"Everyone is anxious to learn what happens next to Suzie Tackles."
"None more than me," Sebastian was feeling candid. He had long since come to the conclusion that it didn't matter much what you said to reporters; they rarely seemed to hear or understand it. "She is currently in a dark stone cell in the depths of mountain top monastery, chained to the wall while water from a broken pipe is rising inexorably around her."
"And how does she escape?"
"I will confide in you," Vetch said softly. Suzie leant forward providing Vetch with a further opportunity to enjoy her cleavage. "I don't have the slightest idea."
Alice sat back irritated. She picked up the voice recorder and switched it off. "Please Mr Vetch, it would help me if you could take this interview seriously."
"My dear Miss Barton," Sebastian protested ingenuously. Alice relented and turned the voice recorder back on. "I am completely serious. My heroine is, as I have said, embroiled in a deadly predicament – my readers expect no less. She is shackled, she is silenced by a scold's bridle locked about her head. Her assailants have abandoned her and her prison is a good two days journey from anyone else that has been involved in the tale so far. Short of declaring 'with one bound she was free' I am in great danger of failing to extricate her."
"But surely writing doesn't work like that. Don't you have a plan for the story? How each of the characters contributes to the plot, how the whole thing resolves itself. Don't you have that before you start?"
Vetch looked satisfied. "No," he said bluntly.
Alice knew his methods were unorthodox but she hadn't realised that his approach was as anarchistic as this. "So what do you do? Wait until the characters work it out for themselves? You'd end up never finishing anything."
"To correct you, you end up never finishing a large number of things. But then who decides when a tale is finished?"
"The author, of course."
Vetch looked disappointed. Alice sensed that he was hoping for a different answer. "Sometimes," he said, "Sometimes it's the reader. Sometimes it's the characters. Well, at least for me. Sometimes it's my characters."
Alice felt bemused.
"Let me help," Sebastian said, responding to her puzzled look. "This results from how I started work; in the days before tales of my sort were respectable. When the only place a writer like me could expect to be able to publish his work was on a small number of internet sites."
"Which has what effect? Surely the publishing medium doesn't matter?"
"It depends on how you choose to approach it. For my part I wrote in chapters, publishing one at a time. And people responded. They told me things they thought were going to happen. They told me things they liked. They told me things they didn't like. And the stories changed as they went along."
"Because of the reactions of the readers?"
"Of course. The characters live in a world where such things are possible. I became used to starting a story by simply selecting my characters and allowing the situation – and the readers – to determine what happens to them. The stories follow their own trail, the characters their own fates. Sometimes I can see what is happening, sometimes not."
"But if Suzie fails to extricate herself, won't your publishers be rather upset?"
Sebastian looked around, "They most certainly will if they ever find out. But only you and I know and so the question is, Miss Carson," his voice was suddenly darker, somehow more sinister, as though her were reading some his own dialogue from one of his more villainous characters, "can you be trusted not to tell them?"
Alice was suddenly uneasy, feeling that the conversation had taken a path she did not wish to follow. Vetch was renowned for the unfortunate fates that befell the female characters in his stories and she was conscious that his remarks sounded suspiciously like the sort of dialogue one of his villains would use. She chose to take a change of direction in her interview. "What do you say to those critics who accuse you of misogyny and of fetishising the female sexual response?"
"I am always pleased when my critics appear to have read my work."
"Has anyone told you that you can be quite infuriating?"
Vetch smiled. "Oh, yes. But think for a moment. How can I deny the charge of fetishisation? Ten years ago you would have been only able to read my stories in the most surreptitious way. Now, you can see them on the shelves of any book shop. For heaven's sake they even have 'three for two' stickers on them some times. How main-stream is that? They are serialised in the broadsheet newspapers. I claim that the stories haven't changed. Some of them are the very works that were originally published, chapter by chapter, on web sites to a tiny dedicated audience. What has changed is society. I think you would be better posing your question to the world at large."
"What do you think was the turning point, then?" Alice was pleased with the new direction their discussion was taking. It was sounding more like an interview and less like a Sebastian Vetch monologue. "The Man-Booker?"
"No, not really. I think it was the Literary Review's 'Bad Sex in Fiction' award."
Alice gave Vetch an exasperated look.
.... There is more of this story ...