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.
"No seriously. It meant that someone was expecting something better; quite a milestone for this sort of fiction. It's quite an honour to be on the same page as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and John Updike for whatever reason. But yes, the Man- Booker was nice, of course. The £50,000 went a long way to establishing my practice."
"I wanted to explore that."
Sebastian's face took on an expression of inquisitive disbelief. "Are you the sort of girl that enjoys taking short cuts through churchyards at midnight?"
"I don't see what ... oh!" Alice could see that Sebastian was amused by the implication of her remark. Huffily she continued, "I meant that I wanted to talk to you about the way you work now. By repute it's rather different to the way that many authors work."
Alice Barton was beginning to wonder if the story was worth the effort. Of course Vetch was a renowned literary figure now and, yes, his methods were the source of much speculation. In the past though, whenever anyone had asked if his work was based on practical experience, he had been evasive. She had been surprised when in their pre-interview discussions he had agreed to talk about his approach and even to show her 'The Factory'. He was fiddling with the playing cards from the table, shuffling them, fanning them, dashing them into the top hat and taking them out to shuffle once more. He evidently had a fair talent and dexterity.
"I'm always puzzled when people ask me if I actually do the things in my books," Vetch said. "Come with me." He led the way through towards the back of the house. It was a large house. It was a long walk. "I mean no one asked Ian Fleming if he was a sadistic bastard after writing Casino Royale, did they?"
Alice made a non-committal, 'I haven't thought about it' noise.
Sebastian stopped at a large pair of double doors. "He was of course, but that's not really the point." He ushered Alice through into another corridor. In contrast with the rest of the house this had a clinical air about it. White walls, rubberised flooring, polished chrome fittings. It made a stark contrast to the homely, arts-and-crafts style of the rest of Sebastian's home. "Welcome to the Factory," he said.
"Not quite the dank dungeon of your villains." Alice was keen not to appear impressed but the brightly lit, modern surroundings contrasted wildly with the house they had just left and seemed enormous too.
Vetch frowned. "Not a practical proposition for what needs to be done. This facility has been very carefully designed to get the work done. A lot of people believe that writing is all about inspiration and pencil sucking. It's not. It's just another form of manufacturing. The product is different but there's no reason why you can't apply the same methods." He opened one of the doors off the main corridor, a small group of people were busily working at laptop computers. "Research and first draft team. I sketch out the characters, they go off and explore the details. Those two over there are the dialogue team; far better at it than me." Two of the group lifted their heads and smiled in acknowledgement. "Experts at the dialogue of the captive; my gag writers I call them."
Alice ignored the pun. "So you don't actually write all of it then..."
"Well, no. Of course not. Have you seen how much there is? Quite impossible."
"Isn't that, well, a bit dishonest?"
"Was Rembrandt dishonest? Andy Warhol? Dali? Well, maybe Dali. There's a strong tradition of this approach in art; why not in writing? And a lot of what is done here is to increase the authenticity of what I do. See here..." Sebastian opened another door.
Alice was shocked by what she saw inside. Against the far wall of the room, on the floor, sat a young woman. There were broad iron shackles around her ankles, a cage made of iron bands locked around her head with one thick bar penetrating her mouth, a heavy chain linking the neck band of her head harness to a ring on the wall and similar chains holding her wrists above her head as well. "What on earth is this, Mr Vetch?"
"I told you, Miss Barton, Suzie Tackles is in a very trying predicament. This is how I get so much authenticity into my work."
"But the poor girl is helpless, there. The weight of those shackles and the scold's bridle or whatever it is alone must make this difficult to bear."
"Yes. That's just the sort of detail you might not think about if you hadn't tried it. Look here," Sebastian bent down beside the girl. She looked up at him with distress that could have been feigned but was probably real. "You see how her skin is streaked with her sweat and tears and the red stain of the rust from the iron. You wouldn't imagine that if you hadn't seen it. It's the sort of detail my readers crave. How can I do other than give it to them?"
Alice simply stared non-plussed.
"How will she move when she is released? Assuming she is released of course." The girl squealed in response to the idea that she might be left there too much longer. "How long before those shackles start to chafe on her wrists? How soon before she can no longer hold her arms up and her limbs begin to cry out for the chains to let her lower them? These questions cannot be answered in my imagination."
"Can I ask how you came by this," Alice chose her words carefully, "astonishing method?"
"Well partly from my study of the arts. An artist has his model, why not a writer too. Perhaps it is a limitation of my imagination but I find this helps me a great deal. Then there was the work of some of the great comic book artists. When I worked on the first graphic novel someone introduced me to the work of Frank Hampson. No one remembers him now. Very big in the fifties. Drew for a comic called 'Eagle'; Dan Dare, ground breaking stuff, redefined British comic book heroes. Anyway I learned about his studio; the way he used to stage each of the panels in his strips. He even made models of some of the sets. We tried it for some of the scenes. It worked for the graphics and I found it helped my writing too, so we extended the idea."
"But – the girl in there, she..."
"Is a willing participant. Oh, I know it didn't look like that and maybe she's having some regrets right now but I have her release form on file. You'd be surprised to learn how many Suzie Tackles's fans are only too glad to have the chance to portray their heroine."
"And I suppose you have her three stalwart assistants in this room here." Alice nodded at another door in the corridor.
"No," grinned Sebastian, opening the door next along the corridor, "actually they're in here."
"Oh, my," said Alice looking inside. There, two girls, - in the characters of Suzie's friends Ginny and Beth, Alice decided from their long white-blonde and jet black hair - sat back to back, tied to chairs with the usual excessive amounts of ropes that Vetch's villains seemed to prefer. A third girl, (impersonating Cara, the one that invariably got into the biggest trouble, Alice thought) lay on the floor hog tied with her elbows held tightly together behind her back by knotted ropes, her ankles bent up behind her until they reached her wrists and the same rope tied cruelly across her mouth keeping a wad of cloth in place as her gag.
'Cara' groaned at the arrival of Alice and Sebastian. The other two simply glowered in their direction, unable to contribute to the conversation as a result of the tape plastered down over their mouths.
"Now look at the detail that can be found in this little tableau," Sebastian began.
Alice could barely believe she was letting Vetch carry on like this. Why wasn't she objecting to his obnoxious behaviour? Why wasn't she trying to help the girls? On the other hand, if as Vetch claimed they had all given their consent, what right had she got to interfere? And she was supposed to be reporting on Vetch and his methods.
Vetch strode across to where 'Ginny' and 'Bet' were tied to their chairs. "Look at this," he pointing to Ginny, "see how her efforts have led to that spreading sweat stain on her blouse by her armpits, obviously it's more than her deodorant could cope with. And see how some grease from the rope has made a smudged stain on the white cotton, just there where it grips around her arms. Wonderful detail. Wonderful."
Sebastian pointed to the knotted ropes that held the girl's wrists behind the back of the chair. "And this," he grinned enthusiastically. "See how she has been trying to chafe the ropes by lifting her wrists up and down the back of the chair. A black mark for whoever tied her there but these villains are not infallible as we know! Now, see, she's made no impression on the rope but the rope has rubbed the paint from the chair. You can see just how much movements she has. And, goodness, what's worse, see these scratch marks on poor Bet's wrists. Young Ginny here must have been trying to tug at her ropes and she's scratched Bet with her finger nails. Tut, tut, our villains will notice that and put a stop to it, I'm sure. More ropes and blindfolds, I expect." He smirked with the satisfaction of realising that he had another important detail to embed in his tale. The girls groaned in response, certain that their discomfort was to be prolonged to provide Sebastian with further detailed insights.
The girl taking the part of Cara wriggled on the floor trying to ease the pressure of the ropes on her elbows. The muffled cry that came from behind the padding that filled her mouth told of her frustration and discomfort. Sebastian took little notice. Perhaps, Alice assumed, he had already discovered all the details that he needed in her situation.
Once Sebastian had decided that Alice had seen all she needed and they were about to leave he knelt down beside Cara's head and gently stroked her hair whispering a soothing word as he did so. From her continued agitation it did not appear to do much good.