PJ Reece, Writer

Writer PJ Reece

Our first interview is with novelist, screenwriter, and essayist PJ Reece. Not only a traveler who has lived and worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, as well as, of course, North America, Reece has sited his novels across the world too. SMOKE THAT THUNDERS is set mostly in Tanzania, ROXY in Greece and Vancouver, I SWALLOWED A SAINT, mostly on the West coast of British Columbia, co-written non-fiction book FLIGHT OF THE PATRIOT in Iran and Iraq. Here Reece gives us some insight into his creative process and also talks about writing for film and television.

What was your favorite book when you were 12? Can you remember being wowed by a book?

I remember reading books by Enid Blyton.  She wrote various series of books, two of them called “The Famous Five” and “The Secret Seven”.  My headmistress aunt in England sent them to me.  But mainly I read comics.  Simultaneously I drew/wrote my own comic strips.  My brother and I would lie on the living room floor, competing to write the most outrageous “Ace and Joe” stories.  They were a pair of miscreants who regularly held up banks and retreated to their hideout to count the dough.

What advice can you give writers who have writer’s block?

I’ve never had writer’s block.  I’ve had writer’s clock, though.  That’s the thing ticking down to the deadline.  People ask me, ‘What’s your motivation?’  I say, ‘The pay cheque.’  No writer’s block, but how about an existential crisis?  Last year, I feared to write anything.  Certainly I’ve been fed up and gone golfing.  And, in fact, every day at 5:00 p.m. I get writer’s block.  After a glass of ouzo, and a meal, it passes.

Writers are famously exacting, sometimes to the point of superstition, about their work habits and rituals of preparation. They like their work space to be just so, and they want everything from light to sound to be helpful.  What about your preparations and work habits?

I like to work at my keyboard while facing a bland wall. The room is preferably a man-cave, a hermitage, a hut in a bamboo forest, disconnected from the rest of my life.  I need a cot or hammock nearby for the afternoon power nap.  Ideally, the refrigerator is no closer than 17 paces distant.  Shelf space within arm’s reach is critical for quick reference to books such as “Greek Myths” by Robert Graves, and “Story” by Robert McKee.  When the urge arises to do some exploratory writing, I must do it with pen and paper.  To perform this archaic act, I immerse myself in the urban buzz of a busy café, where, hunkered down over a café cortado I develop a tunnel vision deep into my story.  This is real writing.

Geography plays a big role in your novels. Your blogsite has a visual geography theme.  You studied geography at university. In your books, the interesting places your characters get to—Africa, South East Asia, Greece—seem also to represent an inner geography. Those places in the psyche new to the character. Can you comment on that?

Africa and Greece attract me, absolutely, just as they do so many other people.  I could concoct some apocryphal nonsense about why that may be so, starting with a theory that people thrive in landscapes that accord with their psyches.  The truth is that I’ve lived and thrived in these places.  Perhaps the reason I write about them is simply because I can, with some authority.  Also because travel, especially as a young man, influenced my worldview.  I write about protagonists venturing to faraway places as a way of coaxing other young people out of the too-familiar.

Are young women well represented in young adult fiction? ROXY is unusual in that you get to describe some fairly intimate experiences from the point of view of a young woman. Joyce shows us in ULYSSES that it can be done. But it still must have been hard. What prompted you to have a female hero?

Young women are, of course, OVER represented in Y.A. fiction.  Most writers are women, their readers are young women, so it’s not surprising that their protagonists would be female.  I’m more inclined to write a boy’s book, but in the early stages of developing the “Roxy” storyline, my publisher informed me that girls read and boys don’t, and therefore… It’s not exactly true that boys don’t read, they just don’t read so much tender-hearted fiction.  As for those scenes depicting “intimate experiences”, I rewrote them dozens of times, seeking female feedback with each draft, and never being fully satisfied with the results.  Some readers have congratulated me on nailing that gal, Roxy, and nothing makes me feel better than that.

Who are the literary influences on your work?

Lawrence Durrell and his novel, “Justine”, and the rest of his Alexandria Quartet.  Those books shaped my idea of relationships and community when I was a young man on the verge of life.  I can’t say that I was cognizant of style when I began writing in my 40s, but the kinds of books I aspired to write were those of adventurers: Francis Chichester, Antoine de St. Exupery, Lawrence Van der Post, and of course Hemingway.  And Henry Miller! the “happiest man alive”.  When I want to study style, I look to Virginia Woolf.  And dream.

Any other mentors?

Susan Musgrave edited my first Y.A. novel, “Smoke That Thunders”.  Her ruthless notes were a writing course in themselves.  All the story editors and film producers over the years who trashed, thrashed and rehashed my television scripts taught me how to get to the point.  I also feel a debt of gratitude to Richard Walter, former head of the screenwriting faculty at UCLA, whose courses and personal comments cut to the quick.  Only a ruthless critique is ultimately of any use to a writer.

Aside from the two novels featuring young people, you have a novel I SWALLOWED A SAINT that features older characters, men and women in the latter stages of their lives. The novel has both a good concept and a very clever conceit. It’s also concerned about death and burial sites and the legacy one leaves. Despite the grim subject matter, much of the novel is humorous.  I know it took a long time to complete. What can you say about this book?

I remember the day I realized that I was writing a work of humour.  (By the way, it took someone else to tell me so.)  The writing job became suddenly simple and instantly a pleasure.  I’d never been so comfortable in the skin of the narrator.  I loved all my characters.  The situation was absurd, yet rang true.  I loved my protagonist so much that when he decided to martyr himself, I couldn’t let him succeed.  And then he went and died anyway, but that wasn’t the end of him, either.  That book took years of my spare time partly because I was having so much fun with it.  Now if only my agent would hurry up and sell the damn thing.

Much of your writing has been for television. I’m thinking of the documentary writing. Some of it featuring people in extreme situations: looking for gold mines, surviving in the Rockies, searching for the history of tattoos in sometimes primitive areas. Or it’s about quirky people: I’m thinking about that folk artist who transformed his neighborhood by drawing on every surface (and not just sidewalks). People set either by circumstance or choice against some kind of limit—and you seem to be interested in how they fare.

The conventional story always pits a protagonist against seemingly impossible odds.  Story theory requires that events defeat them.  Heroes run out of strategies, run out of time, run out of belief in themselves.  We’re naturally interested in how they fare because we instinctively know that miracles happen to people who shed the weight of outmoded habits.  Fortunately, the good protagonist is determined beyond what would be generally considered good for his health.  Armed with only a belief in life, the character views his goal with greater perspective.  He sees his place in the scheme of things.  The gods approve of him now and he completes the ascent on Everest, or finds the gold, or discovers the Holy Grail, the meaning of life, the wise old master, the truth about himself, whatever.  The protagonist in any story is us.  We’re vicariously making breakthroughs with each fictional Act 3, be it book or movie.  It feels so good.  So, yes, of course, we are interested in how they fare.

What can you say about writing for film? You started as a cameraman and director for films, I believe, before moving on to writing screenplays. A lot of people dream about writing screenplays and going to Hollywood. Another part of them is very cynical about their own chances even as they are secretly hopeful. What can you say about the present state of affairs for writers who want to move into film, without sending them all to the Prozac cupboard?

I have a cardboard carton full of screenplays written mainly in the 1990s.  I actually made a living writing them, by way of applying for grants to write the first drafts.  A few of them have been optioned by film studios, one became my first published novel, and even now I cannibalize them for characters and situations.  As a training ground for writing fiction of any kind, writing screenplays can be a useful exercise.  It was through writing screenplays that I learned to believe in myself as a writer.  Others did, too, and hired me to write other screen projects, including rewriting a comedy that actually did make it to the big screen (“Urban Safari”).  I was also hired to be the creative director/writer of a documentary series, “Weird Homes”.  Along the way, I’ve written documentaries for most major networks including National Geographic, A&E, CBC, Bravo!, Discovery and History Channels, etc.  But my advice for anyone idiotic enough to aspire to live the dream of Hollywood screenwriter…  Go for it!  Just be open to detours, pitfalls, plan Bs, and all sorts of wildly swinging doors opening and slamming in your face.  Can you think of a better life?

Sometimes, a writer may say, “that’s it. I’m quitting. This is a mug’s game.”  (Kenneth Harvey has announced that he’s quitting the writing of literary fiction.) But then you go in front of eager faces, young and old, all of whom want to write. Do you proceed to shatter their dreams?  Some writers do, by the way.

It’s dream vs delusion.  I’m quite happy to shatter someone’s delusion.  If their dream is sincere, it will survive the blinding light of the dreadful facts.  And the facts are changing daily, and not for the better, not for the writer of fiction.  Not for making a living from it.  But when was it ever easy?  It would seem that the odds are getting longer of getting published by the traditional press, but so much easier to self-publish.  So, it becomes a question of intention.  Why do we write?  I’ve made my living by writing for almost 25 years, not by writing literary fiction, but by being a hired gun.  I’ve learned to love writing so much that it’s all I can do now.  I only write fiction now because it excites me like nothing else, and because it is constantly revealing of the human condition.  I find writing to be a way of becoming positively disillusioned.  But as for writing literary fiction as a career… Go for it!

What observations can you make about the present state of fiction writing? You’ve been working as a fulltime writer for about 20 years now. You’ve published. You’ve read lots of books, reviews, blogs, met writers, editors, agents, publishers, and students. You must have developed some impressions of what’s going on out there.

The e-revolution, that’s what’s going on out there. It has changed everything.  It would seem that if a cultural product can be digitized, it ultimately becomes free.  Movies, music, who pays for them anymore?  E-books are already being pirated.  But that doesn’t mean that a writer can’t make money.  The writer of the future makes money by having a web presence and building a tribe of believers.  (To understand how that works, I suggest subscribing to the blog of author and marketer, Seth Godin.)

Where a lot of writers trace their backgrounds to creative writing grad programs, you spent your early adulthood as a filmmaker and spiritual seeker. You also managed to avoid the Charles Bukowski school of preparing to be a writer or something. How do you see your background of work and travel as a preparation for writers?

I wish I’d started writing when I was younger.  My wife’s niece is pumping out sophisticated prose at the age of 14.  She’s hardly been around the block, yet spins marvellous stories set in past centuries.  Personally, I think that the writing gene works independently of life experience.  We all have experience, but not everyone has the insight, maturity, or wisdom to make sense of it.  It’s true, I never considered being a writer until I’d put two careers behind me.  So, I have experience and memories, all grist for the mill.  But writing is about sculpting a meaningful story out of raw material.  Life is experience but writing is art.

You seem to emphasize plot development (with carefully placed complications, sub plots and clear motivations) over other methods of fiction writing, such as symbolic modes or character development through introspection and non-dramatic dialogue. I assume that comes in part through your film training. Can you comment any more about that preference?

It quite simply never occurred to me to write heavily introspective prose.  I suppose I’m not capable of it.  Were I able, I might be doing it.  I certainly don’t think a writer should write in a particular genre in order to gain respect.  We presumably write because we enjoy it, and we enjoy what comes naturally from the rhythm of our being.  My stories certainly have plot.  Poor “plot”.  It’s often denigrated by people who don’t understand it.  They think that characters clamber around the plot as if it were a game of Snakes & Ladders.  I’m sure there are stories like that, but they’re bad stories.  In the best stories, the plot is pure emanation of character.  The protagonist causes the action of the story because of his or her preferences, choices, actions.  The whole development of the story is an extension of the character’s character.  The protagonist makes his world.  The introspective story, too, will have a character whose actions or inaction lend the tale it’s tone or mood.  Even a poem has to have a thrust.  Determine the thrust, where’s it headed?  What are the tensions, what are the currents running counter to the thrust?  Tension holds it together, and the result is plot.  I can’t imagine that understanding the form and art of the conventional story would do anything but enhance the powers of a writer to succeed in more subtle projects.

Tell us a little about the book you are working on now.

“The Dead Don’t Care” is my working title.  It’s an unmitigated summer beach potboiler set in Mexico, with well-defined protagonists and antagonists in the spy vs spy mode.  The story explores the fallout from a newly elected government with plans to decriminalize drugs.  It’ll take all my skill not to allow it to devolve into melodrama.  I’ll also be working hard to ensure that my main man is responsible for all his disasters as well as his triumphs.  No five year plan for this opus.  Quick and dirty.  Hey, I’m having fun already.

Visit PJ’s website: www.pjreece.ca

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