Thursday, June 02, 2016

Elvis & Nixon

Back in 2001, I wrote a story, 'The Two Dicks', based on the photograph above -- the most requested photograph in the USA's National Archives -- in which bestselling author Philip K. Dick, instead of Elvis Presley, met with President Nixon in the Oval Office in December 1970. Elvis & Nixon delves into the story behind the photograph, when Elvis one night decided that he had an urgent mission to meet the President, and explain why he should become a Federal Agent at large and help to save the country from communist infiltration and a plague of drugs.

Director Liza Johnson and writers Joey and Hanala Sagal spin a goofy, sweetly eccentric comedy around the clash of cultures. Neither Michael Shannon, playing Elvis, and Kevin Spacey, as Nixon, especially look like the men they're playing, but they convince through sheer performative force. Nixon is a man bored by the minutiae of his office; Shannon's Elvis is trapped in his fame, able to use it but not to escape it, and possessed by a charming determination to complete his mission. He's helped by two friends and a couple of White House aides who at one point conspire in the kind of car park where Deep Throat spilled the beans on the Watergate break-in.

Elvis takes command of the encounter by sheer force of charisma, breaking all rules of protocol, casually saying, when Nixon points to a Moon rock, that 'Buzz sent me one too,' and the two men develop a mutual respect over M&Ms, Dr Pepper and dislike of the Beatles. It's the kind of encounter that probably can't happen now, where meetings between politicians and celebrities are more commonplace and choreographed by PR and media awareness. While the film somewhat deviates from the truth, it perfectly captures the high absurdity of this strange, unique moment.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Five A Day

I'm roughly two-thirds of the way through the new novel's third draft -- the draft which will go off to the editor before being redrafted -- and as usual at about this point the urge to zip through the rest and finish the damn thing starts to grip. The number of completed pages begins to rise above the number of pages that still need to be revised, the plot begins to knit itself up, the mind begins to turn to other stories.

But it won't do to spoil the sheep for a halfpenny of tar, as the shepherds used to say in the Cotswolds (people who are confused by the West Country accent, and don't know that in the summer tar kept in a tar pot like the one in the picture was smeared on sheep's noses to kill pestiferous flies, sometimes think that they meant ship). A good part of writing a novel is discipline. Maybe the major part. So that means sitting down at the desk at around nine in the morning every day (including weekends; including Bank Holidays, like today) and working through an average of five pages, transcribing into the electronic manuscript all the corrections made in red ink on the printed manuscript -- that is, after the previous day's work has been read through and tweaked and amended. Come to think of it, before starting to transcribe those corrections I spent two months making them, so I'm a good deal further on than two-thirds of the way through.

The novel is called Austral, and it's set on the Antarctic Peninsula, which curls north from the fist of the continent, extending beyond the Antarctic Circle. It's the warmest part of Antarctica, and the part that's warming the fastest because of climate change, an average of half a degree for every decade over the past half century. Austral is partly about the effects of global warming and partly about terraforming the Earth, it's partly about change and how we deal with change, but it's mostly the story of its narrator, also called Austral. About what happens when she makes a bad mistake while trying to escape the consequences of another, about the history of her family and how it's twined about the history of the peninsula, and why people think she's a monster. My birth, she says, right at the beginning, was a political act . . .
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