119 years of Trust Interview THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, June 20, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri

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“People’s minds always interested me”

HIS first book Passion, a collection of short stories, went on to be placed second in the 1993 Steele Rudd Australian Short Story Award. His first novel Zigzag Street received the 1998 Betty Trask Award in the UK, and was shortlisted for the 1997 Talking Book of the Year Award; it is now being developed into a film. Then in 1998 came Bachelor Kisses; it sold more than 10,000 copies in ten weeks. It is about the messy life story of Jon Marshall, a successful young doctor who comes unstuck when he finds that he has more women in his life than he can handle. If Nick Earls is ‘half as funny in person as he is in his second novel, Bachelor Kisses,’ wrote the critic of Vogue, ‘you’d postpone your birthday party if he couldn’t make it.’
Born 1963 in Northern Ireland, Nick Earls migrated to Australia when he was eight and has lived in Brisbane since. He studied medicine at the University of Queensland because he wanted ‘to have the longest adolescence in the world’. He is married to a lawyer who understands the writer in him. Nick Earls was in India on a special invitation extended by Eclectica of New Delhi, and Art Folio of Chandigarh where he spoke to
Kuldip Dhiman about his writing process.
Authors with a medical background normally take to crime fiction; since they know how to save a life, they also know how to take one. But you prefer writing these outrageously funny novels.
That’s a very interesting way of putting it, I never thought about it that way. Yes with their forensic background it is natural for doctors to write crime fiction. But in my case I took up psychiatry because it was peoples’ minds that interested me; not how to murder people in twenty different ways.
Do you plot meticulously or discover your story as you go along?
Plot meticulously, that’s definitely me. I would feel too insecure if I didn’t know where I was going, but this does not mean I follow a rigid outline. One of the great pleasures of writing a novel that you have planned in great detail is that sometimes you discover a whole range of new things as you are writing it. It works most effectively when I have complete control over some bits, and there are other bits where I let the control go. For things to be truly creative, at times, you have to set them free to see where they go.
Your readers seem to fall in love with the characters you create. How do you put life into your characters?
If you want to tell human stories, and if you are trying to get your characters across you must realise that people are made up of many small parts and I think one of the tricks of portraying a character more effectively is working out which of those small parts to give the reader. Obviously, you can’t give them all. And often, it is less important to tell the reader how tall a character is, or what colour his or her hair is. There are things a lot more interesting about people than that. Sometimes a small thing about a character will tell you a lot more about him than pages and pages of physical description.
Before you wrote your first full-length novel, you used to write short stories. Did it help you as a novelist?
Yes, my first published book Passion was a book of short stories. I think I learnt a lot about writing fiction by handling compact ideas first. In recent months I have taken to writing short stories again. I had various stories commissioned for anthologies, and my publisher in Australia wondered if there was a book in them. We felt that about half of them fitted quite well with each other, and I set out to write more stories that fitted in with other ones. In the end we got a book with eighteen stories with overlaps, and chance associations, and we titled the book Headgames.
There are great novelists who just can’t write for the screen, and there are great screenwriters who could never write a novel. You have managed to write both.
It is a mystery, isn’t it? I think at the heart of each is the process of story telling. In retelling my novel Zigzag Street for film, I learnt a lot about story telling. I think there are things that I can bring back from screen writing process and enrich my novels.
What gives you more freedom? Writing novels or writing for the screen?
Writing novels, definitely. You have got more people to answer to when you write for films. It means you have less freedom, but that is not necessarily a bad thing; it means you have to defend your ideas to several people and in the process you might learn one or two things that you weren’t right about.
While writing my novel Bachelor Kisses, I had a lot of freedom, because I did not have a contract with my publisher at the time. I took on a plot a lot more complex than I had ever tried before. By the time I had written the first and the second draft, I thought I had got most of the things right, but I knew there were some problem areas, and I wanted to work those through with an editor. So I signed a contract with a publisher and sat down with an editor. It was very helpful, but still at the end I felt it was very much my work. I wanted to end it in a particular way, the way you can’t end a novel.
What I really wanted was the character to be basically a nice guy but someone who had this other side to him, maybe someone who didn’t know how to handle relationship very well, maybe someone who messed up things, and I wanted these messed-up relationships to be opportunities for him to learn things. But I didn’t want him to learn them straightaway; I wanted him to go through this cycle a few times. And while I wanted to create possibilities for him to learn, I didn’t want to show that he had. Towards the end he has sunk low thinking about himself and how he has been handling things. And then he meets a girl with a chance that something might happen with her. At the end of the novel he has only just met her, he hasn’t even gone out with her once yet.
When I showed this to film people, the first thing they said ‘we would like to make the film exactly the way the novel is but when we take it to the test audiences in Los Angeles and they will say what are you doing, you haven’t finished the story! So what we would like to do is to take this story two months down the track and show that he has learnt his lesson and the relationship is working.’
Then there were some film people who wanted me to turn a minor character of mine into a major character because that went down well with their line of thinking. So when you write for films you have to make compromises. You will have to accept that the film will not be the book, but it might be a very good film. That is the very best you can hope for.
Do you remember your first rejection slip?
Yes. For years I was not brave enough, and I managed to avoid getting rejection slips by not sending anything to the publishers. I wrote a novel in 1987, and I was still not brave enough, but my girl friend sent it to a publisher. Although it was not accepted, it paved the way for my first published novel.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not yet. I have tried to work out how writer’s block works, so that I can avoid it. If I didn’t plan my novels well, the chances of getting writer’s block would be more. So what I do is anticipate that it is coming. I take a break, go for a walk, buy some groceries, maybe start thinking what I will cook for dinner that night, and after that go back to it and write.
They say writing is a very lonely business. In your case is it you who feels lonely, or is it your wife who does?
I think I feel strange and obsessed, and she feels left out for a few weeks at a time. Fortunately now we know each other well, and we know that it will be all right in the end. But first time when I did it she wondered about this strange antisocial creature that she was married to. And it came as a great relief to her that I could be rehabilitated later. Now she expects is to happen more than I do, because she understands.
Since you have seen a few places in India, is there any chance of setting one of your future novels here?
I am known for setting most of my books in my hometown, but now my characters are getting to know other places too. I haven’t seen enough of India to use it as a location for a whole novel but I have been taking notes, and photos, and I am sure it is going to appear somewhere sometime.


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