Saturday, May 10, 2014

Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin and Emma Darwin

Michael Frayn talking to Emma Darwin
To the Society of Authors event on Weds where Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin were in conversation with Maggie Gee about their work as authors. Claire had been an undergraduate at Cambridge while Michael was studying Russian for National Service (alongside Alan Bennet) and he remembers reading her poems and thinking "if only I could meet girls with names like Claire de Laverner"!  They each married other people, worked for papers (Guardian for him, New Statesman and Sunday Times for her) became celebrated writers, and are now together, writing in separate rooms with a room of box files between them.

Claire spoke movingly about her lifelong love of Hardy (a 19th C writer and a 20th C poet) including his compassion on the German PoWs.  They both believe in the need for clarity for prose - it should be like a pane of glass. Michael said that often the characters help you along when you are stuck, and really do behave in ways you don't expect. He quoted the extreme case of the author of Fame is the Spur who clamed that he had no idea about the book when he started except a first sentence.

They were asked about being each others first readers. They are, though they carefully avoid showing each other their work in progress. It is a priceless gift for someone to read who will really care and understand and give honest feedback. Michael also has a NY copy-editor who is very good indeed.  He's also clearly an admirer of James Thurber, who also started as a journalist.

I asked whether Michael agreed with the famous dictum of William Goldman that "nobody knows anything" when it comes to success in the movies or plays. Very much so, he thinks it applies in any situation where you are trying to predict popular reaction. With both Noises Off and Copenhagen he didn't think anyone would perform them let alone go to see them. Whereas when he wrote a farce called Look! Look! everyone thought it would be a massive success - the great Mike Codron has no notes for him on the first read-through. Yet at the preview it was a corpse and despite nightly re-writes it remained a corpse.

Afterwards he kindly signed two of his books  for me - Spies and The Human Touch which I will read with great interest. I'd love to introduce him to Denis Noble - and succeeded in introducing him to Emma Darwin who was also there. Emma and I then went to the Cafe Royal for a delightful catch-up supper. We spoke of many things including our shared interest in cross-disciplinary innovation. She is such good news - and has a very exciting project which could in my view become one of the major feats of literature of the next decade. Let's hope so.

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