John Briton Interviews Fyn Day...
John: Ok Fyn, so I know itís been a long journey from the original conception of this book to finally seeing it in print. Where would you say that journey began?
Fyn: The initial inspiration for The Alice Factor came during a week's self-exploration at a Taoist retreat in Normandy. This was years ago, mind you, and far, far away. All I wrote at the time were a few poems reflecting the simple principle that everything has its own place and function - poems that barely survived the week because of their angst-ridden misshapenness. The principle, however, has survived longer. It applies to people too. Why do so many people feel stuck in the wrong job, or the wrong marriage, or even the wrong plot? The answer lies in inner nature.
John: And do you think youíre unique in tackling this subject?
Fyn: No way! Many writers have visited the same territory, and the more I became attuned to the question, the more I realised it was asked. And the more often it was asked, the more convinced I became that individuals are not the free-thinking autonomous creatures they would like to believe, but inheritors of instincts and impulses, appetites and values, that predate their assumed self-will.
A brilliant example, for instance, is This Be The Verse, one of Philip Larkin's most famous poems. Itís the one that starts ďThey fuck you up, your mum and dadÖĒ He explores the question of what the generations pass on to one another, and his conclusion is none too positive!
ďMan hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.Ē
Itís a deep and enduring theme, recurrent in much of Larkin's poetry. Think of High Windows and Dockery and Son. These were among the first pieces I read in which I recognised that this topic is, in fact, recurrent in much of life. How we live measures our nature and displays our forefathers' gifts. Be these gifts genetic or environmental, our personalities are the sum of our experiences encrypted by implanted moral codes and estimated with inherited value systems. These legacies are deeply worthy of examination, which is why I found them represented in so many literary works.
John: Fascinating. Can you think of any others?
Fyn: Loads. In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, for example, Rob says to Laura: "If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier." Much of the book involves Rob pointing the microscope inward in an attempt to understand himself as legatee, to fathom his own responses to stimuli and get to grips with that all too elusive inner nature, formed, perhaps, in spite of himself. His comment to Laura suggests that by the time she left him he was a fully formed individual with programming that could no longer be over-written. He was as messed up as he was going to be, with an identity already fixed by traits handed down generation by generation, role model by role model, pain by pain. And that was a brilliant movie, by the way, John Cusackís character captured brilliantly that sense of powerlessness.
Similarly, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tomas tries to settle down with Tereza but his efforts are doomed by his own instincts. His inner nature, or programming, draws him towards other women. I found this book fascinating. The Taoist view is that when you know and respect your own inner nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don't belong and can avoid the conflicts of misplacement that lead to aimlessness and grief. But what if you recognise your inner nature and it sickens you? What if you can't bear to be who you are? Tomas himself is a victim of programming. His philandering is hurting the woman he loves. Although he is suffering as an occupant of Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion and can no longer fulfil his role as a distinguished surgeon, the pain of loss of nation and title pales into insignificance compared to the pain caused by the thing he can't lose - his unwanted legacy.
John: Iíve read both and never recognised the connection. Any others?
Fyn: Really, we could spend the whole interview listing other peopleís work on the same theme - everyone from Shakespeare to Wilde. But there is one particularly outstanding book in which the theme is rather prominent, And When Did You Last See Your Father. Blake Morrison catalogues all that his father left him. He talks about living off his Dadís money and hand-me-down cars and furniture, and his Dadís face staring back each time he looked in the mirror, but Blakeís father had left him more than this. He had left an implanted set of values, a framework of judgement that pre-programmed Blake's assessment of the world.
Arthur Morrison was a privilege-seeking opportunist given to minor duplicities, but what if his father's opportunism had been more seriously corrupt? What, if instead of being admirable in many respects, but a charming chancer on the side, Arthur Morrison had been morally derelict? Would Blake's judgmental apparatus have been more seriously aberrant? What do the generations do with unwanted gifts? If you can't give them back, do you give them to someone else?
John: And do you feel youíve achieved with "The Alice Factor" all that you set out to?
Fyn: There was a distinctly two-tier construction to my text. I was already in possession of a well-developed theme when I came to compose the story. It was a big themeÖ
John: Tell me more about this two-tier construction of "The Alice Factor".
Fyn: Milan Kundera prepared his texts on two levels. On the first he composed the story, on the second he developed the themes. I reversed Kundera's process. The theme motivated the development of the story, the characters began as inventions to examine the theme.
John: Do you mean you actually sat down and wrote a shopping list of the characters you would need to make your point?
Fyn: Sort of, I suppose. Having established my 'theory of legacy' as a theme that pervades all our realities, I determined to compose a fictional reality inhabited by characters as complex as real people. To explore the effects of inner nature on these characters' lives, each individual needed to operate in a developed social structure, operate subject to mixed motives, undergo plausible daily experiences, be rooted in a social class and interact with other similarly constructed characters. I assembled an array of characters from different backgrounds, each with their own legacies, then set about building a central character who could move freely throughout all the other characters' lives.
John: Sean. What particularly gives him this freedom?
Fyn: Sean's position as an apprenticed professional gave him the perfect mobility through social class and across barriers of wealth and position. Medical students are almost uniquely positioned between the two worlds of respect and disdain. Respect due to the 'medical' in their title, and disdain to the 'student' in their title. Comfortably, they walk with kings and paupers alike.
John: You know this from personal experience?
Fyn: Iíve been to medical school myself. But Sean's mobility lends him no sense of freedom. He is restless and striving to escape, without really knowing from what he's escaping. At times he believes it's his fiancťe, or maybe dentistry, or it might be his fatherís modest lifestyle. All are partly true, but more than marriage, more than dentistry, more than poverty, Sean is attempting to escape programming. He is impossibly striving to escape himself, and the Tomas-like self-loathing. Nevertheless he falls, almost inevitably, into exactly the type of self-destructive behaviour that he must have recognised in his own mother; the author of most of Seanís programming code. Maybe he does what he does for Alice because he couldn't do it for himself.
John: I know you write screenplays as well. Why make this a novel?
Fyn: I think it could be made into a film, but from early outlines of plot it became clear that The Alice Factor needed the scope of a novel to permit the necessary complications of plot, with its development of milieu and sustained exploration of character and motives.
John: And itís all written from Seanís point of view. Why?
Fyn: To make it manageable! I felt I needed to construct the fictional universe around Sean. It would discipline my construction of each scene if none were to take place in Sean's absence. Also, no knowledge would be presented that was not his. I felt the reader might be more comfortable with this. Sean alone has enough data to process, enough conflict and contradiction, adding other's opinions and other points of view would add confusion rather than depth.
John: I enjoyed the diary entries.
Fyn: Good. For ĎAliceí, to be able to witness Seanís presence in, and interaction with, the surroundings I chose to write in the third person. But this involved obvious restrictions on how much I could get inside his head, without using blatant exposition. And so I introduced the first person diary passages as a device to examine his private thoughts. It also lends variety to style and changes in pace when necessary.
John: Is writing style important to you?
Fyn: It was important for me to establish that Sean is not the narrator, and so Sean's writing style is not the same as the narrator's. For the narrative I adopted a non-periodic, loose sentence structure, which is relaxed and conversational in effect. This loose style creates a sensuous immediacy to the events depicted.
Sean's diary entries have a similar loose sentence structure, but they differ noticeably in his use of language. Sean is given to grandiosity. He is more poetic by nature. Consider his speech on Bosham shore! He is writing to write, not writing to be read. His use of florid elaboration would not sit comfortably with the plain and practical story telling of the narrator.
John: So youíve established theme, form, and style, in that order. Whatís left? Story?
Fyn: You know, I donít recall the process being as clinical as that! And speaking of an order for each step is a little artificial. And weíve rather glossed over the development of characters. I wrote a biography for each one, and even a couple of short stories to establish them as personalities in my head. And having determined each character needed to operate in a developed social structure, suffer mixed motives, undergo plausible daily experiences and be rooted in a social class, I needed to be convinced of each character before I allowed them to meet each other.
John: How can you be confident that your characters are truly believable?
Fyn: The short route to confidence is to include as much autobiographical material as is possible, and to write about as many real people as is possible. But since The Alice Factor is ostensively a work of fiction I was free of all strictures of honesty and truth. The opposite to Morrison writing with a reckless respect for the truth when drafting And When Did You Last See Your Father?, the only things I needed to be true to were the theme, and my desire to create a believable world populated by credible characters.
John: Who came first?
Fyn: Sean was last to be conceived but first born, the first to fully evolve. Many of the factors giving rise to his persona have already been discussed; his mobility through other's lives, his restlessness, his self-loathing. Alice was next. Although in truth elements of Alice existed even before the theme for the story was developed. I simply didn't recognise her.
John: The Evening News interview says you are adamant that Alice is not any one real person.
Fyn: Sheís a composite. When I began to create a character less able to determine her own future than Sean was his, I found myself with a serial victim; a target for abuse that moved from abuser to abuser, who seemingly felt incomplete without degradation. Only then did I see in her the shadows of people I had known. I used this, but took license to manipulate her character as was required for the needs of the story.
Alice's history is never given in detail beyond that necessary to explain her current predicament. Alice and Sean have both suffered at the hands of an abusive parent. In order to ensure they had different 'programming' their experiences could not be the same. Not all the parental influences on Sean have been negative for his father is generally supportive and well meaning. It was necessary then that this should not be the case with Alice. Her mother was little better than her father. Alice's parental input had left her totally unequipped to assess normality.
John: What about the minor characters? There are quite a few.
Fyn: It has been suggested there are too many, but for me thatís part of the reality. What I wanted to achieve was that everyone who makes an appearance in The Alice Factor is an individual. And whenever an individual's personality begins to surface the reader is prompted to ask 'Why are they like that?'
Take for instance Nigel and Angela, they continue to illustrate the theme, and they add depth and texture to the world around Sean and Alice. The reader senses that Angela, despite all she has, is not happy. When presented with a sad history, it is hard to disregard the pessimistic inevitability that it may hold nothing but a prefiguration of an awful present. And, since writing The Alice Factor, I find it even harder to witness a grim present without looking for ties to a bleak past.
John: I'd certainly like to hear Angela's story.
Fyn: Good, Iím glad to hear that. It means you believe in her as a person.
John: Presumably because you did.
Fyn: I think thatís how it works. For about a year demands of other work meant this project lay dormant. I found it so useful returning to the book after a lengthy break. I could read what I'd written instead of what I thought I'd written. It was like reading someone else's novel. I felt more detached, more able to judge, and more willing to change. I was pleasantly surprised with how convinced I was by the characters. The most satisfaction Iíve had with the whole book came from a letter I received from a reader saying that she felt as if Sean was a real person, a friend.
John: When you say Ďmore willing to changeí, what changes did you make?
Fyn: I began to resolve less. I found the piece becoming more provocative, and raising more questions than it directly answered. For instance, when Sean meets Alice, and the text describes her gravity as inescapable, some readers might detect the first warning of a potentially tragic outcome. But, what really is certain to make Sean fall? Is it Alice's air of the victim, or his father's influence? Is Sean being drawn to a flawed woman the way his father was to his mother? And at the end of the book, does Alice want to be rescued by Sean? Or would she be content if not judged by other people's standards?
John: One of my own would be what welcome does Sean get at the end of his concluding bike ride?
John: And do you have the answers?
Fyn: I wrote the book.
John: I really enjoyed this book, I must say, but has it fulfilled your objectives?
Fyn: Yes, at some levels.
John: How so?
Fyn: I set out to create a believable fictional reality and use that creation to explore the question of what generations pass on to one another. Several readers have mistaken this to be a work of autobiography. So it would seem the first objective has been achieved. I believe The Alice Factor to be so plausible because I know people like this, who are victims of programming. It isn't gravity they can't escape. It's inner nature. This pain in the transition between the generations is nothing new. It is the stuff of history.
As for the second objective, I value my 'theory of legacy', and understand it much more since writing The Alice Factor, but there is still more that can be done. I was many drafts into the book before I realised my application of its principal theme was incomplete. Where was my sympathy for Sean's mother and Alice's father? What must their programming have been like? To quote Larkin: ďBut they were fucked up in their turn by fools in old-style hats and coats, who half the time were soppy-stern and half at one another's throats.Ē
John: One last question, where did the title come from?
Fyn: One of Sean's diary entries, where he writes, "I am not immune to the Alice factor." For me it has come to mean a turning point, an event or connection which cannot be ignored, something which makes you question the whole direction of your life. For Sean it was Alice, for me a health scare that gave me the impetus to write. But the title works well at several levels. Iíve been very influenced by Nabokov, and it was he who first coined the phrase ĎLutwidgeaní in reference to things Lewis Carroll. Any mention of the name Alice seems irrevocably Lutwidgean, but Angela makes specific reference to Alice in slumberland. Whatís more, Sean later writes a poem, which has obvious influences.
John: Thank you Fyn, this has been most enlightening. I wish you every success.
The Alice Factor
ISBN 0 95 44983 0 5
Click here to buy the book.