Hallelujah, what a Saturday! And it all started with Stephen Fry and company:
Held at HKU’s Loke Yew Hall, this is the second of two open forums starring the three writers and one moderator shown above. Things were kickstarted by each writer sharing about five minutes’ worth of writerly wisdom, followed by almost two whole hours of Q&A with the attentive audience. The main draw for me was Fry of course, but crime/thriller writer Frederick Forsyth and historian Andrew Roberts emerged with distinctive, entertaining voices of their own.
Some favourite bits (the ones I can remember, anyway):
- On authors they would like to swap talents with
- Fry: a combination of Oscar Wilde (sheer brilliance), Evelyn Waugh (unsentimental clarity) and PG Wodehouse (kindness)
- Forsyth: John le Carré (being the best in his chosen genre)
- Roberts: Winston Churchill (here Fry did a well-received imitation of Churchill and a jokey anecdote w.r.t. a wintry day in England), whose war histories were dictated as he paced back and forth with martial music in the background (Roberts also mentioned Thucydides as the greatest historian of all time, having set the standard for the way a historian should write)
- On creativity in writing
- Fry: Jane Austen never ever presumed to depict a conversation between men that was not conducted in the presence of a woman because she herself had of course never witnessed such a conversation. It was not a failure of imagination but a triumph of it to be able to make such use of the experience she did have instead of concocting something beyond her ken (the resulting awkward untruths would be easily found out, especially today).
- On cures for writer’s block
- Fry: Keep a journal in which you can conduct a heated conversation with yourself — managed to draw himself out of a few moods and impasses in this manner. (He also keeps magic markers in bed with him so he can scribble ideas on his legs if he’s awoken by them, instead of getting up, switching on the light and noting everything down on paper. If he had a wife, he’d probably scribble on her.)
- Forsyth: Writing is simply a job to him, so he never gets writer’s block.
- Roberts: The words ‘alimony’ and ‘mortgage’ prevent blocks for them.
- On choosing a subject for a book
- Fry: Loves charging into a book, though have had to give up after two chapters in once.
- Forsyth: Writes for himself — subject has to interest him first.
- Roberts: Would not venture to write about this part of the world because it’s outside of his purview (same for the other two, and hearkens to the Austen anecdote).
- On research for a book
- Forsyth: Doesn’t touch the computer (“Can the CIA hack into your typewriter?”), but has a young lady helping him with relevant research on the Internet. Also, imperative to speak to those in the know (“the covert”).
- Roberts: Four-fifths of time spent in the archives, and would travel anywhere if there’s a chance of a relevant scrap of information being available
- On book agents
- Fry: Was asked to publish a book by the same publisher as Douglas Adams (love the anecdote about the two being passionate friends playing with the latest tech toys at the time), but had to find an agent first. Chose the only agent who focused on the book rather than the guaranteed publishing contract, and stuck with him ever since.
- Forsyth: Have only had two agents
- Roberts: Only 2% of writers without agents ever get published. So get one — will take complicated negotiations with publishers off your plate. Agents do take a good-sized cut — 10–15% — for the service, but it’s worth it so you can just write.
- On editors
- Fry: Two kinds, one is the copyeditor who whacks your words into the house style (something you get used to), the other the editor who gives you helpful comments about the more baffling bits of your manuscript. A good editor is essentially a good reader, the kind you’d love to have reading your book.
- Forsyth: Only writes one draft of book — puts down everything he has to say — and leaves it to the editor to make it fit for consumption.
- Roberts: There’s a legendary editor at Penguin called ‘Professor Perfect’ … eagle-eyed and merciless, e.g. “This joke is not funny enough.” But much needed, e.g. asking why a figure declared dead in Chapter 2 appears again in Chapter 11.
- Miscellaneous bits
- Steve Jobs specifically requested for him and only him to be the interviewer for the Time interview for the launch of the iPad (click here to read it).
- Suffered from insomnia for a good stretch of his teens, so spent the wakeful hours voraciously reading anything and everything — set the groundwork for everything that followed in his life.
- Second autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, to be published in September! Sent manuscripts to notables named therein (e.g. a certain “Lugh Haurie”) and have got approval from just about everyone so far.
- I loved how he whipped out his reading glasses to right away peruse a book presented to him by HKU. The look of delight at receiving a book was pure.
- Latest book is on cocaine industry — Europe’s main source is now sent up through Africa instead of Colombia. A lot of money, a lot of viciousness, a lot of losing battles on the part of the police. (Got me interested!)
- Started writing because he foolishly thought it would be a way to earn a quick buck. (It’s actually a slow and arduous way to maybe have a 10% chance of earning some pocket money.)
- Fell into writing by default, after failing at merchant banking. But has loved it since — never had a moment of angst (that only happens when you find yourself accepting a writing job you have no inclination towards for a tempting sum of money — something to steer clear of, he said).
- From an audience member named Paul who asked what it was that compelled each writer to continue his work even after attaining a measure of success, having put the same question to Graham Greene (not the actor or ex-chairman of the British Museum)
- Graham Greene’s reply was that like the priest and some other vocations I can’t recall, the writer can never say that “he’s made it” — he must ever continue in his work because that is his work (or something along those lines!)
- Fry’s reply was that like in the movie The Red Shoes, he thinks writers continue because they have to, not because they enjoy it.
- Forsyth’s reply was that he had dependents. (Note that all this practical avarice was probably a bit of a front for him — his reluctance at publishing an autobiography, even to earn a quick buck, seemed to betray at least a sort of reluctance to exploit absolutely anything for money.)
- The moderator commended the writers for not repeating anything they’d said at the forum held the night before at the HK Book Fair, even though there were some similar questions. Oh, then to have been there too!
In comparison to the aforementioned previous forum, where there were apparently 1,600 people in attendance who held Fry hostage for two hours so they could get his autograph, this one had maybe one-third the number. In both cases, the indubitable star of the show was the one and only Fry. But, as I don’t have my tattered old Moab Is My Washpot in HK, and all of Fry’s books were snapped up by the time I got to the venue, I had to satisfy with myself with taking wistful shots like the ones on the right and below. Ah well, and good enough for me!
It was a very pleasant way to pass a morning — only duh moment was when, in the context of the SAR mandating Mandarin as a compulsory language, the moderator (a known wit who at his most scathing reminded me of the reign of Kumar at the Boom Boom Room) declared he would rather not have a situation like Singapore’s, where you can know “three languages but none of them well” (cue delighted applause from partisan crowd sans moi of course).
<rant> Sir, we have four not three official languages, so I wonder which three languages you had in mind, and I must respectfully proffer my observation that, in my time here, I have not met more than a handful of HK-ers who are fluent in two or more languages. And my vaguely professional opinion on the local educational system is that it is leaps more elitist than the one in Singapore and is seemingly structured to ensure a sure and steady degradation of the standard and prevalence of English speakers in the territory. </rant>
Anyway, best be diplomatic and say both countries, oops, places have room for improvement — because they do. And better to take away from the morning its gift of returning wonder (check out the essay ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ by GK Chesterton) at the writer’s craft.