Don Juan in Soho – the death of the shocking?

Cadell Blackstock, author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’itself an adaptation of the Don Juan story, reflects on Patrick Marber’s latest production of his own play, starring David Tennant as the eponymous DJ.

DJinSohoEven Patrick Marber would admit that reviews of the new production of Don Juan in Soho, his contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s Dom Juan currently running in London’s West End, have been mixed. Reading them before I went to a performance last night, I was surprised by just how divided critics have been. It’s an energetic, well-staged production and Tennant is – to my mind – rakish in disposition as well as character, inhabiting the small stage with flawless poise and a beautiful control of his own physical space. But I left the theatre wondering if the critical reception had more to do with the problem that a contemporary adaptation of this particular morality tale creates, than any flaws in the production.

Marber has updated the play since its first performances in 2006, infusing some clever references to the current US President as well as more diverse cultural benchmarks. But what really stood out for me was DJ’s gorgeous late soliloquy where he lambasts and belittles the contemporary obsession with parading our lives in public for all to see. ‘Whatever happened to privacy?’ he demands before excoriating our desire to share every last fragment of all that should be kept to ourselves. It’s a theme I explore in Crash (though it was written before social media really exploded) through Crash’s sudden ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around him. As a celebrity, Crash has lost his own privacy, but he is the same willing conspirator in that as we are in our own loss of privacy now. He did it to himself and he has to pay the price for that. As beer brand Bud Light puts it in its current poster campaign, ‘The internet never forgets’.

But watching the play last night, I wondered whether Marber’s problem now is one that didn’t exist 11 years ago: that the world has become so chaotic and we have been exposed to so much awfulness, transgression and disdain for decency and truth, that our ability to be shocked has diminished exponentially, almost to nothing. Marber has written comically, to be sure, to save this from being a miserably dark tale of self-destruction, but when you really get down to it, absolutely nothing DJ does is remotely shocking. He does not transgress. We accept his behaviour in the context of what is common now: everyone’s right to do as they please. So what saves a modern adaptation of Don Juan from being nothing more than fluent comedy?

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverI asked myself that same question when I wrote Crash. Though I borrowed more from Mozart’s Don Giovanni than Moliere, I chose to tell the story of his decline indirectly by considering whether he has any relationship whatsoever with his own conscience.  There is a point at the end of Don Giovanni as he faces up to the statue of the Commendatore where you sense a filament of doubt in Giovanni’s mind: has it all been worth it? It would depend on the ‘it’, of course. What sort of ‘it’ might genuinely cause him to wonder? And what sort of ‘it’ would still be shocking enough to our contemporary state of mind?

Conscience is a difficult thing to explore, especially through the eyes of someone who doesn’t apparently have one. In the opera, the moment of uncertainty is so fleeting you might not notice it were the music not so deeply unsettling in itself. And it wouldn’t be a retelling of Don Juan if he had regrets from the outset. His flagrant disregard is part of what makes him so compelling, so charming. So I decided to explore where the tipping point is of understanding the terminal impact of his own actions. And one of the best ways to do that in the context of the original story was to approach it from the other side of the moment when it would matter: his death.

When Crash wakes up at the start of the novel from an almost fatal incident, he has physically passed the tipping point, but he can’t remember what it is. Suspended virtually at the point of his own death, and hostage to those who have kept him alive, he must retrace his steps through his filthy disregard for others to find out what he did, and why someone has tried to kill him over it.

Marber’s DJ ultimately doesn’t care. He is living the life he most wants to lead. ‘At least my lies are honest,’ he claims at the start of that soliloquy. He cannot shock himself. But for me – and perhaps for the critics of Marber’s current production – the absence of genuinely shocking behaviour for anyone, particularly Elvira’s brother Aloysius, creates a narrative dilemma. DJ is simply being as self-indulgent as the rest of us when we tweet our every thought. He is not shocking us, not any more, because in 11 years since this play was last produced, life has become so appallingly predictable in all its awfulness.

It will remain to be seen whether my choice of shocking behaviour for Crash will last the test of time or not. But there’s so much more to Don Juan than how finely he treads the line between right and wrong, or how that line moves. It’s how his voice – and that of the statue – echoes in us.


You can find out more about Crash here on the allonymbooks blog, you can read about the similarities between Don Giovanni and How I Met Your Mother here, or you can download the book at Amazon.

“Biblical fiction is potentially divisive”: Eleanor de Jong talks to Evie Woolmore

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore talks to Eleanor de Jong, author of Delilah and Jezebel (published by Avon/HarperCollins) about the challenges of writing fiction whose characters are known from one key source.

Evie Woolmore: We met at the London Book Fair last year, Eleanor, and I was surprised to see you at the Author Lounge, hanging out with the indie authors. You’d already had a two book deal with Avon/HarperCollins to publish Delilah and Jezebel, after all. What did you learn from the event?

Eleanor de Jong: What I learned was how much fun indie authors have! There’s a sort of collective spirit about gatherings like this that I think can sometimes be missing among print published authors. I wondered when KDP first took off how the latent sense of competition in traditional publishing – to pick up an agent, to get a great deal, to get good reviews, to sell well – would translate to the indie market. But what I think no one really anticipated was how mutually supportive most indie authors are of each other, how willing people are to share their experiences and expertise, and how much the book buying market has been blown open by e-books and the sort of pricing that indie authors are using.

EW: I remember talking with you about pricing in particular. At one time, I think you said, both your books were priced at 99p by Avon for Kindle at Amazon – that’s normal pricing, not a Daily Deal.

EDJ: That’s right. I was really interested by that. The paperbacks retail for £7.99 and although the Kindle edition came out a few months later for Delilah, my first book, they put it on at 99p immediately, I think. When Jezebel was published, the e-book came on immediately at that lower price. They both went up to £1.99 eventually and have now settled at £1.49. The effect of the 99p pricing though was really fascinating. Sales shot up very quickly and for a while both books showed the effect of that in the rankings. Given how much flack print publishers get for their e-book pricing, I thought it was interesting that someone somewhere had worked out that this was the way to sell this particular type of book.


EW: You’re smiling as you say that. Go on, what do you mean?!

EDJ: Well, I wondered at the time – and I still think about it now – whether there was a bit of a van Gogh factor involved. By that I mean the idea that the price of the book indicates the implied level of worth of the art. Print publishers are generally reluctant to price the e-book versions of novels by their ‘big name writers’ at lower levels, while they accept that the print versions will be discounted. At some level, I’ve always suspected that there’s a cachet/worth thing going on there, that while one might promotionally discount a hard copy book to get it started by catching people’s eye in a bookstore, the e-book price has come to represent the latent value  to the publisher of the work, in other words a sort of benchmark value below which the book will never drop. Like the way that we accept that gold will always have a minimum certain value, like van Gogh will always sell for a certain kind of figure at auction.

EW: While your books sold at 99p…

EDJ: And your books too! Cheap at half the price! Seriously though, I want to be really clear that I don’t think this strategy applies to indie authors: I mean, how could it? Indie authors are each doing their own thing. There’s no capacity for conspiracy in the market, implied or otherwise, no potential for price-fixing as such. It may be – and I’ve seen certain indie published books that bear this out – that there’s an issue around ‘worth’ that is a factor for indie authors. They want to price their book at a certain level because they feel that is what it’s worth. But like buying a house, something is only worth what people are prepared to pay. And if you make it easier for them to pay less, they will. But the point you were heading towards is that if the new Jack Reacher is over £8 for Kindle and my books are £1.49, I am considerably less valuable to my publisher than Lee Child is to his.

EW: And that is what you mean by worth.

EDJ: Exactly. The worth to the publisher, not the absolute artistic worth. Now, I would caveat that by saying that Avon and HarperCollins have, as they put it, made a deliberate decision to ’embrace the digital revolution’ by pricing their e-books relatively low. But the wider point is that Avon understand that there is a market for a certain kind of book at a certain kind of price. And actually I have benefitted from that in sales. Which is all the more surprising when you read some of my reviews!

EW: I wanted to ask you about that. You’ve had some brutal responses. To Jezebel, for example: “Inaccuracy about significant elements of the biblical account- is simply useless & unworthy. Should be discredited.”  And: “…a book that glorifies a queen who was not someone to glorify and which directly contradicts the truth in the Bible. It was not only poorly written but it was actually offensive.” How do you respond to that?

EDJ: I don’t think any writer likes to disappoint their reader, but I’ve always known that a book which might be described as ‘Biblical fiction’ is potentially divisive. However, I think there are two elements to think about here. One is the issue around historical authenticity and how readers of historical fiction respond to that. Delilah got picked up by a historical fiction book club in London last year, and one of the comments which came back to me after they met to discuss it was that the novel wasn’t really historical fiction at all, not in what is the currently accepted convention of meaning historically factual, factually driven, precise and authentic. There’s huge debate around that, at least for me, to do with scales of ‘accuracy’ if you like. Where do writers who set their novels in the past place themselves on the scale between Hilary Mantel-esque moment-by-moment authenticity and a reasonable stab at a plausible setting?


EWAnd with that, the question of how much the history controls the story or the story controls the history.

EDJ: Yes, and I know you’ve thought about that with your own novels. But secondly, and I think more problematically for some readers, there is the genuine challenge of writing stories using characters not only from another book – because the Bible is nothing if not that – but a book which has varying degrees of authenticity to different people. If you are a reader of the Bible who comes to it as truth, then you are likely to feel that the people of its pages should not be taken out of context. If that is your  starting premise, I wonder why you would pick up a book about one of those people which is clearly a work of fiction. Fiction is about invention, imagination and artifice. My books are also very clearly Romance, as indicated by the cover and the blurb, and Romance is a genre which drives story over context every time. I think therefore that if as a reader you want to protect one particular source of a person’s story, you are always going to find it a challenge to read another telling or another interpretation.

EW: So you’re not at the Hilary Mantel end of the scale?

EDJ: Absolutely not! I don’t think I’d call myself a historical novelist either, at least not in the sense that other historical novelists would want to be seen sitting at the same table with me!  But that was not the point of writing these novels. I wrote them because I like romantic fiction, and I was interested in seeing how the lives of these two women might be envisaged as romance in a time when alliance and allegiance were much more important in relationships. I also enjoyed the chance – as all imaginative writers do – to invent and imagine some historical details that aren’t really available to us, such as some of the more insignificant domestic rituals that are a key part of the colour of this genre. There are very few other purely historical sources to go on – Lesley Hazleton‘s very readable research on the untold story of Jezebel is excellent – but I am a romantic novelist. I am not claiming to have written a factual historical novel. The readers who have enjoyed my books have taken them, I suspect, for what they are. That is not to say that I like to offend a reader any more than I like to disappoint them, because I don’t. But I don’t think the novels hide what they are. And in the age of downloading digital samples instead of flicking through the first few pages in the store, it’s still more than obvious from the outset what the novels are like.

EW: Didn’t someone say that to you as a reason for not reading Delilah?

EDJ: (laughing) Yes, my best friend picked up Delilah when it first came out, told me how proud she was of me, and  then said, “But in all honesty, El, why would I buy it when I know how it ends?” She had a point. I don’t know if proper historical novelists think about that too. But being a romantic novelist, it’s all about the journey for me. We all watch agog every time a new film version of Pride and Prejudice is made, even though we know that Mr Darcy is going to get his girl. It’s the twists and turns that make us watch though.

EW: So what’s next for you? Another romance drawn from the Biblical cast list?

EDJ: I don’t think so. Avon offered me a two book deal and they got their two books. They haven’t shown any interest in any more, but that frees me up to write whatever I want without adding my publisher to the list of people I can disappoint! I remember being hardly able to breathe with excitement when I got the deal five years ago. But so much has changed. And for the better, I think.


Eleanor de Jong’s books are available in print from bookshops and on Kindle from Amazon. Evie Woolmore‘s magical realist novels are all available from Amazon, and you can find out more details by visiting her page.


How I Met Your Mother: Don Giovanni lives again…

This week, allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock wonders how old the story of HIMYM really is.

The massively successful American sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which recently began its ninth and final season on US television, is a clever, brilliantly constructed series which is worth watching if you’ve never seen it before (though how can anyone on Planet Earth not have seen it, seriously?). Architect Ted Mosby is telling his children how he met their mother in a seemingly endless series of instalments from his largely unsuccessful love life. His journey is contrasted by the true love partnership of his college friends Marshall and Lily, the conquest-driven sexual adventures of his would-be best friend Barney, and the lingering presence of his erstwhile girlfriend Robin. The comedy is perfectly pitched,  from satire to farce to slapstick, parodying itself and its favourite cultural reference points, as well as glorifying and celebrating its home of New York. It’s also really cleverly constructed both visually and narratively, using fragmentation, flashbacks within flashbacks, deconstructed story-telling and multiple points of view both within episodes and, unusually, across the series. The characters might spend a good portion of each episode in their favourite booth at MacLaren’s, but the stories are never static, and not merely because they are propelled forward by the journey to find out who Ted eventually marries.

But what if Ted isn’t really the star of this show?

The narrative is certainly evenly pitched across the five central characters, but what if this is really Barney’s story, not Ted’s? Think of a man of independent means, for whom seduction and sex are the greatest pleasure in life. Think of his accomplice, a well-meaning, practical fellow who will help his friend whenever he can, but doesn’t exactly share his goals. Think of a couple, happy and devoted to each other, but all too aware of the wandering eye of this local lothario who, despite his generosity to both, would like nothing better than to steal the wife away for just a moment or two. And what of the jilted girl, once seduced by the great lover, once delighting him but all too soon abandoned in favour of the quest? Sound like a story you already know, or an opera you’ve seen?

The similarities are uncanny. Barney is Don Giovanni, of course, who even has a numbered list of all his girls (“Right Place, Right Time”, S4). His favourite wingman, Ted, is the intermittently reluctant Leporello, usually doing his master’s bidding even if he doesn’t quite agree with it. Don Barney must have a wingman at all times, and unsuccessfully tries both Marshall and his brother James when Ted is unavailable, but neither quite masters that enabling yet moralising elasticity that Ted offers Barney.

Don Barney is also quite the meddler, and his mostly harmless infatuation with Marshall’s girlfriend/wife Lily often drives him to interfere and manipulate his friends, professedly with their best interests at heart. Marshall does have something of the peasant Masetto’s lumbering innocence about him, and Lily has a sense of Zerlina’s sexual adventure about her, occasionally confessing to fantasising about Robin, and when required, revealing her pregnancy boobs to Barney just so that he won’t touch them (“Ducky Tie”, S7). She will never give in to Barney’s lust, but she concedes more than once to Barney’s manipulation of them, just as Zerlina does to Don Giovanni.

And then there is poor Robin, a hybrid in many senses of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. She is a Daddy’s girl just like Donna Anna, who gives in to her attraction to Don Barney and then spends three seasons trying to deal with the consequences. Yet like Donna Elvira, her misery is public, particularly when Don Barney returns to his seductions (“The Playbook”, S5), and her desire for both revenge and restoration is utterly confused (“The Stinson Missile Crisis”, S7). At her most objective, she is a sort of conscience to Barney, especially as he wrestles with his feelings for her. But at her least objective she is even aided in her Anna-esque pursuit of emotional justice by her very own Don Ottavio, the shrink Kevin who, though much later on the scene than Don Ottavio, plays  the same role in trying to bring sense and stability to Donna Robin’s state of mind.

It’s a story as old as the hills of Andalucia and there are times when I wonder what happened to Leporello after Don Giovanni went off to meet his fate. There are some who might argue that Barney getting married is akin to a state of hell – including Barney himself – and one could argue that it is only after Barney marries that Ted is set free to find his own future.

But then, maybe it’s just about 5 people falling in love.

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverCadell Blackstock is the author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, a satire on sex and celebrity, and a contemporary rewriting of the Don Giovanni story. Download a sample from Amazon (UK, US and other sites) or find out more about the book and Cadell’s other blogs on his page.

Lawrence Block: How many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

This week we are delighted that Lawrence Block, the incredibly prolific, endlessly successful and thoroughly engaging writer of  books of all hues, has spared a few minutes to chat with our own Cadell Blackstock. And if you want to know how many novelists it takes to change a lightbulb, read on….

Larry, thanks very much for sparing time to stop by allonymbooks for a chat. You’ve been really busy lately issuing your earlier novels in e-book form. What has direct publishing offered you, as an already experienced and highly successful print novelist?

Direct publishing to Amazon, Nook and Smashwords has given a new life to quite a few of my out-of-print titles. I’ve been writing for over fifty years, and my backlist is enormous, and I’m delighted that my early work can reach a new audience.

And I’ve also self-published some new work. A collection of columns for stamp collectors, “Generally Speaking,” struck me as having too small and specialized an audience to interest a print publisher, but worth making available as an eBook. So I published it, and every month a few people pick it up. Similarly, I’m planning to ePublish a pair of collections of my assorted non-fiction.

You are renowned for your excellent advice on writing, so what have you learned from the direct publishing process and your forays into social media that you wish someone had told you early on?

Hmmm. I don’t know that anyone could have told me this, or that I could have taken it in, but I’m struck constantly these days by the pace at which the whole world of publishing is changing. (I’m sure that’s no less true of the world outside publishing, but it’s particularly noticeable here.)

What’s it been like getting reacquainted with some of the characters from your early years as a writer? Had you remembered them better or worse than they are?

I don’t spend a lot of time revisiting early work. And, in fact, I’ve learned not to judge what I wrote years ago. For many years I tried to disassociate myself from early pseudonymous work, and was in fact sustained by the thought that the books had not been printed on acid-free paper. (God speed the acid, I was apt to say.) But who am I to say which of my books a reader ought to like?

As you know, my central character Crash Cole is a bit of a rake, a bit of a cad, a man no father would want his daughter (or granddaughter) to date. Who among your characters would you prefer stayed well away from the ladies of the Block family?

I think my daughters and granddaughters can take care of themselves.

In Don Giovanni, the opera that Crash Cole is loosely based on, Don Giovanni is invited to dinner in hell by the man he has killed. Who would be at your ‘dinner party from hell’?

As age turns me increasingly antisocial, I’ve come to regard all dinner parties as infernal in origin.

Crash is also a collector of sexual conquests, much as Keller is a collector of stamps, and you are a collector of countries visited. Is there anything else you would start collecting now (other than more royalties!), were money no object?

I don’t think so. Age, I’m sure, is a factor here. It undercuts the urge to possess. My wife and I discovered some years ago that our admiration of an object no longer embodied the urge to acquire it.

Lastly, a quick word on the upcoming film of A Walk Among the Tombstones. I blogged a few months ago about the adaptation, and on the experience of watching novels one loves turn flesh on film. Are there any of your other novels you would like to see made into film or TV?

I have high hopes for the film, and enjoyed my several visits to the set. Liam Neeson is brilliant in the role of Matt Scudder, and of course I hope the film’s enough of a hit to lead to further installments. Of the Scudder books, I’ve always that A Ticket to the Boneyard is particularly filmable.

As for what else might work, well, the most important factor is the enthusiasm of the filmmaker. Writer/director Scott Frank got interested in A Walk Among the Tombstones a good fifteen years ago, and stuck with it until it finally happened. I’d like to see Keller on the screen—ideally, I would think, as an edgy cable series, but possibly as a feature. I’d like to see someone do right by Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Ultimately, though, I’m most interested in my books as books. And, through the miracle of eBooks, virtually everything I’ve written over the years is now eVailable. Neat, innit?

Neat indeed! And I think everyone who has enjoyed Bernie Rhodenbarr would like to see someone do right by him. Anyway, Larry, thank you so much for sharing a few minutes of your time with us.

By the way, how many novelists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Novelists never want to change anything.

Lawrence Block’s latest Keller novel, Hit Me, is available in hardback and e-book. The film version of his Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson, is released in 2014.  And details of all his many other excellent novels and books on writing and stamps are available at his terrific website. You can also visit LB’s Bookstore on eBayLB’s Facebook Fan Page and follow him on Twitter @Lawrence Block

Cadell Blackstock’s satire on sex and celebrity, Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, is available on Kindle at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Mind the gap… The filming of Lawrence Block’s A Walk among the Tombstones

This week, allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock discusses the film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel A Walk among the Tombstones, currently being filmed in New York.

This blog doesn’t often cover issues of writing technique, not least because there are plenty of other authors, editors and bloggers out there covering the topic in great detail. Among them is a fond favourite of allonymbooks, the acclaimed New York crime writer Lawrence Block, whose many excellent books on writing technique are as brilliantly readable as they are thoroughly useful. Many years ago, I had the benefit of listening to Block wax lyrical on the power of the imagination for the reader. I was at a workshop in which another budding writer asked Block whether the many bars and churches visited by his dark and brilliant creation, the PI Matthew Scudder, were actual places in New York. The budding writer was concerned that if the places weren’t real, how would they be believable in the novel. Block very patiently defended his position that it didn’t matter if they were real or not, what mattered was that one wrote about them convincingly, for if they were real in the mind of the writer then they would be real in the mind of the reader. If one believed in a fictional character, then surely…?

That layer of trust between author and reader is always stretched when a book reaches adaptation stage and becomes a film or television programme. There are so many detectives, policemen and PIs who have been reinterpreted in the flesh that the path currently being trodden by Liam Neeson as he takes on the mantle of Matthew Scudder is not a new one. From Continue reading