Saturday, 16 March 2013

Blake Morrison - Fiction or Life Writing

 Rebecca Cronin writes:
Softly spoken Yorkshireman Blake Morrison, in conversation with Richard Wilcocks, began with an introduction to Life Writing – what it is, and most importantly, how he makes it interesting. He shared anecdotes concerning his two books about his parents – Things My Mother Never Told Me and When Did You Last See Your Father? – and read passages from both. He centred his discussion around the use of embroidery, which he asserted to be important when fictionalising your characters, yet also spoke strongly about how the personal truths he experienced, and detailed in both books, often resonate well for other people.

Blake Morrison signed dozens of his books
Life writing, when the subject and main characters are not only no longer with you, but are also your parents, would perhaps strike most of us as odd, and perhaps even a task that could be beyond difficult.  But Morrison carried the notion of how for him, writing about his father, and then mother, proved to be a therapeutic and helpful experience, and in many ways, a coping mechanism for their deaths. Writing, he said, is a way to let someone tell a story they need to tell, as well as shaping it, and keeping control of it. Oddly enough, in the beginning, writing existed for him as a mechanism to escape his family, but they ended up being the main characters and roles within his work; they were inescapable. 

When discussing Things My Mother Never Told Me, he explained how his main plot line had revolved around a box of letters his father had left him. The letters provided the majority of the details which make up the book, but naturally left gaps that needed filling. As a forty year-old, reading about the lives of his twenty year-old parents, he expressed almost parental feelings towards them, and often felt that their marriage and his birth were exceptionally unrealistic results of their growing lives. 

The novel of his mother’s life was never something he had expected to write, and he described her as an elusive woman who didn’t enjoy being the topic of conversation. Yet his motivation for writing the book was concentrated around the growing question of why she had buried her Irish Catholic past; a question he strove to answer after learning more and more from the letters. He followed the discussion about the book with a harrowing reading about the immensely high infant mortality rate his grandparents experienced with their own children.

When the discussion turned to the film adaptation of When Did You Last See Your Father?, starring Jim Broadbent as his father and Colin Firth as himself, Morrison spoke earnestly of how impressed he had been with Broadbent’s portrayal of his Father. Before filming, the two had met and discussed his father at length– his clothes, accent, mannerisms  - and as a result, Morrison thought that Broadbent brought a new understanding to the role that he himself had not fully realised in the book. His parting remark about the film was that now, when he thinks of his father, he sees Broadbent’s face, and finds it difficult to see past that. His only regret is that when he looks in the mirror, he does not similarly see Colin Firth staring back at him.

The evening drew to a close with Morrison speaking briefly of his time working for The Observer, where a passage from When Did You Last See Your Father? appeared, alongside a photograph of the two of them. Seeing his work there, he remarked, proved to be shocking, as he often felt possessive over the story. By the time the film adaptation appeared fourteen years later, he had accepted how he could, and would, share the story with the public. A final round of questions concluded with “can you imagine your own children writing about you in a similar fashion to how you wrote about your parents?”, to which he answered, with an astonishing truth, “when writing about real life, and people in your real life, you have to be careful. But I’d hope they’d cast me in a good light – the truth is important, after all.”

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