Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Doris Lessing, Graphic Novel Writer

The great Doris Lessing died last month. Amongst the many eulogies and obituaries I've seen no reference to the book I commissioned from her, written for older children: Playing the Game. So, in memory of her, I'd like to share the story of how it came to be, and how I met her.

She was a beautiful, exceptional person. The few hours I spent with her are extremely special in my memory. She invited me into her home, we shared meals, we looked at artwork, and all the time her viewpoints were surprising and incisive. Above all, she displayed a constantly fearless, enquiring and self-critical mind.

Playing the Game is a graphic novel. For her the ideal audience was young adolescents just beginning to step out into the world. It's an allegory, a call to adventure. 'The Game' in question is a metaphor for life.

Did she think she was "writing down" by writing a comic book or for children? Quite the opposite: "Playing the Game is one of my best ideas" she said.

The book formed part of a series of literary graphic novels I put together, the rest of which were never published. This was the first to be commissioned. The fact that Doris was so enthusiastic about writing a graphic novel meant that many other outstanding literary authors agreed to be part of the series.

She urged many of her friends, including Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Jenny Diski (whom she described as her ‘protegé’) and Angela Carter, to get on board, so open was she to the concept that I had pitched to her, initially via my friend Nick Webb.

This all took place between 1991 and 1995. I had been taken on by the publisher Macdonald-Futura to put together this list, which I now consider forms a lineup of the most beautiful works of literature never published.

The concept I came up with was to match formidable literary talents with the cream of international comics artists for a line of original graphic novels. Besides Doris' friends other authors who did respond positively to my invitation included Peter Greenaway, Kazuo Ishiguro, Lisa Alther and Brian Aldiss. The books would be awesome.

I have a signed, handwritten postcard from JG Ballard. It reads: “Thank you for the invitation, but graphic novels are not for me.”

I have a similar letter from Martin Amis. But he adds: “Should [writing a graphic novel] ever seem like a good idea, I’ll keep you in mind”.

Salman Rushdie’s agent also declined the invitation, as did Douglas Adam’s assistant, giving the excuse “he is at present heavily involved in writing his novel Mostly Harmless.”

But Doris Lessing was more than enthusiastic.

The first time I went round to her house in West Hampstead was with a pile of different graphic novels so that she could choose an artist. We spent a happy hour going through them. I was gobsmacked by her first choice: the Heavy Metal artist of 2000 A.D.'s ABC Warriors and Slaine, Simon Bisley. I knew Simon - he was an iron-pumping bike-riding working-class lad who had a big fan base in Hell's Angels.

His artwork was bursting with macho energy, imaginative and attention grabbing. It just jumped out of the frame. That she picked him was a measure of her understanding of the power and appeal of the genre. He was a hot and upcoming artist.

When I put the proposal to him he rejected it outright. He'd never heard of Doris Lessing and the fact that she was a Nobel prizewinner cut no ice whatsoever.

Her next choices were artists with a similar virtuoso dramatic style: Duncan Fegredo and Daniel Vallely. They too had never heard of her, didn't like the script and rejected the offer.

I was beginning to see the problem: these working class artists were mostly anarchic types whereas Doris Lessing's appeal was to quite a different audience. It says a lot about her wide-ranging tastes that she was enthusiastic about them - but it was unfortunate that the feeling was not reciprocated.

From these artists' point of view there was also a problem with the script, for she initially had not written a conventional comics script, which is broken down into pages and panels, but something looser, leaving room, she said, to allow the artist freedom to interpret. This freedom, they felt, demonstrated a lack of understanding of the medium. I don't believe it did for a minute. She understood the medium very well. But we refined the script as follows:

Page 4 of her typed script:

What she had written was essentially a libretto for an aria for an opera and she talked passionately about wanting her friend Philip Glass to write the music for it.

She invited me round for dinner. As her son, Peter, for whom she cared most of her life, hovered in the background, a constant presence, we talked about her disillusionment with Communism and what it was really like in Brixton during the riots. Under questioning, I conveyed why my anarchist friends, including those who were 'slumming it' from higher up the social strata (just as in her novel The Good Terrorist), thought that the portrayal of the terrorist was unrealistic, and she listened without a trace of defensiveness. Always her voracious non-judgemental mind sought out new information.

Both the series and this book had a chequered history in eventually being published, which is outlined below. In the end HarperCollins, who had just bought up the rights to all of her work, said they were keen on publishing Playing the Game.

I ultimately succeeded in finding an artist, Charlie Adlard, who had cut his teeth on a few minor Marvel Comics titles, to agree to to draw it. His style was much milder than the artists Lessing originally chose, which was a disappointment to us both. By this time I had moved from London with my family to mid-Wales. Charlie lived in Shrewsbury. We would meet in Shrewsbury pubs and he would come down the Cambrian Line to Wales, to discuss the progression of the artwork.

HarperCollins appointed a desk editor for the title. Sadly she had absolutely no experience of comics or graphic novels. The book came out in 1995. I must confess I was never happy with its final form, which I don't think did the story justice. It did not garner rave reviews; but what do critics know?

A page of inked artwork:

The same page as it appeared in the book having been coloured:

Two pages that did not appear in the finished book in the same form:

More about the series

In 1991 I was a freelance commissioning editor and writer. I had already been working for a decade as a comics writer and desk editor of UK editions of such titles as Watchmen by Alan Moore, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman’s Violent Cases, plus European bandes desinées like The Magician's Wife by French comics creators François Boucq and Jerome Charyn.

Nick Webb was then MD of Macdonald-Futura. I had initially won the support of John Jarrold, now a science fiction literary agent, but then editor of the Orbit SF imprint, for my project. He got Nick excited and off we went.

The full list included, at one point, film director Peter Greenaway matched with the seminal (and very edgy) Judge Dredd artist Brian Bolland (they had long admired each others’ work, unbeknownst to one another), a work by Brian Aldiss called Her Toes Were Beautiful In the Water, to be illustrated by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti, and Uh-Oh City by Jonathan Carroll and Dave McKean, who had also, until I introduced them, only admired each other from afar. Dave went on to design book covers for Carroll.

You might wonder why this series did not appear other than for Doris' title.

Here is where this tale enters the realm of the gothic farce. The publishing house Macdonald, with its office near Holborn, was, like Fleetway, publishers of 2000AD, part of the vast, serpentine publishing empire owned by Robert Maxwell, then the neo-socialist arch-rival of über-capitalist Rupert Murdoch, whose own vast serpentine empire included HarperCollins. Maxwell was publisher of the Daily Mirror, which was head-to-head with Murdoch's The Sun.

On 5 November 1991, Maxwell famously slipped over the side of his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, off the Canary Islands, and his body was later found bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean. His empire imploded in a financial firestorm. Time Warner eventually bought Macdonald, but they didn’t want my series.

This situation wasn’t helped by a report from Macdonald's sales department, which was overwhelmingly negative and is worth quoting from, because the situation is so different today. They said “Reaction has ranged from disinterest to hostility...” the sales force has “a sour taste" following the “failure of Fleetway’s graphic novels”.

Fleetway's series consisted of collections of strips like Judge Dredd from 2000AD, which I had edited for Titan Books, and which were apparently overpriced for their teenage market - so were anecdotally the most shoplifted volumes on the market. “All major wholesalers have been apprised of the nature of the forthcoming list,” said the report, “and have not been interested”, even though a BBC documentary was promised covering the making of the series.

Undeterred, for several months I hawked the list around publishers both British and foreign. These expensive books largely required co-editions setting up with publishers abroad in order to make it financially possible to pay the authors and artists a reasonable fee, and the production and printing costs, and I worked hard at trade shows trying to secure these.

Editors were enthusiastic but could not make it work financially. Eventually HarperCollins, owned by Maxwell’s old rival Rupert Murdoch, accepted Playing the Game.

One of the most interesting potential titles for me was Angela Carter’s Gun for the Devil, a retelling on the Mexican-US border of the plot of Carl Maria von Weber's opera Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter). Angela and I lived not far from each other; she in Clapham and I in Dulwich. We met in her favourite tea house on Clapham Common, at the time when she already knew she didn’t have much longer to live. It was very poignant.

She didn't look ill, but radiant. She told me she wanted as much of her work published as possible, in order to provide royalties for her surviving husband and son. A version of Gun for the Devil was eventually published after her death in an anthology, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. The version I have is a treatment.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s story was The Gourmet (a fabulous ghost story that was not original alas, but an adaptation of a tv drama), which Dave McKean also agreed to illustrate.

Iain Banks was keen to be part of the series but his agent demanded too high a fee; he and Belgian artist François Schuitten, who drew the visionary Citées Obscures series of graphic novels which I love, would have been a perfect match, and François was certainly up for it.

American writer Lisa Alther was also very enthusiastic when we met in a café in central London, and sent a magical story about how all large inland lakes with lake monsters, like Loch Ness, are connected by underground water-filled tunnels, based on a monster she had seen in one of the Great Lakes which bordered her home.

Other onboard contributors to the series included science fiction writers Chris Fowler (paired with John Bolton), Patrick Tilley, Alan Dean Foster (who with Colin MacNeil would produce a book in his Spellsinger series), Grant Morrison (a piece called W to be illustrated by Bill Koeb), and a three-book series by Shaun Hutson.

My trawl of the literary scene also landed me in fascinating encounters with William Burroughs, Jeanette Winterton, Frank Herbert, Ben Elton, Jenny Diski, Faye Weldon, Sue Townsend, Umberto Eco and Terry Pratchett.

I would still love to see this series see the light of day. Nowadays, 20 years on, the market for graphic novels is very different. I believe it would welcome a list like this. I still have files of scripts or synopses in my drawers.

© David Thorpe

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The threat of Hybrids increases as people use more gadgets

In my 2008 novel, Hybrids, I envisaged a virus called Creep, that causes teenagers to merge with frequently used technology like mobile phones, computers and game machines.

The threat of this occurring in reality is increasing as more and more homes are filling with gadgets and households become dependent on technology.

The average household has filled up with consumer gadgetry such as flat screen televisions, tablets, iPods and smartphones in the last decade, as new and cheaper technology plus high-speed internet access has made affordable many items that were once seen as luxuries.

I'm just as guilty as anyone else of using gadgets; I even used software, called Grammarly, to check this post for spelling and punctuation.

However, the rise of technology has changed habits, meaning many families spend less time together, something else warned about near the beginning of Hybrids.

According to a leading UK auction website, a family household could easily have over a dozen electronic devices, including multiple versions of the same item for each family member, which would have been unaffordable just a few years back.

According to figures from various UK authorities, the proportion of British households with the following technologies is:

• Mobile phone: 94%

• Flat screen TV: 65%

• Digital TV recorder: 49%

• Broadband router: 76%

• Laptop computer: 66%

• Tablet computer: 22%

• Digital radio: 42%.

Statistics from Emarketer show that whereas 2.8% of British households had tablet devices in 2010, the number is now 22%, and expected to reach a third of homes within two years.

The rise of new technology has changed family habits.

While over a third of televisions sold in the UK in 2012 were super-large sized flat screens according to Ofcom, the emergence of digital recorders and catch-up services mean that households now spend less time watching TV together.

According to figures by TV Licensing, British households will soon have an average of three rooms with televisions, meaning that teenagers are now more likely to watch TV in their bedrooms than with the rest of their families.

Technology is changing the family unit. There are fewer face-to-face conversations now as families converse via text message, and there is a new social ‘crime’ of using a mobile phone at the dinner table.

TV viewing is discussed over social media as viewers 'second screen' while watching, instead of talking to those people who are in the same room as them.

We have sacrificed family life to keep up with technology. The big question is: how will families adapt to it?

Friday, July 05, 2013

BookViewTV interview about Hybrids

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the charming and generous host of the new literary YouTube channel BookView TV, Denis Campbell.

The interview took place on Skype, with me in my studio, and Denis in his, making it very easy.

I talk about the genesis of my HarperCollins YA novel and planned series Hybrids; the characters, like Johnny Online, Kestrella Chu and their parents, Malcolm Winter and the Gene Police; what the novel means to me; the process of writing; and my hopes for the future of the series and a television/film project.

It's in three parts:

 Part One


 Part Two


 Part Three


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Regaining confidence

Writers find it easy to lose confidence. I know I do.

Maybe because of a bad review, rejection of work by editors or agents, writer's block... there are 1000 reasons why this can happen.

How do you get it back?

It's been inspiring recently to witness the openness with which Matt Haig has talked about his crises of confidence and depression on his Facebook profile.

Matt was someone who had his first children's book published more or less at the same time as mine.

The Humans by Matt Haig book cover
Whereas I have subsequently not had a single other children's book published, despite having brilliant reviews for Hybrids, he has had a succession of books published and the latest one, The Humans, has been sold in numerous territories abroad, and he is to write the screenplay for a film adaptation.

He ought to feel on top of the world, but he doesn't always. I alternate between feeling on top of the world, and feeling, probably, well, average I guess. I occasionally have bad days. But not as bad as I used to.

As Matt says about The Humans: "It is personal. I put absolutely everything I had into it so if people don’t like it then they don’t like me".

I did the same with Hybrids. Perhaps that's why the first volume was such a success, but my subsequent two novels have not yet sold.

I didn't put so much of my vulnerability into them. Or maybe it's just because they aren't such earthshaking ideas. Maybe they will sell one day. Who knows? I think they're alright.

Hybrids by David Thorpe book cover
Anyway, people think Hybrids is a science fiction novel and I suppose it is. It's about teenagers merging with frequently used technology like computers and mobile phones.

But SF wasn't how I saw it while I was writing it. For me, it was about disability and feeling different from everyone else. It was a metaphor.

Because I have cerebral palsy. Okay, not a severe kind, but it still affects me and I was bullied when younger.

Since a few years ago, it has caused me to walk with a limp and drag my right foot.

I tell my leg to move and it doesn't obey me. Every step I have to concentrate on. I hate the fact that I wear out my right shoe every couple of months and have to buy a new pair. I hate the fact that I probably look stupid. People stare. I hate the fact that there's something that, no matter how much I concentrate and practice, I cannot improve about myself.

But most of the time I laugh at it. I compare myself to the Ministry of Silly Walks. It's just me and I'm okay.

There's a crucial scene in Hybrids, where Bruce Lee, who lives on in main character Johnny Online's head, encourages him to look at himself naked in front of the mirror in order to come to terms with his own body self-image.

After he's done that, he gets the confidence to carry on.

That passage, together with a dream sequence about a rhinoceros, are crucial parts of the book for me.

Writing the book was partly about trying to give other kids confidence about themselves, no matter how they feel about the way they look or how they behave.

There are two other books in the Hybrids trilogy all plotted out, waiting to be published. I want them to be published more than anything else. So do the many readers who have written to me.

But so far, nobody has published them.

Myself and colleagues are actively trying to get Hybrids turned into a TV series or film.

I believe in it, because I believe in talking about these emotions.

If you can't face up to it, if you can't be honest about your feelings, you can't be a writer and expect to succeed. Your characters will be hollow and uninteresting.

I want to thank Matt for sharing his vulnerabilities with us.

You know, you find that if you open up to people, they open up to you. Similarly, if you open up to emotions, writing comes.

That's how I regain confidence. I'm not saying it's easy, because it isn't. But who said it had to be?

Monday, January 14, 2013

How to make a musical in ten days

In December my wife, Helen Adam, and I were lucky enough to be hired to run a music and drama workshop during the winter holidays at Vijay International School on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles.

This is what happened.

I say winter, but it was 31°C most of the time and 90% humidity. The word 'winter' does not occur in their vocabulary! There were 16 children and the age range was demanding: from 6 to 15.

All of them spoke English, some of them French, and all of them spoke Creole.

The aim was to create a musical drama from scratch. What we weren't prepared for were the paucity of materials and lack of musical instruments, not to mention the fact that the children had never done anything like this before, nor even seen a theatrical performance.

The expectations of the staff were correspondingly fairly low as to what the children would be able to achieve in just 10 days.

What happened completely surprised everyone. The result was a 45 minute musical, called The Fire in the Forest, which included five songs, which they wrote themselves, displaying the huge talent of these students.
At the start, the happy villagers of Waverley are sharing food and a game.

My job was to guide them through creating the storyline and the script, and Helen's to do the same with the music and songwriting. My friend and the school's headmaster, Martin Kennedy, supported them in creating the masks, props and sets.

... but then the evil Smilekiller comes with his soldiers.
Everyone worked hard, from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon.

In the first week, we explored ideas, plot structure, morals, musical elements, how to collaborate, then wrote the plot, script, lyrics and music.

In the second week we rehearsed and learnt about stagecraft and musical and dramatic performance. Every single one of the students contributed an equal amount to the final work, which is the sum of many small parts.

He makes the blacks turn the whites into slaves.

The process of creating and shaping the work was as important as the final result, to help them learn collaboration and partnership.

It was a truly intense experience; we got to know them all very well and they became our friends.

How was this possible in just nine days?

We were completely surprised ourselves. After some introduction to the four basic plots, and story structure, the children decided on the themes, which were spirit animals and equality/discrimination.

Helen put them in a trance and guided them to find their own spirit animals.

 By transforming into their spirit animals they are able to free themselves of this spell...

They split into four groups to each come up with characters and a story. Each group then pitched their story to the rest.

I then combined all four stories into one story, and gave it to them for their approval.

We then split the story into 11 scenes. The group divided into pairs or individuals, who each then wrote a scene. I typed them up into the script.

 Meanwhile, it is up to the villagers' three pets to save the world by putting out the fire in the forest created by Smilekiller....
... With the help of a Mad Monkey!

The songs were written in a similar way. A theme or subject was decided upon for that point in the narrative. Each child then wrote a single line. They then ordered the lines into verses and chorus. Helen helped them come up with the tunes.

So, by the end of the fourth day we had a script! We also had four of the five songs. This was a stage we hadn't expected to reach until the beginning of week two. On the fifth day we had a read-through and cast the parts.

They spent the weekend learning their lines. The first four days of week two were spent rehearsing and creating their masks for their spirit animals.

The final performance was on the afternoon of the 10th day. All of the parents, some teachers and school governors attended.
 They manage to put out the fire.

Everyone was completely amazed at what these children had achieved, ourselves included.

It was so successful that we were immediately invited back for the following year, except that the next time the outcome will be a short film instead of a performance.

But one of them dies. How sad.... (Cue a lament!)

For Helen and I, it shows what children are capable of when given the chance.

In their feedback, most of the children commented on how much the experience had increased their self-confidence and spirit of cooperation, which is surely the point. Some of them now want to learn musical instruments, which is difficult as there are no music teachers on the island of Praslin.

Their parents remarked on how, unlike on school days when they had to be dragged out of bed, they were up in plenty of time to get to school!

Helen and I cannot wait to go back next year.

 Back in the village, the spirit animals fight the spirit animal of Smilekiller, but are thrown into gaol.

The Story

This is the story they came up with:

The sleepy village of Waverley guards the Peace Forest, on which all other forests of the world depend. It is led by two wizards, Ricky and Jack, and blacks and whites live together equally.

Then, the evil Smilekiller and his soldiers come. With magic claws he puts the villagers under a spell, where the blacks must dominate the whites. Then he uses a magic crystal to burn the forest.

 The Dove manages to escape.

Only the villagers’ three pets can save the forest, but first they must get magic fan leaves from a tree guarded by a werewolf, to put out the fire in the crystal.
 She finds a way to charm Smilekiller.

The villagers manage to transform into their spirit animals, when they are free from the spell. They challenge Smilekiller, who changes into his own spirit animal, the king of the beasts. They win the struggle, but the tyrant’s soldiers put the villagers in gaol.

The three pets succeed in putting out the fire, but one of them, the toucan Findicesa, dies.

Victoria, whose spirit animal is a dove, can escape, however. She overhears that Smilekiller is evil because he was bullied. She sings a song that charms and calms his heart.
... who releases the villagers from his spell by giving them each one of her magic claws.

Smilekiller relents and releases the villagers. The surviving pets return with the crystal, which Smilekiller agrees to throw away because it is too dangerous for anyone to own. The villagers celebrate victory with a song: We Are Proud.

We Are Proud!

The Cast

Waverley Village inhabitants
Charlotte Vanacore, a Wizard, Jack
Rasiki Devi Pillay, a Wizard, Ricky
Linnea Huechenne, a villager, Bella
Phin Phinehas, a villager, Johnny
Aliette Vidot, a villager, Victoria
Hlo Moyo, a villager, Brendan
Vanilla-Lou Labiche, a villager, Jacob
Alysa Payet, a pet dog, Miki
Chloé Verlaque, a pet cat, Carlisle
Candice Harter, a pet toucan, Findicesa

Brigitte De Charmozhadlache – Smilekiller
Perry Pointe – Smilekiller’s soldier
Wendy Danielle – Smilekiller’s soldier
Simon Allisop, a mad monkey
Ishah Figaro, a werewolf


I Am Who I Am
Animal Rap
No One (Lament for Findicesa)
Time To Change Your Heart
We Are Proud