How do you make a film about the meticulously slow, solitary work of breaking codes entertaining? That’s the question that drags at the heels of The Imitation Game, a biopic of Alan Turing, the man who invented the machine that broke the enigma code, which is largely credited for the victory of the allies over Germany in the Second World War, and was ostensibly the first ever computer. Michael Apted’s 2001 film, Enigma (based on a novel by Robert Harris) attempted (and failed) to do this by turning the story of the Bletchley Park code-breakers into a spy thriller and replacing Turing, an antisocial gay genius, with a dashing heterosexual hero who gets involved in all sorts of contrived wartime intrigue.
The truth is that Turing and his colleagues spent the entire war sequestered from intrigue and violence, painstakingly creating a machine that would break codes used by the Germans to communicate strategies of attack. Once the machine was invented, they all continued to live at Bletchley, determining which attacks to scupper or not, so that the Germans wouldn’t cop on to the fact that their radio communications were being decoded.
The drama in Graham Moore’s screenplay for The Imitation Game is smaller than that of Enigma, focusing at first on conflict between the socially inept Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his debonair competitor at Bletchley, Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), and then with his suspicious superior, Commander Denniston (played with a suitably gimlet eye by Charles Dance). Turing wants to build his machine, his nemeses, one after the other, want to stop him. There’s not much else in the way of conflict on show, bar a failed romance with a bright colleague, Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) and a particularly muted run-in with the police later in Turing’s life, which is both the horrific heart of this film, and a wasted opportunity.
Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK, and rather than go to prison for two years he accepted chemical castration. This fact is tacked on to the end of the film, which is bookended with a star-crossed teenage romance during Turing’s prep school days, and while the injustice is palpable, the idea of Turing as a persecuted gay man is not. There’s the briefest suggestion that the British government might have had a hand in his demise, but it’s never explored. Rather than even hint at Turing’s adult homosexual relationships, his final scenes involve a deepening of his quasi-heterosexual romance with a simpering (as always) Ciara Knightley, not to mention a fetishised relationship with his machine, which is called Christopher after the object of his childhood affection. There is literally no fleshing out.
Having said all this, the performance at the centre of The Imitation Game makes it soar above the film’s own limitations, self-imposed or not. Benedict Cumberbatch’s deeply expressive face is almost always in close-up throughout the proceedings, and that face embodies a character that you feel for at every turn, even when Morten Tyldum’s direction is clunky, or we’re being fed lots of obvious exposition, or Kiera Knightley is talking through her teeth. Indeed, without Cumberbatch, this film would be nothing worth writing home about.
In the closing credits we learn that Queen Elizabeth II gave Turing a posthumous royal pardon in 2013, which of course was too little too late, given the man’s contribution to winning the war and the millions of lives saved by his machine. It’s also a case of too little to late with this film, which could have really explored the deep injustice meted out against Turing, and what it meant to him as an emotional, sexual adult. As such, while celebrating Turing’s achievements, The Imitation Game castrates him again.
I’m reading at an event tonight in Dublin city centre, and I thought I might share some advice about the art of reading, from what I’ve learned so far. I’m always nervous beforehand and it takes me a little while to warm up into it, so I try to come prepared.
A reading is a performance. Think of it as you being on TV and trying to get people from channel hopping. The only way they’re going to stay with you is if you keep them entertained. So, it’s good to find a passage or chapter in your book that includes a few laughs, if there are any. If you can find a passage that combines a bit of comedy with pathos, all the better.
Rehearse your reading beforehand, a few times. Try out voices for your characters, but don’t make them caricatures. If a character has an accent, give him or her just a flavour of that accent in your reading. Only gently differentiate between who is talking with the voices you try out.
Try to inject drama into dialogue. Imagine you are in a room by yourself, writing the dialogue. Speak it the way you hear it.
The one big mistake first time readers make is going too fast. The urge is to read at a gallop, getting it all out there and getting off the podium as fast as you can. Take breaths between paragraphs. Let the audience settle with little beats between the scenes, or between pieces of dialogue. But don’t make it too long! Choose a chapter or passage that’s no more than 1,000 words.
When it comes to doing the actual reading, if you have actually had a book published in print form, do not read from a kindle or tablet device. Show the people what you are reading from. Readers of books get excited by authors – the proof that you are one helps generate that excitement.
And lastly, always end on a note that makes the listeners want more. Don’t read a chapter from the end, or even near the end of your book. Make them care about the story, then leave it hanging.
They might even buy the book then!
On a recent Sunday I was in a shop in a suburb of Dublin buying my newspaper, when Ryan Tubridy walked in. Two young men were ahead of me in the queue, and one turned around to tell The Late Late Show presenter that he was “only a piece of shite”.
Such is the lot of the celebrity in this small country, where it’s nigh on impossible to hide from public view. People form adverse opinions, whether you like it or not, and they feel the freedom to voice them if you happen to appear in actual flesh and blood in their path.
If you are a gay celebrity, as Brendan Courtney has reported, people who have adverse feelings about homosexuality will make you a public target for their prejudices. By your very visibility, you instantly become a whipping boy, or girl, for the overt homophobes.
Courtney (pictured above) was one of the first proper gay celebrities on Irish TV, courageously out and proud from the very start of his career. I’m sure he made a conscious choice not to hide his sexuality from the limelight, but he probably didn’t fully anticipate the consequences of that choice. On the streets of Dublin and every other Irish city, town or village, where gay couples don’t hold hands for fear of being verbally abused, or worse, what chance does an unapologetic gay man who regularly graces our television screens have of escaping unscathed?
Of course it’s not you, dear Herald reader, who is out on the streets shouting ‘faggot’ at Brendan Courtney, or ‘dyke’ at Anna Nolan, or ‘queer’ at Alan Hughes. It’s not you I have to fear if I feel the urge to lean over and kiss my partner of twelve years in a communal space. The people venting their ignorance in this fashion are a tiny element, and they don’t represent the vast majority of Irish people, who do not harbour homophobic thoughts or feelings.
But think for a minute about where the permission for this minority to behave in such a way might come from.
My nephew is seven. He goes to a school on an idyllic country road that has four teachers and a headmistress. A few weeks ago he came home and said something about a boy in his class being gay. The other kids were laughing at this boy, and my nephew couldn’t understand why.
My friend’s son is 13. He’s in a large secondary school in Dublin. He’s just getting into girls, and all the regular teenage stuff. But lately another boy has started calling him a ‘faggot’. This has begun causing him sleepless nights. He doesn’t know how to respond without making things worse.
We live in a country where tacit permission is given to people to shout homophobic abuse at Brendan Courtney on the street. We live in a country where the kids who bully other kids, using the ‘gay’ word and making lives a misery, are somehow empowered and condoned.
The only way to deny that permission and empowerment is to have zero tolerance for terms of homophobic abuse, and zero tolerance for the equation of the word ‘gay’ with anything negative.
Some of the many babies born in Ireland this week might be gay. Does it seem right that they enter an educational system at the age of five that denies who they are, or quietly deems them as less deserving of respect? We have to start at the very beginning. Children in our national schools should be taught that gay and lesbian people are deserving of love and equal respect, from day one. At home, they should be told that being gay is a normal part of life, and that gay children and straight children are just the same as each other. No differentiation should be made for them between families where there are same-sex parents, or opposite-sex parents. They should be told they are loved unconditionally not despite of who they are, but because of who they are.
Only then will they grow up in a world where the likes of Brendan Courtney can walk down a street without fear of abuse. Only then will they grow up in a world where they can one day hold their partner’s hand, with love, without even thinking about it.
Published in The Herald, Ireland, October 9, 2015
As we get ready to go to press in GCN with my interview with Sinéad O’Connor, something I’ve been waiting many years to do, I’m posting this amazing moment from Ireland’s Late Late Show in 1989, when she took gay star Kenny Everett up on his support of Margaret Tatcher, who introduced the abominably anti-gay Clause 28. Watch from 2:00 in.
Throughout the ups and downs of her career and personal life over her past 27 years in the music business, Sinéad O’Connor’s key strength as a singer and songwriter has been unflinching honesty about her own complex personality and background, and her willingness to openly go to a place of true vulnerability that few artists would have the courage to face, let alone sing about. That’s why it’s disappointing that the press release accompanying her eighth album of original material, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, says that only the opening track is autobiographical. “These days I don’t write autobiographical songs, beginning with the last album and continuing with this one, I write character songs – these are characters that don’t in any way represent my own personal experience,” Sinéad says.
While her sophomore album in 1990, Am I Not Your Girl? propelled O’Connor to global stardom, it is the two albums that followed it, Universal Mother (1994) and Faith and Courage (2000), with the Gospel Oak EP (1997) in between, that stand out as the artistic peaks of her recording career. All featuring idiosyncratically forthright songs that challenged the inane mediocrity of pop music during the decade that meaning forgot, these albums ultimately came to cathartic conclusions for a lone star not afraid to bare her inner demons, and thereby spoke deeply to fans about their own catharsis.
While 2012’s How About I Be Me and You Be You? may have featured ‘character songs’, it wasn’t pointed out. The album was a return to form after the disappointingly inscrutable Theology (2007), and while some tracks were obviously ‘story songs’, the overall effect was revelatory.
Knowing that eleven of the twelve tracks from I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss don’t in any way represent Sinéad’s own personal experience sets it off at a disadvantage. After the smart, witty, acerbic, autobiographical ‘How About I Be Me?’, which takes the Irish media up for branding her ‘crazy’, Sinéad melts into ‘Dense Water Deeper Down’. A rehash from her 2003 collection of rarely heard tracks, She Who Dwells…, it’s a masturbatory fantasy, but given the subject matter, comes across as unusually flat, as does the supposedly sexually empowering follow-up, ‘Kisses Like Mine’.
‘The Voice of My Doctor’ brings us back to familiarly fiery and enjoyable O’Connor territory. A thumping guitar-stomp, reminiscent of PJ Harvey in energy and tone, it’s about a woman taking revenge when she discovers the man she’s sleeping with is married. ‘Harbour’ moves from meditative to raging, but its ascendance is marred by over-production. Indeed much of the album sees Sinéad’s voice multi-layered until its power is dulled rather than buffed up.
‘James Brown’ moves into playful territory. Half-Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’, half-James Brown’s ‘Get On Up’, its combination of sweet and sexy is pulled off with aplomb.
I’ve given up believing that ‘8 Good Reasons’, the album’s best track, is a ‘character song’. We’re supposed to trust that a lyric like: “You know I love to make music/but my head got wrecked from the business/everybody’s wanting something from me/they rarely ever want to just know me” isn’t speaking from Sinéad’s personal experience? The song, in which a woman contemplates suicide but chooses to live for those she loves, including a new man in her life, has the essential recipe of confusion, anger, despair, vulnerability and liberation that earmarks a great Sinéad O’Connor song. It’s followed by the album’s first single, ‘Take Me To Church’, a track about the healing power of self-love that lives up to the album’s catchy-pop ambitions.
After a song about self-perservation, the bleak, fearful and haunting ‘Where Have You Been?’ explores an insecure woman’s instinctive gut reaction to the alienation she sees in her lover’s eyes.
The album’s final track, ‘Streetcars’, stands out, not only because of its lyrical beauty, but because it’s the only song that pares back the production to allow the strength of Sinéad’s vocal abilities to shine through. With its reference to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and its theme about separating love from desire, spiritual love from emotional love, ‘Streetcars’ is a transcendent finisher in true O’Connor style.
The themes at play here may be about love and desire, but it is only in this final inning that Sinéad’s imagined character puts her earthly obsession with men aside for higher things. Otherwise I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is an album that very much sees women through the lens of their relationships with men, and they are often controlled by those relationships. Interesting stuff from a woman who has been a vocal proponent of her right not to be circumscribed by other people’s, and particularly men’s opinions since the day she first stepped on a stage with her shaved head and Doc Martens.
Perhaps in writing from an imagined persona’s point of view, Sinéad has connected to and revealed a part of herself we’ve never seen before.
So, it’s not shocking to me that I only got to Day 8 with my Daily Writes series. I had great intentions, but not a huge amount of time or headspace, given that I’m working a full-time job that’s all about writing, and writing a novel in my spare time. Writing about writing every day on top of that was too much, so I went in the other direction and put my blog out of my mind altogether, mostly so I could concentrate on what was turning out to be a very difficult third book to write. Not that any book is easy to write, but I was facing different challenges and fears with this one than I did with the previous two novels.
Essentially my big worry was story. Having written two novels that had strong concepts as the narrative driving force, I’m now writing a book that doesn’t have a concept and is essentially about a relationship between two people and how forces beyond them affect it. My big fear was (and is) that I won’t be able to get the reader to keep turning the pages. In my previous books, literally every 1,000 words, I posed some sort of question so the reader would want to see what happens next, and in writing this one I felt I didn’t have enough action for those questions to pop up.
I’m trying to let go of having to rely action – the desire for big things to happen and obstacles to propel my protagonist’s story forward. This is a quiet story, and I have to trust that my reader will be so invested in my characters that they will want to see what happens to them without being prodded along with the ‘what happens next?’ structure. I am two-thirds way through my first draft, and in the process am getting to know and deeply care about my characters, and I want to see what happens to them (at this point, I don’t know how this book is going to end). I’m hoping this will translate to my editor, and after a couple more drafts, to my readers.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Nicky and Rod from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q, which comes to Dublin this month. I had plenty to ask them about the gay rumours that surround them, but first of all I wanted to get their opinions about similar rumours that have surrounded Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert.
Listen to the full interview here!
THE CONFLICT CONNUNDRUM
Today I finished a long scene between my main character and his partner, which is designed to drive them apart so that my character will make a stupid decision that’s foundational to kicking the novel’s second act into action. It’s a scene with two other characters present, who are also in conflict with my main character on some level. I’ve been lining up the troops against him, so that he won’t be thinking straight when he makes his decision, which will seem small at the time, but is actually momentuous in his life.
It’s a scene of intense conflict, but if you look at the entirety of a book, almost every scene will contain conflict of some sort, because conflict creates the drama that keeps a reader engaged.
If everything is going fine for the protagonist, the reader will be happy for a while, but quickly will get bored. The protagonist needs an antagonist who is stopping him or her from achieving or keeping that happiness.
Conflict can be major and the stakes can be high – the protagonist is fighting against someone who is trying to kill her. Or it can be minor – the protagonist is fighting against his own inner self which seeks to stop him achieving happiness. Conflict can be about what’s happening in a scene, e.g. a character wants to get to the supermarket, but a woman she knows and dislikes has waylaid her and won’t stop talking. Or it can be about the main thread of the book – e.g. a man fearing for his life is trying to get away from a killer that relentlessly pursues him.
Writing conflict in a scene is essential, but it’s hard. You have to pace it, make it build realistically, and the scene has to end with resolution of some sort, but the potential for more conflict, so the reader will be satisfied but want to know what happens next.
My golden rule for conflict, is get in late and exit early. So I try to start not at the very beginning of the scene, but a few beats into it, and I exit the scene with the conflict still hanging. That’s not to say I don’t let the conflict build. Lots of writers find it hard to build conflict, to really let it go somewhere. They’re always wanting to leave things unsaid, or under the surface of what’s going on. Yes, it’s fine to have a conflict that’s seemingly about one thing, but is really about something much deeper going on, but you still have to let the conflict escalate and play out. Readers are never satisfied with conflict that doesn’t have any meat to it.
I’ll be building my scene between my characters for a while yet. Making it seem real, and keeping the pace, is a lot of work.