CG: How did it start, you inquiry into formula?
MM: What happened, I think, was that I grew up reading stuff like Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know where it came from. So I started reading back, and eventually I discovered some of the archetypes. Even if was just Walter Scott: the formula and the resonance were fresh with Scott, whereas it wasn’t so fresh with Haggard. However boring and long-winded some of those books may be by modern standards, the further you go back the closer you get to the excitement those authors themselves had, of having the ideas and finding the forms that would fit them. If you’re going to write the stuff, rather than relying on Burroughs, who’s a long way from the original, you may as well go to the people who were doing it first: to the German Romantic tradition, and ancient epic poetry, because it’s all there, and there in a more concentrated dose.
CG: What is the formula, stated simply?
MM: Stated simply, it’s the Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use a quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it’s a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D’Arthur it’s also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That’s a formula for Westerns too: everybody’s after the gold of El Dorado, or wherever.
Now although everybody’s after the same thing, it represents different things to them. In The Maltese Falcon (the book and the film) each person has a specific need for the statue, for the power it represents, financial or otherwise. So everything on every level of the story, the plot, the characters and the symbolism, all moves towards the central focus, which is the Black Bird; and it’s even better, because the bird is revealed after all to be not the object they’ve all focused their hopes and fears on. It’s an imitation Grail…"
CG: I was very impressed when I read Bleak House last year by the way Dickens, writing it as a serial, obviously started by improvising, and then capitalised on his improvisations. In that virtuoso opening about fog and the law, the law and fog — which starts with three paragraphs, sixteen sentences without a single main verb — he tosses things out as wonderful queer incidental details: the ‘little mad old woman’ with her reticule of documents ‘principally consisting of paper matches and dry lavender’; and the ruined plaintiff from Shropshire. Then later, when he needs them, they turn quite unexpectedly into Miss Flite and Mr Gridley, significant characters each with a special function at some crux in the plot.
MM: Structurally, there’s no better novel than Bleak House, in my view. Great Expectations may have something extra, but Bleak House is the best book of Dickens’s to read to learn about his techniques: characters, moral theme, imagery, everything. All the pleasures of the social novel, what you get out of reading Henry James, say, or Jane Austen, can be found in Bleak House. It’s the work of a talent absolutely at its prime, using its full range — and he was doing it in weekly episodes. You can see it in the first edition. Everything breaks down into units of sixteen and thirty-two pages, because of the way a large sheet of paper is folded up into pages when it’s been printed. You can divide each episode of Bleak House into sixteen pages, and know that on each page there’ll be another incident, a new character, a new revelation about an existing character, whatever — something that develops what’s gone before. Each episode ends perfectly, with a hook to pull you onto the next week’s instalment. There’s not a dead page in the book.
When he’s writing narrative full-tilt, you can almost see him stopping, catching his breath, with a bit of landscape. Where Dickens rested was on descriptive scenes, very often water: the Fens, or the Thames, the wharfs. He never rested on dialogue. If you rest on dialogue, people discussing the plot, talking to each other about where they are or what’s just happened, that sort of bad, space-wasting dialogue, you slow the pace down where it shouldn’t be slowed down. When you’re writing fast, you need those pauses; but you mustn’t stop writing! Stopping and taking a look around, describing space rather than action, is a totally natural rest. It adds to the illusion of reality. It gives the reader a breather too, and you’re still filling the pages to get to your required weekly output."
You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers."