The Scotsman Saturday 18 August 2007

The rewrite angle

Jamie Jauncey tells DAVID ROBINSON about the 'airport epiphany' that saved his Highlands novel

IT HAD BEEN A LONG DAY AND THE meeting with his publisher in London hadn't gone as well as he had hoped. She hadn't leapt at the children's fantasy trilogy he had pitched to her, and the last flight to Edinburgh was hours away. He trekked out to Heathrow anyway, trudged through security to the Terminal One departure lounge and waited for his delayed flight.
Watching the planes take off and land in front of him, he let his mind wander. Accentuate the positive. At least she hadn't rejected out of hand the novel he'd already written about a near-future Highland rebellion. She had, however, said he should consider making the main protagonist an older teenager instead of a 45-year-old man.
Should he bother? It had taken him four and a half years just to get that far. Add that to the five he'd spent on another adult novel no-one wanted: almost a whole decade of writing in his spare time without a single book to show for it. What kind of track record was that?
Yet as he waited in Heathrow for the last flight to Scotland that May evening two years ago, Jamie Jauncey began to see how it could all work. And not just work, but be much more gripping.
Already, the plot was firmly in place. A man - no, make that an 18-year-old - has witnessed government soldiers dragging Highland villagers out of their homes and massacring them. This is in a Scotland in the near future, where the land has been nationalised and taken away from the landowners.
In theory, nationalisation was an overdue reform, necessary to break up the Scotland's massive inequalities in land ownership. In practice, the countryside was becoming lost to bureaucratic waste, neglected by all but a rebellious few. Those massacred villagers were supposed to have been rebels, though they weren't. The teenage witness to the atrocity hides from the soldiers, and when they've left finds an eight-year-old boy who has somehow managed to escape the bullets.
As the hours to the last flight slipped by, Jauncey realised that none of this would need to change. Ninian, the massacre survivor, would remain as he had been in the version the publisher had seen: a non-communicative special-needs child unable to understand what was happening, as John, the now 18-year-old main protagonist, tried to take him to a place of safety. Their attempt to escape across the High­lands would be unchanged too, as would the dramatic denouement. Somehow in the rewriting, however, the psychological depth of their relationship deepened.
"I would have dreaded being asked to do a rewrite for which I couldn't see any reason, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense," says Jauncey, sitting behind the desk of the garden shed-turned-impeccably ordered office behind his Birnam home.
At 57, he is a well-kent figure on the Scottish literary scene, a past chairman of the Society of Authors in Scodand and currently on the board of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where his on-stage author interviews are models of charm and assurance. But with his new novel, all that assurance seemed to have been shredded. For months, his agent had touted it around the publishers to no avail.
Why should rewriting it with an 18-year-old protagonist make any difference? He still doesn't know. But it does. The Witness always had a Buchan-like pace about it, as well as descriptive passages infused with Jauncey's love of Highland Perthshire that dates back to his teenage years, when he couldn't wait to return there from boarding school near Oxford
My own theory is simple. Since Buchan, our expectations of adult adventure heroes have become ridiculous. Cinema's to blame. The James Bond of the films rather than the books, effortlessly able to elimi­nate whole squadrons of trained pursuers. Willis, Seagal, Stallone, Schwarzenegger: everyone of them able to single-handedly take out small armies. As all these films still play in the back of readers' minds, perhaps the best way to infuse an adventure novel with tension is to shave so many years off your pro­tagonist that you're left with one who has himself only just started shaving.
But that's just a mechanical fix. For a novel to truly work, it needs to be sourced in deeper creative springs.
So if part of The Witness began that May evening two years ago, those deeper roots stretch back to the early 1990s, when Jauncey, like the rest of us, watched the savagery of the Balkan conflict unfold on the nightly TV news. "I remember watching all those horrors, and being conscious that it wasn't very far away from us. I was struck by the sheer awfulness of civil war and wondered how I could write about that with impact. The obvious thing to do was to set it in our own backyard."
The son of a law lord (his late father was made a life peer in 1988), Jauncey runs creative writing courses for people in business and as a sideline plays piano in The Funky String Band with Shooglenifty musos Angus Grant and Luke Plumb and Australian singer-guitarist Peter Daffy. The neatly ordered files in the large and comfortable garden shed testify to a whole range of other freelance projects.
He had, he admits, a privileged childhood. "Although my parents weren't landowners, I was brought up among them in Perthshire. So when I searched for a cause of civil war, conflict over land seemed an obvious one.
"When I started writing the book in 2000, land reform was clearly on the post-devolution political agenda. I wondered what would happen if an independent Scotland nationalised land, offering people the right to rent it back. In the areas where people don't exercise that option - mainly the Highlands, where the land is so uneconomic - this Kafkaesque government department steps in and manages it; and that's where the conflict arises."
Although Jauncey sympathises with crofters' claims and the right to roam, his childhood has given him other sympathies too - with the landowners who plough money into unprofitable land in ways he can't imagine any bureaucracy ever doing.
"So the tension is between the idea that we don't actually own this great spectacular landscape and the fact that if the land wasn't in the hands of the people who do own it now, the chances are it wouldn't be so well looked after.
"I do feel strongly about this landscape. I was lucky to have spent the second half of my childhood in such beautiful scenery as we have all round us here in Perthshire, and always remember that sense of feeling as though I'd come home when I got off the night train in Perth from boarding school for the holidays.
"Certainly there are plenty of scenes in the book that draw on this background I've shot a few deer, seen grallochings, all of that - it was part of country life - although I wouldn't do it now."
The Witness captures all this raw, passionate love of the land, but frames the debate about its owner­ship quite fairly, with even the leader of the Highland rebellion ac­cepting the injustice of semi-feudal landlordism. And in switching the age of his protagonist from 45 to 18, Jauncey admits he found himself drawing on deeper roots.
"When I was sitting thinking about that at Heathrow that day, it suddenly opened out to me how I could give this character energy. In the adult version, he had been more passive, but as an 18-year-old he was much more fiery.
"Perhaps it has to do with the fact that my own children [he has three daughters and a son] are about that age now. Maybe it's also because I really can remember being that age. In my own case, it was also full of drama, because my parents got divorced when I was 19.
"That age is a time of such huge transformations. I've already published two novels for young adults, so I knew I could enter that territory reasonably confidently. And I found I hit my groove - because what I'm tapping into is that crossover, rites of passage period."
The only doubts he has about the book aren't about its content but its classification. Does having a teenage protagonist restrict its readership to teenagers? Jauncey, whose own teenagers have moved beyond young adult fiction, even wonders whether there ought to be such a category in the first place.
"I think of this as being an adult novel with a teenage protagonist. I'd like adults to read it, because it deals with the kind of ideas adults should be interested in; and I hope a lot of young adult readers will too." I think he's right. If that moment of inspiration in the Heathrow departures lounge energised his novel, it would be a shame if it narrowed its readership at the same time. For The Witness is a rare kind of adventure novel - a page-turner that is also well written and bustling with ideas. If I were a rich man, I'd be putting in a bid for the film rights straight away.


© Scotsman 2007

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