Monday, 4 March 2013

The Grease Monkey's Tale - an approach #2

Although The Grease Monkey’s Tale is a romance, a mystery and a thriller, it’s also a story about telling stories.  All different sorts of stories: anecdotes, folktales, fairy tales, a rhyme or two and even the odd joke.  It's a babushka doll of storytellers, each with their own stories to tell. 

Initially, I imagined Nic's story as a modern folktale – he would have a quest and problems to solve, a princess to win, but in a modern setting – which led me to research a global range of folktales and fairy tales (D.L. Ashliman’s website was invaluable for this) and to use a piece I’d written earlier (The Man Who Wouldn’t Stop Talking) as an interlude.  It also led me to the traditional folktale theme of characters with a ‘secret identity’ that needs to be guessed, amongst other things.  However, archetypal characters can come across as being flat and undeveloped, and I didn’t want Nic or Siobhan to suffer such a fate, so I let the two of them pull me further and further away from the folktale idea as they grew... even as they dragged me closer and closer to the stories they were busy telling one another.

The idea of stories and how important they are in shaping our understanding of the world and one another – and how we pass them down from one generation to the next, sometimes as cautionary tales, sometimes as histories, sometimes as celebrations, but always as a way of entertaining one another – took hold.  Thinking about how everyone likes to tell anecdotes and jokes, to narrate our memories of each day’s events and incidents (over coffee, over dinner, over an SMS or email) made me appreciate how significant a role storytelling still has in our day-to-day lives – even in the lyrics we listen to, the films we watch, our interpretation of comics and cartoons.  There's little difference between the grisly cautionary tales of childhood and adolescence, it seems, and the stories we listen to each day on the news or read in our newspapers.  All those people glued to their newspapers (or news apps)!  It struck me that almost everyone participates in this process as story-listener and storyteller, without recognising what they’re doing as such, and I wanted to capture an element of this in The Grease Monkey’s Tale.  However, this became even more relevant as Nic and Siobhan’s story grew to be more and more about the nature of truth, the difference between untruths and lies, qualities of trust and deceit – in short, everything that a good story can manipulate.

It was at a time I was trying to resolve how certain aspects of Nic’s tale (and all the interwoven stories) could be drawn together to advance the action that I also happened to be ambling through the streets of my home-town during its annual World Roots & Folk Music Festival – browsing the carnival stands, listening to buskers, observing the theatre of humanity – and came across a regular visitor and performer at the festival: Campbell the Swaggie (Google him).  Here was a guy who’d been on the road for over twenty years, travelling from festival to festival, earning a swaggie’s livelihood from reciting bush ballads, telling stories, bantering with the crowd.  With the appearance of being every inch the bushman – oilskin coat, leather hat, tanned and leathery skin, swag at his feet – along with his amazing repertoire of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, here was the inspiration for the storyteller in The Grease Monkey’s Tale and, it dawned on me, a key part of Nic’s own story.  It’s this storyteller who Nic and Siobhan discover on the night of the carnival reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and this storyteller who forms the mould for so many of the other storytellers in the novel... one inside the other inside the other, until we can no longer be fully sure what’s true and what’s not.

A version of this article first appeared on the Legend Press website in 2010.


Netty said...

sounds like a very intriguing book Paul.
Annette x


Paul Burman said...

Cheers, Netty.