Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Barney Walsh’s fiction piece, Looking for Gemma
John: Gemma is a great character, a combination of acuity and grandiose self-pity, selfishness and kindness. Where did she come from?
Barney: Like all my characters really, Gemma put herself together as I wrote the story. She had to be someone who’d ditch babysitting and leave her helpless little brother all on his own, because that’s where I started from—and then she’s more interesting if she justifies that to herself somehow, if there’s some brooding resentment or something going on, rather than if she’s just totally thoughtless … and like that, the rest slowly emerged as I wrote and rewrote, without my ever consciously deciding what she’s like—I found out as I went along.
But I suppose in a way the contradictions you mention come out through the demands of the story—she has to selfishly leave her brother, but she has to rescue him, too (though when I started I didn’t know that she would) … so to make those contradictions work she has to tell herself there are other reasons behind her actions, that she doesn’t really care about her brother (and we get to judge whether she’s fooling herself).
The long central interlude is an interesting device. It can be read as either fantasy or actual events, and succeeds as both. Why did you decide to tell this story in this particular way?
I’m kind of relieved to hear that works; it’s not an omniscient narrator following Alfie’s wanderings, we’re not really seeing from his point of view, it’s Gemma’s imagination (or her psychic powers!) watching him—there are little hints at that, anyway. If I remember rightly, the story’s starting point, its first idea or image, was of the little child who wanders off out alone into the cold and dark night, like in a fairy tale, to look for someone or something. But then that’s sort of not interesting enough—I mean, like, who cares whether a little boy lost in the endless dark ever finds his way home or gets eaten up by a monster, right? A four-year-old (or three-year-old, Gemma’s not sure) isn’t deep or psychologically complex or interesting or whatever enough to carry a story (no offence to any four- or three-year-olds reading this). And then in writing Gemma’s resentment, the bits about her stepmother (a wicked stepmother—more fairy-tale stuff) and dead real mother, just at first to justify her abandoning Alfie, I saw it was more her story than his—and so even as Gemma vanishes and Alfie gets left behind I didn’t want Gemma left behind or left out totally…so I tried to have it both ways.
And now I’m back to your first question, about how characters form themselves in the rewriting, and the answer to my own silly question about who cares about a little boy’s fate is that Gemma does, it turns out, or kinda does (it tugs on her conscience), to my surprise and hers too.
Besides, I’ll always prefer to be more playful than straightforward (and these answers are maybe making the writing seem more straightforward than it ever is). And it’s sort of unrealistic, too, how little imagination characters in realist fiction often seem to have.
The fate of poor Alfie is the obvious point on which the suspense of the story hangs, but I found myself equally concerned for Gemma, who appears almost equally at risk. Any prognosis on how things will go for her?
I don’t know. I think after the story’s done the reader’s guess is as good as the writer’s (better, even—the writer doesn’t count any more). But I guess I hope she’s revealed herself by the end to be more complicated than she seemed at the start—and revealed that to herself, too. I didn’t want her to straightforwardly ‘learn her lesson’ (she leaves Alfie on his own all over again), but the second time she goes out is a bit different from the first. I don’t think she really thinks she’s got psychic abilities … and she’s not suddenly going to start getting on better with her stepmum…but as feeble an answer as this might be: I think she’ll be okay. I guess?
More generally, how do you approach a story? Do you plan the whole thing out before you start writing? Do you just start something and see where it goes?
I never really have a plan; I start from some tiny notion or image and see where it leads me—which often is nowhere. But I don’t start at the beginning and write in order; I sketch a bit here and a bit there and gradually join these bits up by expanding them out and adding more bits in between. I just dug out a very early draft of ‘Looking for Gemma’, and in it Alfie gets abandoned, lost in the dark, and rescued all in the space of a page (and there was a big lump of backstory about Gemma’s dead mum that I had to excise like a surgeon removing a tumour, to replace with just those ‘few sweet swirly images’ in this final version).
But then the answer really is different for every story; you can’t learn how to write stories, you can only learn how to write a particular story—by writing it. Or it feels like that, anyway.