Ventnor. The Wellington Hotel. High above the shore. A room with a balcony facing the sea, rocky coastline either side of me. It’s Sunday morning, a little after 8. I’m standing at the balcony windows contemplating the slate-coloured sky, the waves bashing the stony beach, the wind screaming, the rain tipping then stopping, tipping then stopping.
Then I see him, or her. I can’t tell. Face down on a surf board towards the open waves, riding and crashing into them, arms paddling and scooping water. Is s/he having fun? It’s impossible to tell. But they’re not giving up. I watch for a good ten or so minutes before I venture out. I can’t tear my eyes from the sea and the surfer. Another few minutes pass before I go inside, away from the wind and the rain. I get back into bed, my gaze regularly moving away from the computer screen, returning to the angry, mesmerising sea.
I came here to write. Initially, it was to work on my short story collection. Then this whole ‘let’s turn your story into a film‘ thing happened, and I knew I would have to put some thought into that.
On Friday, after a morning of swimming and reading and writing, as the afternoon slid away from me and pre-dinner drinks curved a finger in my direction, I sent my producer three character descriptions: Dirk’s lover Julian, Dirk’s driver Terry, and Gemma – the girl who is mentioned in one line of the story but whose significance in that one line takes Dirk down. In being forced to think more closely about these characters I discovered the beginnings of their stories. The lover, I decided, had come from just outside of a major northern city, brought to London by a boy. The producer, of course, wants to know what happened to the boy, how they met, how it turned out. I have also given Julian a slight limp: ‘he won’t say how he got it. Won’t ever say’. I’m looking forward to deciding how and why (although I have a pretty good idea already of course); how the screenplay can incorporate this, if it even needs to, or if its visualisation will be enough.
Gemma, I’ve decided, is ‘good at maths and smiling’. There is more to her than that and I’m fleshing out how she looks and what she thinks and feels. She has to have more to her in the film, and already I’ve been at work answering the producer’s initial questions about her (‘Where did she meet Julian? Who introduced them?’). I know how things will end for Gemma and Julian: it’s all in the beginning of the film; or, more accurately, in my head at the moment.
Terry has been fun – from nicking cars to driving them, a good relationship with his ex-wife, a daughter he adores. ‘And he might not be Terrence, but he’s not Tel either. Show some respect.’ I cannot wait to start writing the relationship that develops between this driver and his movie star boss. The producer wants to know what Terry thinks of Julian, too. And I’m working that one out.
The producer has other useful advice regarding my answers to his questions: ‘Don’t feel you have to write them out – it may be better to explore those things when the characters collide in the screenplay. Sometimes it’s better to bottle the feelings so they can be let out fresh in the scriptwriting.’
On Saturday, after an early morning swim, I was back on the balcony, with James Salter’s Collected Stories and a notebook. I’d rushed up from a patio breakdfast with a phrase in my head that needed to be written down; something that would make a story knowable to me. It’s one I’ve been working on very sporadically since just before Christmas, when a seal rescue in Whitstable put me on the path to exploring the better times between a mother and son from an existing story in my collection. That’s how it works for me – an image, an event, a line – any of these things can light a fire under an existing story that’s gone cold with neglect.
This story needs to be nurtured. I know I need to bring the mother’s youth into existence, give her something to have been happy about once. The timeline of the linked stories dictates that this woman, Karen, is coming of age, working, ready to leave home, in the very early 1970s. Out of nowhere – or out of somewhere but I can’t remember where – came this line: ‘I’ve been dancing since I was 12.’ Cosmic Dancer. T-Rex. An internet search of the lyric brought up two beautiful and fitting gems: ‘I danced myself right out the womb/ I danced myself into the tomb’. And this brought with it the story’s unexpected turn into other territory, a new branch for the central character to crawl out on and cling to. And to me it brought the joy of finally working out what the story was about. After a morning of battling with timelines and plot, dialogue and character, I had much more of a draft, more to work with and on, and the happiness that comes with knowing that a story is finally warming up.
And that brings me back to the lone surfer. They were out there, throwing themselves into the waves, abandoning themselves to whatever the sea threw their way, with their board and their body as the only tools to get them through it. And here am I. Pen, laptop, notebook; using whatever stimulus is around me, seeing what my imagination allows to seep through. Working alone. Under the waves. Head up again. Pushing my way through my own stormy sea.