This year, the retelling of classic tales, or as author Ronald Frame puts it, the translations have grown evermore popular. Ronald Frame’s Havisham joins this category with excellent reviews for his tale that makes the unsympathetic character — sympathetic and someone readers can understand. Read on to find out more about his work and Havisham.
How would you describe your work to someone new to your writing?
In one word, entertainment. Story-telling. I need to lay a spell on the reader (that hypothetical reader, who has given me her/his precious time), from the first lines on p1. (I’ve never quite accepted that I’m high-minded enough for the ‘literary fiction’ category.)
Who or what influenced you as a writer?
Films as much as books. Everything from frantic Hollywood screwballs to French gangsters to Japan’s super-refined Ozu (which is to say, cinema in its golden age of humanism, 1930s-1960s).
You’ve had a long and award-winning career – during that time, is there anything that surprised you when you saw it influence or change your writing?
You’re always writing ahead. In a sense criticism doesn’t affect you, because that thing (the book) was of the time of writing. I won’t look back. I never read my reviews -truly! (I don’t peruse interviews, nor can I listen to my voice on radio.)
How have you changed as a writer over the span of your career?
I’ve tried to find a lighter touch. That may mean lighter ha-ha. Comedy is hard to write: a real challenge, and an interesting one. It’s easy to be dark and cynical (and dogmatic) when you’re young. The world becomes more complex with the years, more nuanced.
I’ve seen your work described as exploring love and obsession – would that be correct to say? Why or if not, why not? (Can your writing be described as only focusing on specific themes?)
Love, obsession – and betrayal. It’s often about someone a little colourless on the edge of a charmed group – who finally gains admission to that circle – but a cost is exacted, in terms of personal morality (or the lack of). I wonder if one doesn’t actually write the same story over and over, but in different ways.
What is it about Dickens’ writing that won you as a reader and later persuaded you to put pen to
paper about Miss Havisham?
Hands up! It was British director David Lean’s 1946 film which originally fired my imagination, having seen it (at nine or ten years old) before I read the book. Magnificent and unforgettable, of course.
Was there ever a moment that gave you pause, and made you doubt whether you should write
Readers become very possessive of characters, so, yes, I knew it was a risk. But Dickens supplied a tantalising if sketchy back-story, and at some point in the dim and distant (well over ten years ago) I felt that this could be made much more of. (I don’t believe Dickens would have minded – he took inspiration wherever he found it: he drew Miss Havisham from not one but two real-life eccentric spinsters – although literary purists might want to object.)
Also, I didn’t want to write a cod-Victorian novel (lots of chances to get things wrong): rather a translation of a nineteenth century novel. Dickens’s world meets Jane Austen’s.
Once you started writing, what were the main themes you knew Havisham had to include?
I suppose I hoped they would be sorry to leave her at the end. So, that probably means I wanted to make her as sympathetic, which is to say understandable, as possible.
In your experience, do fans misunderstand Miss Havisham? Why (or why not?) do you think that is?
Not necessarily. But they’re getting Pip Pirrip’s viewpoint, his version of Miss H. Stories usually have at least two sides to them.
Is it possible to pin down what it is about her that made you write Havisham?
We’ll never know everything about her, she has the same elusive and enigmatic quality of someone in real life – therefore she can be re-invented over and over again. Think of all the very different screen portrayals. Others will write novels about her, no doubt. I’m simply surprised I didn’t have predecessors.
What was the reception for the book? Did any of it surprise you?
I did some appearances at Dickens bi-centenary events – I felt I had to win over those audiences of aficionados. On the whole I think I probably did, but it was hard work. The reviews, I was told, were welcoming – in America especially.
What was old is new again — I recently found out about the Jane Austen project and then Havisham, and several other titles that all explore different points of view on classics or different settings altogether – why do you think that readers have taken to books like these?
Great Expectations is a brilliant read, it’s that simple. The novel turns into a fast-paced thriller. A little like Daphne du Maurier, you’re reading something which you feel you’ve already dreamed.
Is there any other character that you’ve considered exploring more about?
Some have been covered already, I found out, so that was that. Others, I’ve been informed, don’t have much ‘resonance’ in the US. Miss Havisham was unusual in having such a wide reach – my novel will appear in Russia and China. Even if many people can’t spell her name (‘HaveERsham’), they have at least heard of her: she’s entered the pantheon of fiction’s immortals.
However, I don’t think I shall go that route again. You have more leeway with characters wholly of your own making. I’ve just finished a long 1912-set romp or caper – great fun to write, so I only hope that if/when it sees the light of day some of that joy transmits itself.