Please welcome Brian Pendreigh to the blog today! If you missed James’s review of The Man in the Seventh Row, please click here to read it, and then come back to learn more about the book and the author. At the end of the interview, you can enter for a chance to win 1 of 3 e-book copies of The Man in the Seventh Row.
Interview Questions Written by James La Salandra
Your life and career as both cinephile and film journalist is evident in virtually every line of the text. Was the decision to base your first work of fiction on this topic a matter of the oft-heard advice to “write what you know”?
Yes, very much so, what I know and subjects that I thought I would find interesting and inspiring to write about.
You reference dozens of movies, particularly westerns. Is it safe to assume the genre holds a special place in your heart?
Yes again. Westerns were a staple of cinema for decades and I grew up at the tail-end of that period. Westerns in the 1960s and 1970s were in decline, as fewer were getting made, but I think it was actually a golden age in terms of quality. However there is no denying the elegiac tone of many of the finest films, from The Magnificent Seven to Peckinpah.
Many of the other films referenced are undeniable classics. The most prominent, given the protagonist’s name (Roy Batty) and frequent use of “tears in rain” as a motif, is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Did you choose these films for their artistic merits, or are they also personal favorites of yours?
They are personal favourites. Obviously it is important that the vast majority should be familiar to cineliterate readers as well. DOA is a great film, and it was vital to the plot, though it is not as familiar as many of the others. I know many people have read the book and then gone out and hired or bought the films, rewatched them and in some cases watched particular films for the first time.
In describing Roy’s appearance early on, you make comparisons to Robert Redford and Jim Carrey. Did you envision him as a combination of the two, or was there another actor (or actors) in mind as you wrote?
The Robert Redford comparison was really driven by the fact that Redford was an early casting choice for The Graduate. But I didn’t want Roy to have matinee idol looks, not quite, hence the addition of a pinch of Jim Carrey, which I think maybe adds just a dash of humour and mischief, and indeed underscores the early departure from reality into something that may be comic or fantastic. But at the same time I wanted Roy, at least initially to appear almost as a blank canvas. You have some idea of what he looks like (which is vital if I am going to have the early “looking in the mirror” scene), but you don’t know what he is like. I remember Ian Fleming saying that was how he saw James Bond, just pretty much a blank canvas, and Fleming borrowed the name from the author of a book about West Indian birds, because the name conveyed nothing and was rather dull. Well, in TMITSR the name is vitally important, but the choice of name itself makes the reader wonder about the nature of the protagonist, maybe, depending at what point they “get it”.
It’s easy to imagine that Roy is at least partially autobiographical. If this is true, where does Brain Pendreigh end and the purely fictional Roy Batty begin?
I draw on a lifetime of cinema-going experience, though personally I have never been sucked into the action on screen… if that is what is happening in the story, and that is a big “if”.
Nor have I ever suffered the sort of trauma Roy experiences. Someone told me the big trauma happens so suddenly in the book that it seems out of kilter with everything else and it is a big shock. It is meant to be. A social worker came over to me in a bar one night and said he liked the book, but before talking about it he had to know if I had gone through that trauma myself. I hadn’t, not anything like it. But I guess that means it is convincing.
I think Hemingway wrote that every story should have a death, because every life has a death. I have been lucky – my friends and family are all around, parents and parents-in-law in 80s and 90s. My contemporaries are virtually all still around, though a lot of my younger brother’s friends died tragic deaths, including one who fell out of a window and landed on railings, a girl with whom I went out drove her car into a wall in her teens and a boy in my form at school was murdered by his father, who killed the rest of the family. But that’s about it. A few months ago I was on the Eggheads TV quiz show, with my regular teammates, including Max, a friend I had seen every week for the past couple of years. He came round to my house on the Monday night to watch it with his mum and sister. We won. We had waited a year for the programme to out and we were all elated. This was after TMITSR came out of course. The last thing Max said was he would see me at one of our regular quizzes on Wednesday night. Late on on Wednesday afternoon I got a phone call to say he had killed himself that morning. So, yes, sometimes death is very sudden, very unexpected.
Obviously I have been asked before how autobiographical the story is and the answer is basically it isn’t. It is fantasy, but rooted in reality. And, in answer to the question, a lot of the little incidents and anecdotes are true, are autobiographical, but none of the big events are true, not in the detail, but maybe in the essence, but then that is literary fiction I guess.
Beyond the concept of escapism through cinema, what were you most hoping to convey with this story, and how successful do you consider yourself to have been?
I hoped to convey a passion for the cinema, and indeed the magic of the cinema; a phrase which is, like the book, open to interpretation. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, though I hoped some other people would appreciate it too. I hoped people could enjoy it on different levels, a totally literal level, and then something more. I remember reading the first review where the reviewer entered into the discussion about the “something more” and the nature of what is happening in the book. And I thought, great, they got it. But I already knew through my agent that there was at least a small group of people out there who actually loved the book. And that is a word that comes up occasionally in the reviews.
How successful is the book? I don’t know. It works for some people and has got a lot of five-star ratings. Some people clearly like it more than I do. And so I guess that means it is successful on some sort of level. I still feel that it starts off as one thing and ends up as something else. Is that a flaw? I don’t know. I am really pleased with the last quarter of the book, the denouement, and everything that leads to it. I love the beach scene, though I know that for some people it is like a punch in the gut. I like twists and can explore the whole idea of the twist in my forthcoming short volume of short stories, probably called Sometimes She’ll Dance. Twists are what makes story-telling, but they have to work within the context of the universe in which the writer and reader are traveling.
Yes, I hope so, but that is really in the hands of my agent Mark Stanton, who is one of the biggest fans of the book, and the numbers. I would like to see it as an old-fashioned printed book. Blasted Heath did a boxed set with their initial publicatons on a memory stick in a nice wee tin, but it is not the same as having a book that you can hold and smell and put under your pillow at night. There was talk of a film. A British producer asked me to send him a copy and the office of a very famous American director was in touch. There is more chance of a printed book than a film. It might happen.