Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Hour with Anthony McCarten (Auckland readers & Writers Festival 2012)

I've never read anything by Anthony MCarten, hardly even heard of him, but the sound of one of his books drew me in. He had a brilliant quote, one which could have gone down well in the session on the future of the novel: "Writing is about working out the music people dance to". Apparently he sells much better in Germany than in New Zealand: he has been compared there to Gunter Grass and he won a youth literature prize in nearby Austria. He's an interesting looking fellow, I could somehow see that he was once someone who desperately wanted to be a rockstar
The book that won him the Austrian prize, Death of a Superhero, is about a teenager facing death and who copes by drawing a comic featuring a superhero.
It was set in New Zealand, but when it came time for the movie, funding arrangements meant that the film was set in Ireland. The book was then re-published with the setting moved to England. There was simply no audience for him in New Zealand so, as he frankly admitted, he shifted the action to make some money. He finished his session with the wry comment that there are more people in the room than have ever bought his books: I for one was in the room and have now bought one. I'm not that fussed about reading this first one, to be honest, but I want to read the sequel so will take a look. McCarten was at the Festival because he has two books out this year, and they really couldn't be more different from each other.

The first of his two books, Brilliance, is a non-fiction work. It was originally over six hundred pages but he couldn't get anyone to publish it.McCarten says he loved it so much he screwed it up. Oddly enough, doing a stage version led to him finding a 150 page version which has been published:
It is the story of the relationship between Thomas Edison and JP Morgan.Edison was, of course a genius and a man of ideals - the book explores the fragility of ideals: McCarten describes him as a living saint who brought so much to the world, but also a very complicated man, as he brought us the electric chair along with the light bulb and gramophone. Apparently he was somehow complicit in the death of five men, through the electric chair, but showed no moral concern: McCarten's project is to "impose a sense of guilt on him".

At the same time, he points the finger at Morgan for subverting Edison's purity, by commercializing his impulse to create. Morgan is a "superstar of usury" but also someone who apparently genuinely believed in the redemptive powers of bankers, and thought they should rule the world! But then he did organise the banks to stop a run in 1907. Wikipedia has a good story:
In the early days of the American Civil War Morgan financed a scheme, known as the "Hall Carbine Affair", that purchased 5,000 dangerously defective carbines being liquidated by the U.S. Government at a cost of $3.50 each. The rifles were later resold to the government as new carbines lacking the safety flaw at a cost of $22. The audacity of the scheme included not only the $92,426 loss by the government and the selling of weapons known to maim their operators to an army in need of firearms, but the guns were also sold prior to ownership, thus the guns were paid for with money from their sale back to the government.
He's a complicated fellow: along with a desire to make it unnecessary for Americans to leave the country, he endowed museums and a hospital (although this was apparently so a girlfriend could get an abortion).

McCarten spent a fair amount of time talking about Morgan's nose, not for business but his actual nose, which was purple and deformed, "hugely ugly". He refused to have it repaired, as it served as a useful litmus test for people's opinions of him: he wore his nose with a "mad bravado". The nose apparently saved him millions. Instead of mirrors, he surrounded himself with very attractive young men to serve as a more appropriate reflection.
His other book out this year, In the Absence of Heroes, is the sequel to Death of a Superhero. The Listener says it is "damned fine",  "witty, humane and dazzlingly clever" with a strong plot and superb dialogue (reflecting McCarten's prior life as a screenwriter, no doubt). It is the father's response, a year on, to the death of one son and the disappearance of another into a virtual world. Dad despairs at a world in which its chief architect seems not to have a clue. The son has become an online entrepreneur and owns a virtual strategy game of some sort. To get close to his son, dad has to play the game, fight his way through the ranks. The irony is that McCarten is a virtual "loser" who always gets knocked out of contention in the first round. He didn't say much more about the book, but reviews reveal that the Mum also takes off on a virtual grief-spree, so Dad has to work out to bring her back as well. As other authors at the Festival have said, while this is an essentially sad story, there is humour and comedy, because that is realistic.

One inspiration was technology, how we have gone from books as friend replacements to computers, and particularly the consumerisation of technology, how we are told to want things we don't need. He called this a "gigachange" and explores what impact these new toys have on our lives. One suggestion is that teenagers have forsaken sex and flocked to facebook, which is "industrialised friendship". It is not all bad, however: the time kids spend in online gaming environments means they are gaining real skills, in problem solving and co-ordination. Another is that technology allows us to do what we always wanted to do. He also postulated an amusing reverse scenerio, in which Gutenberg invented the iPad in the 15th century and then Apple in the 21st century invented the hardcopy, paper based "iBook".

The session finished on an odd note, with a question from the audience as to why he is so popular in Germany. Rather than answer himself, McCarten passed the question to a group of German journalists - they said it was (a) because McCarten bothered to tour there and (b) they found the book "touching".


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