Book Club: The Forced Redundancy Film Club: Bookclub Notes
An Interview With The Author
There are so many films you could have used for The Forced Redundancy Film Club. How did you choose the ones you did?
It was a long process and there were chapters using several films that I abandoned – Some Like It Hot, The Godfather, The Notebook, Billy Elliot and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
There were two considerations I had in mind when choosing the films. Firstly I wanted them to simultaneously reflect where the characters were in their lives when they were watching them, and to move their stories on in some way. Strangely, once I had the films chosen, and had watched them lots of times, taking notes, I found that each of the characters were connected in ways I didn’t imagine when I chose them.
The second consideration was that the reader had to know the films, even if they hadn’t actually seen them, so they had to be films that were part of the popular imagination. You might never have seenCasablanca, but somewhere you know its story and its imagery, because it is such an integral part of our culture.
Two minor characters die in the book. Were you worried that this might put readers off?
I believe that all children at some stage in their lives go through a mortal fear of their parents dying, and that fear is an integral part of who we are. This was in my mind when I was writing about the deaths of my characters’ parents. I wasn’t worried about the deaths, just about how I would depict them without turning readers off, so I chose to let them happen ‘off screen’, as it were. The deaths were central to the stories I wanted to tell about who they were as characters.
After reading through the first draft, I realised that on some level it was a book about the loss of parents, whether through death or abandonment. Even Lisa, who is a good mother, abandons her children.
What I think I was trying to talk about was the loss that we all must face with our parents, and how grief is complicated and death does not release us from the far-reaching effects our parents have on who we are as individuals.
Martin fancies Katherine, but it would not be an ideal relationship. You wouldn’t want your best friend to end up with a struggling alcoholic, would you?
I created Martin as a character that someone like Katherine would never end up with, yet I wanted the romantic chemistry between them to supersede their differences. Life is messy, as Martin says in the final chapter. Perfection is unattainable.
Alcoholism is also a big part of our lives, and just because someone has a problem with drink, it doesn’t mean they can’t be loved. I wanted Katherine to recognise this, and see that there is more to a person than what we perceive them to be.
The only character in the book not to have issues with parents or parenting is Jamie. Was this a deliberate choice?
Yes. I wanted Jamie to come from a warm family background because I know so many gay people who come from similar situations. The story about gay people being rejected by their families is changing in modern times.
While the underlying stories of all the other characters in the book are about how our parents and being parents ourselves affect us, Jamie’s is different. His family fully accepts him for who he is, and he has not been abandoned. His difficulties and motivations are rooted in feelings about himself that are in turn are rooted in the messages society gives to young gay people about themselves.
I really wanted to tell a story about a gay man who is not a victim, who appears to the world as the majority of gay men seem to do nowadays – good-looking, self-assured, funny and good company – yet at the heart of himself there’s a seed of self-hate that plays out self-destructively. I know not all gay men are like Jamie, but there are a lot and it’s a story I don’t see anywhere.
You came to fiction a bit later in life, having worked as a journalist since the 90s. Is it something you considered before?
I have always known that I wanted to write novels. The trouble was that I was too scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I did have a talent for writing as I grew up, but I was also good at drawing and painting, which led to me going to art college. For a long time I thought that I wanted to be a painter. Then, through a set of almost accidental circumstances, I became a journalist and then a magazine editor.
Journalism is its own art, and it’s like a quick fix. You write, it gets published instantly, then you write again. You don’t have to sustain yourself for the length of a novel, which is a very long haul. When you’re writing a novel, you don’t always know if it’s ever going to be published, as it was with this book.
I have a very enjoyable career in journalism and am proud of many things I have written in that context, but there has always been this internal drive to write fiction that I just couldn’t make good on.
I did write a novel about ten years ago, which was not accepted by any publishers or agents. I read it now and understand why! It was about five people living in Dublin, but there the similarities between this novel and that one ended.
I finally found the courage to write this book and to try and believe in myself as an author when I came up with the concept and ran it by my friend Ciara Considine, who is now my editor. She said, ‘write that book’, so I did. It was hard work, and I had terrible doubts that it would never see the light of day, but her belief in me underpinned the writing of it.
Now I am writing my second (well, third) novel and it’s still hard work and I still have the fears and self-doubt, but I am slowly accepting that this is part of the life of an author.
What is the next novel about?
It’s about a woman who discovers that Abba are reforming for one concert only, in Stockholm. She decides to get the four members of the Abba fanclub she formed when she was 13 together to go to the concert. Like The Forced Redundancy Film Club allowed me to indulge my love of film, the new book is allowing me to wallow in my love of Abba songs and trivia.
What is your writing day like?
I have no specific writing day, because I also have a full-time job. I let ideas and characters incubate for a long time before putting them to paper and when I do it’s about finding time in the day to do it. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes it’s when I get home in the evening. I have a small target of 300 words per day, which makes the work of it, on top of my other work, seem manageable, but usually I get more done than that once I am into it.
I try not to pressure myself, but at the same time I have this three-word message on the desktop of my computer: Just Do It.
I believe that no matter what you are trying to do, the ‘Just Do It’ method is a good way to start.
Choosing the Movies
Of all the movies in all the world, the list had to be whittled down to ten for the purposes of the novel. Here’s how I carefully chose each of the films to reflect the character’s stories in The Forced Redundancy Film Club.
Early on I had an idea to use Pretty Woman as Katherine’s first film choice, because it starts out as the story of a woman pretending to be something she’s not so she can survive in a difficult world. But the film’s romance kept getting in the way because it was in no way like the romance between Katherine and Martin, principally because Martin is nothing like Richard Gere’s character.
Then I hit on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In it, Holly Golightly is super-stylish, self-created woman who seems to be in complete control of her life, even though it is descending into chaos. The truth is she has a deprived background that she’s trying to transcend, and at heart she’s still a vulnerable child. This is essentially who Katherine is, even though she’s a lot less warm on the surface than Holly. I also liked that the romance in Tiffany’s only really comes to the fore in the last section of the film, as it does in the last section of my book, and it’s an unlikely pairing.
Katherine’s second film, When Harry Met Sally, was picked at the outset, because it was the story opposites slowly attracting. Sally is a self-controlled character who must face her own chaotic vulnerability. And Sally’s early opinion of Harry is much like Katherine’s opinion of Martin, which changes as the book goes on, just as it does in the film. Harry and Sally discuss Casablanca in two parts of the movie, just as Katherine and Martin do in the book.
I always knew that Martin’s first film would be Casablanca, because it was the perfect set-up for his character. Martin is an unlikely romantic hero. When we meet him he’s slightly overweight, has a burgeoning drink problem, has nothing much going on in his life, and is clumsily outspoken.
I always knew that Martin’s first film would be Casablanca, because it was the perfect set-up for his character. Martin is an unlikely romantic hero. When we meet him he’s slightly overweight, has a burgeoning drink problem, has nothing much going on in his life, and is clumsily outspoken.. He’s embittered, seemingly involved in corrupt dealings, drinks too much and is slightly ugly, in that Bogart kind of way.
But the truth about Rick is that he’s loyal to a fault and beneath his veneer beats the heart of a passionate romantic. Martin’s choice of Casablanca reflects his own loyalty and passionate nature. When the movie begins in the book, Katherine says she can’t see the attraction of Rick, but as the film progresses, just as the novel progresses, she begins to see beneath the surface and fall for the romantic hero.
When I first came up with the idea for the book and ran it by people, asking them what movies they’d like to be in it, I was surprised by how many came back with Cinema Paradiso. I hadn’t seen it for years, and when I watched it again I was delighted, not only because it’s such a wonderful film, but also because I knew I could use it to say so much about Martin’s character.
It’s a film about a missing father, unrequited love, heady romance and a deep love for films. It also makes reference to Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz, which was perfect, given Martin’s love for those films. It also has the core message that materialism is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, which is one of core themes I wanted to bring out in the book.
I always knew that Lisa’s key film would be Thelma & Louise, because I knew when I started writing that Lisa was going to do a Thelma & Louise from her own life. The film is about traps that women find themselves in because we live in a male dominated world, and although the outcome is pretty bleak, for a while it’s a story about casting off the shackles and being free without caring about the consequences.
By the time Lisa shows Thelma & Louise she sees the two women at its heart as mice running around a maze, while everyone else in the Film Club sees them in a more idealistic way. It’s a contradiction that’s at the heart of who Lisa is as a character. She idealises life, but because of it she finds herself backed more and more into a corner.
I also knew that Lisa would show the last film in the book, and that it would be at Christmas, because I wanted to show the flip side of her dilemma – the happiness that being surrounded by your children, however challenging they are, can bring. I always watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas, and I realised it was the perfect film to end the book with.
It’s not an easy film – it’s about disappointment with life because responsibility and money, tie us all down. But at the same time it’s utterly life affirming, because it’s about the things that matter when all is said and done – love, family and friendship.
I knew from the start that I would use The Wizard of Oz in the book, because it’s my favourite film of all time, and I think it resonates with generation after generation, for all sorts of reasons. Originally I had Jamie choosing it, because it has such a gay following, but when I was writing Alice’s character an image came to me of her in her bedroom, clicking her heels together and saying ‘there’s no place like home’ – wishing herself away from the home she lives in.
After that, a picture of Dorothy was always in my mind when I was writing Alice. They don’t look alike, and Alice’s character is very different, but in the way that Dorothy is a young girl on a quest to get back to her family, so is Alice (even though she’s 36 years old).
When I was starting out, I picked To Kill A Mockingbird because I wanted to use it to bring out Katherine’s sadness about her father, given that it’s a film with the most perfect father in the history of cinema. But when I gave it to Alice as her choice of film, I started seeing her as both Boo Radley – isolated and misunderstood – and as Scout – fiercely loyal and a fighter, despite her stature and status.
So in the book Alice compares herself to Boo Radley, but Jamie is struck by how like the little girl who played Scout in the film Alice is. Using the film helped me develop Alice so that she could come out of her corner and strike out for her own happiness at the end of the book.
Jamie was the hardest to pick films for, possibly because he’s the most complex character in the book. His story is about misconceptions that abound about gay people, and also about how gay people often internalise self-hatred, because they grow up in a world that doesn’t always accept them, and sometimes bullies them. Billy Elliott was definitely going to be a film for him at the start.
I thought of using Some Like It Hot too, because of its wise-cracking humour around gender stereotypes, but then I couldn’t fit either films in. Eventually I hit upon Edward Scissorshands as Jamie’s signature film because it’s about a character that displays what he sees as his internal shortcomings on the outside, literally with his hands. Jamie’s too proud to ever reveal his shortcomings – Edward does it for him.
But what Edward perceives as shortcomings are what make him special, which is also true for Jamie. Then when I watched the film several times I started seeing how it connected to each of the characters in the book, and how they feel about themselves.
I picked Brokeback Mountain for Jamie because as you watch it, you forget it’s about two men. It becomes simple story about love found and tragically lost. But gay people have a different reaction to the film than straight people, because it’s a deep exploration of how self-hatred caused by prejudice in society can ruin your life.
Jamie is on the verge of ruining his life in the book, and Brokeback Mountain acts as a kind of warning signal to him. For the other characters it’s also a warning, about taking risks and really living, instead of staying safe but ending up unhappy.
Bookclub Discussion Points
1. Was the book what you were expecting? Why or why not?
2. Each of the characters got to pick two classic films to watch that their stories are connected to. Name one other classic film that each of the characters might have picked and discuss why that film would suit them.
3. Sometimes when talking about the films, the characters make overt comparisons between their own lives and what’s going on in the movies. But mostly the comparisons are covert. Pick one of the films in the book and discuss how it relates individually to Katherine, Martin, Lisa, Alice and Jamie.
4. Who was your favourite member of the Film Club and why?
5. What is your favourite classic film and what do you think it says about you?
6. At the outset Katherine and Martin would seem like very different people, but they have some essential things in common. What are they?
7. Although she doesn’t say it out loud, Katherine clearly compares herself to Holly Golightly inBreakfast at Tiffany’s. Do you think this is a fair comparison? Why? Why not?
8. Jamie is having an affair for a large part of the book, and his partner, Andrew, is very loving and trusting. How did the author get you to sympathise with Jamie?
9. There are many references to songs throughout the book and although it’s not directly stated, each character has a signature tune. Discuss what you think those songs are.
10. The book is very specifically set in Dublin. How did this enhance or take away from the story?
11. What do you think the underlying themes of The Forced Redundancy Film Club are?