Tuesday, September 25, 2012
David LeRoy on The Siren of Paris, a "Screenplay in Drag"
For our first author interview at On Page and Screen, I'm happy to welcome debut author David LeRoy, discussing his self published novel, The Siren of Paris, which I previously reviewed. We discussed his writing style and purpose, his hopes of seeing his novel become a screenplay, why this novel might appeal to young adult readers, movies, Jungian archetypes, rabbits, and whatever else came up in conversation. ;-)
The Siren of Paris is currently on tour with Nikki Leigh of Promo 101.
A native of California, David received a BA in Philosophy and Religion at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego. The degree served him well while selling women’s shoes, waiting tables, or working odd jobs after college until settling in the field of telecommunications, where he has worked for the past 18 years.
Early on, he demonstrated artistic abilities. For many years, David marketed a line of fine art photographic prints through various galleries and retail outlets. In the past few years, his focus has shifted to painting and drawing, which included the development of a children’s e-book in the Apple Itunes store under “David Tribble” title “Lord of the Scribes.”
After returning from a European arts study program, he became interested in the history behind the French Resistance during World War Two. Writing fiction has become his latest way to explore philosophical, moral and emotional issues of life. The Siren of Paris is his first novel.
Steph: David, The Siren of Paris is starting to get a lot of attention with plenty of balanced, thoughtful reviews. In my review, I mentioned that this book worked for me, although it was very different from the novels I usually enjoy. I am generally drawn to more character-driven stories, which often include lyrical prose and particular attention to depth in character development.
While there are many interesting characters in The Siren of Paris, it strikes me as much more plot-driven, with coverage of many historical events, including some that aren't commonly known. It also includes exceptionally vivid scenes depicting some events from history with attention to accuracy in historical detail. Like many novel characters, these events will stick with me for a very long time, and I'll continue to think about them. This is a real gift for a history lover like me. ;-)
One example that comes to mind is the depiction of a train being stopped during a German bombing. It's a vivid scene, and the presence of a traveling circus, which was apparently an actual historical detail, makes it especially unforgettable. The depiction of the sinking of the Lancastria also seemed to fit here. It seems that some readers enjoy the plot-driven style and vivid scenes while others would like to have seen more prose, different kinds of historical details, and greater character development.
Dave: The book could have easily exploded in word count. If you take what Toby Osborne has to say in The Future of Books, less is more. I recommend his book, and specifically the chapter “A New Way to Write.” What worked in the past will not always work in the future, and I believe Toby is on to something about how readers are changing due to technology. The first e-book I ever read was on my iPhone on my trip to Europe.
The resurgence of the novella is due, in large part, to this new breed of readers who expect less writing and more story. This is counter to the trend of large character driven novels heavy in exposition and description that have been in vogue the past thirty years.
Me: That's an interesting point. While many of us will continue to enjoy the longer, more literary and character driven novels, a plot-driven novella will have greater appeal for many readers. And both these things will appeal to the same readers at different times. In many ways, I appreciate both equally.
So did you have this particular approach to writing in mind as you wrote The Siren of Paris?
Dave: Absolutely. I focused upon dialog, action, and some description. Exposition is very light in the book. Some may believe I have missed opportunities by not going too deeply into historical conversations. However, I specifically choose to omit details and allow the reader’s imagination to project its own story.
One of the most consistent complaints of many reviewers of historical fiction is that the author will drown the reader with every historical detail. I choose only details that were relevant to the story of Marc’s experience during the war.
It has been interesting to see who enjoys reading the book. Generally speaking, multi-taskers, who may have a shorter attention span, appear to enjoy the book the most.
Me: Hmm ... that sounds somewhat like me. I'm a poster child for adult ADD ... ten tabs open on my browser, kids in the room wanting to talk, and I'm doing something else altogether. ;-) However, I do still enjoy long, literary books with a great deal of exposition and character development, although not exclusively. Is there a particular kind of multi-tasking reader you have in mind?
Dave: Oh, just about everyone following our modern day pace of life, but specifically, teenagers, texters, tweeters and bloggers. People who think in very short bursts of information or smaller bites.
Steph: Teenagers? But you don't feature teenaged characters. And there are definitely no vampires or werewolves. ;-)
Dave: Marc was 19 when he decided to leave, and turns 20 on the first day of the voyage to France. And just like teenagers, the loss of his first relationship is dramatically devastating to his ego. In one sense the book is a story of coming of age or innocence lost through the first full relationship away from home.
For many young adults, turning 20 is a threshold birth date, leaving the teens behind, and facing adulthood. However, I am not just thinking of teenagers, but also many of the parents of teenagers, a class of human under unusual levels of stress.
Steph: You're preaching to the choir, here. ;-) But go on ...
Dave: They like to read a few chapters, which does not take long, and then drop the book for a few days. They don’t read in long blocks of time. I know a few who took about a month to complete the book, one beach at a time.
Steph: That makes sense. Sometimes I prefer books that lend themselves to reading in short spurts and setting aside. At other times, I want to be absorbed in a literary work for a while. Sometimes I have one of each going. ;-)
One thing that worked for me, with the style and substance of The Siren of the Paris, is that I have always been drawn to factual historical accounts. I tend to read historical novels as much for information as for a good story and compelling characters.
Dave: The Siren of Paris is full of such historical accounts, and many have never appeared in any other work of fiction. No other work of fiction has addressed the sinking of the Lancastria. There are non-fiction accounts, but nothing fictional. This is one of the few books that provides a panoramic view of the fall of France. The torture scenes to classical piano are real. Even the Buchenwald concert is historically accurate.
Steph: In your best fantasies, what do you see ahead for The Siren of Paris? ;-)
Dave: What every author secretly dreams of, and that is I'd love to option the rights for the movie.
Steph: Do you think it lends itself to a movie adaptation?
Dave: Funny you should ask about that. The dirty little secret is that underneath the 48 Chapters and 101,891 words of The Siren is the classic screenplay structure. Think of this novel as a "screenplay in drag."
Steph: Could you explain this? What is the classic screenplay structure? And how does The Siren fit this structure?
Dave: Screenplay structure is typically in three parts. Part one focuses upon the plot, which in the case of The Siren of Paris, is the war and the fall of France. Part two focuses upon the key emotional relationship of the protagonist, and this is usually broken into a Part A, and Part B. The third part is the final act where you find resolution.
Steph: Why did you choose this structure? Why not just write a screenplay instead of a novel?
Dave: Chicken and egg. If you write the screenplay, well, someone will question why there is no novel. If the novel has no potential as a screenplay, then there is a problem if the story becomes so popular that people want a movie. If an agent attempts to option the movie rights, they will complain that novel does not lend itself to a screenplay. Many readers want it both ways. They want the novel to follow the movie. Many novels are written in such a way that they do not lend themselves to motion picture adaptation, and I chose to avoid this problem while writing The Siren of Paris. Another point to consider is that, in our fast paced, visually rich world, the structure of a screenplay has become the way that most of the public comes to expect a story to flow.
Steph: Are you a movie buff? What are some movies with interesting historical settings, particularly World War II movies, that have a special place in your heart?
Dave: Au Revoir Les Enfants and Schindler's List are my favorites. I am typically drawn to stories about civilians during the war. I have not seen it yet, but I would like to see Paris Underground, which is based upon a true story.
Steph: I'm glad you mentioned those. I love Schindler's List, and my daughter and I have wanted to see Au Revoir Les Enfants for a long time -- it's next on my Netflix queue. ;-)
Is it a problem that you chose to self publish? Normally a publisher, or your agent, would be able to sell those rights.
Dave: I reached out to Sharon at Writer’s Pitch, and The Siren will be listed in the fall edition of The Writer's Pitch book. It is a paid subscription that goes out to directors, agents and producers. Sharon developed a method of matching up writers with agents, publishers and studios. For a modest fee, I was able to place a pitch for the movie rights to the book that goes out to multiple studios who have paid for the information. It is target marketing with laser precision. I could never pull off what Sharon is able to offer through The Writers Pitch.
Steph: That is very cool ... I am impressed. If this book makes it to film, what do you think will be the best scenes? Did you think about this as you wrote the book?
Dave: For one, the first chapter. As a written passage, it is strange, and some find it difficult to follow. However, visually, the dead that rise from the land and sea do so in exact proportion to a vortex -- or eye -- of a hurricane with a perfect eye. The imagery is straight out of the Book of Revelations. This is a metaphor for World War II.
In the next chapter, when Marc sets out for Paris, I decided to have him cross the Atlantic in the S.S. Normandie instead of the RMS Queen Mary. I decided to choose the Normandie over the Queen Mary when I was watching the movie Skyline.
Have you seen it? The blue light “gets” people and they get sucked up into the alien spaceship. All of L.A. is absorbed into the group on the spaceship, and giant monsters roam the streets.
Steph: I've never heard of it. It sounds truly ... umm ... campy. :-)
Dave: It is hysterically campy and financially successful.
Well, if you look at that movie and see how real the special effects are, you get a good idea of what studios are capable of today. I decided that re-creating the Normandie dining room, which is the most opulent room ever put to sea, is well within reach of these studios. And the Normandie, visually, makes the Queen Mary look modest. Marc walking down to his table, underneath the statue of peace, amongst the columns of frosted crystal Lalique would be a magnificent scene. The room full of magnificent light offers a dramatic contrast with the horrible darkness that over takes Marc’s life.
Steph: Earlier I mentioned some of the memorable historical scenes in the novel. The war scenes are haunting. As I said before, the scene at the train station -- when people are climbing on top of the last remaining trains leaving Paris -- particularly stuck with me.
Dave: As you mentioned, the traveling circus is not fictional. There was a traveling circus making its way down the Loire Valley with the Germans right behind them. It is mystifying as well as horrifying at the same time.
Steph: I can imagine that scenes like this would adapt well to the screen. You also mentioned the novel being fast-paced. That might make it easy to translate the story into a feature length movie. Though sometimes, in the narrative of the book, it feels a little too fast, with abrupt transitions.
Dave: I was well aware, when I wrote the book, that the pacing might to be fast for some and I was going light in many areas. However, the problem in The Siren was how do I get the reader through World War II, which has been written to death, without stalling? There were hundreds of ways I could have gotten lost on some historical tangent such as the specifics of the Sumner Wells trip or long descriptions of the city. The book shows the war from a completely different perspective than most other books. In the end, I feel that the overwhelming pace of the narrative is exactly like experiencing the war, which is what the story is all about.
Steph: So, in what way do you feel your novel shows the war from a different perspective that most novels and films?
Dave: There are several areas where the book differs with most. First, instead of opening with the war, I open just before the phony war period. This allows me to show the reader the terrifying predicament that many civilians in France found themselves in as transportation options disappeared. Second, the Lancastria affects Marc in such a way that I can show the war’s effects through the post traumatic stress disorder and fears of the protagonist. Third, I could not find any other novel that deals specifically with the point of view of a French collaborator, looking at his or her motivations, reasons, and tactics. By choosing to incorporate that into the story, I could show the reader this shadow side of the French during the war.
However, the biggest difference is in the choice of the protagonist. We have a bias towards seeing the hero in war novels as “Victor,” ”Spy,” or “Soldier.” The hero of this story is wounded. His journey to France starts out with an emotional wound in America, and the journey ends with him facing even greater wounds from the war. His transformation does not come from heroic victories but from the wounds he receives from simply trusting, in love and friendship, the wrong people. Although the Nazis are present in the book, the focus of the story is not overcoming the evil of the Nazis, but Marc's guilt and shame over his own failures the false sense of sin which haunts him in the story.
This last difference is what makes the book so disturbing to many readers, because Marc is a little too human for our comfort.
Steph: Earlier, you mentioned the opening chapter of The Siren of Paris, which has a surreal quality. What about the dream sequences in the novel?
Dave: Exactly. Those are all visual stories within this story. I actually drew upon the common mythological image language that Jungian Psychology maps out for dreams.
Steph: That's intriguing, especially since I've always enjoyed Jungian psychology. Do you mean that there are images in the dream sequences that are actually archetypes? Could you please explain this more fully and give a few specific examples?
Dave: In the first dream, I chose a butterfly to land on Marc’s head to hint at a coming transformation. The circles of the two wheels of the bicycle stand for total comprehension of two worlds, both seen and the unseen.
Steph: So, those dreams actually do have a meaning. They are not just arbitrary examples of Marc breaking under stress.
Dave: Many seemingly mundane facts in the novel have underlying meaning. See, there are two books in one. On the literal verbal level, I am telling this war story of survival and betrayal, with the transcendence of survivor's guilt. But, underneath that story, there is a second way to read this book.
Steph: Everything? Even Sigmund Freud admitted "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." ;-) Seriously, could you give a few examples?
Dave: I did not waste many words on meaningless chance facts. For instance, engine 81 is the one Marc leaves on, and in numerology that is a 9, which is the highest frequency number and denotes crisis.
Steph: I'm not familiar with numerology. But because 8 + 1 = 9 (or 81 is nine squared), the number 81 is an example of symbolism and it provides foreshadowing? But few people would pick up on that. I definitely wouldn't. :-)
Dave: Well, the subconscious does get it. And that is the funny thing about the reader. Humans are always looking for patterns, and when they see them, we want to impose a meaning upon those patterns. We are not as rational as we pretend to be. Underneath our modern façade, we are superstitious creatures.
Steph: So, you intentionally embedded patterns in your book, which the reader would pick up upon subconsciously?
Dave: Bingo. I know it sounds crazy, but advertisers do it all the time. I saw no reason why I could not do it to show the reader another story. People love finding the hidden meaning, but if there is no greater hidden meaning, well, there is less fun.
Steph: "Show the reader another story?" What story is that?
Dave: It hinges upon what is most real. Is Marc’s eternal existence and soul most real, or the transitory world of his experiences, which is World War II? One reading gives you a story of betrayal during the war and a character who is deeply wounded psychologically by the sinking of a ship. However, the second reading offers the story of a soul transcending the shame and guilt of the war, and learning to rise above his guilt to find freedom and release, even if it is 100 years later. This second reading makes the assumption that what is most real is Marc’s eternal soul's existence, above and beyond temporal time. In the opening, Marc is outside of that time, standing opposed to the clock on the staff. As temporal time approaches, his fear rises.
Steph: That's definitely intriguing, but it might seem a bit far-fetched. ;-)
Dave: My degree is in Philosophy and Religion. I am completely at home with the far-fetched.
Steph: Agreed. I'm speaking as the daughter of a philosophy professor here. So the cigar is not just a cigar. ;-) And the poor rabbit on the Lancastria -- the rabbit is not just a rabbit, is it?
Dave: Of course not! And, that rabbit is historically real as Adolf Hitler. I did not make up that rabbit, but found it in research just like all the other animals.
Steph: At least the rabbit is not as creepy as Donnie Darko. This would be a very strange movie.
Dave: It is in our nature to like the strange and mysterious. In some ways, the pure innocence of the rabbit in The Siren has far more power than the creepy rabbit in Donnie Darko. Even though it is the same animal, they appeal to different sympathies in our minds. The rabbit in Donnie Darko is the bearer of bad news and a dark trickster, while the rabbit in The Siren of Paris is the innocent victim of senseless violence in a chaotic war, and it haunts Marc in dreams and visions, often as a image of good luck.
Steph: So getting back to more mundane matters, what happens with The Writers Pitch?
Dave: It goes out to the studios and agents along with all the other pitches. If they like it and are interested in the pitch, they request the manuscript. They could also just Google the book first, or even just buy it on Amazon. Nothing happens overnight. However, the important point is that The Writers Pitch gives me access to a platform to make an effective pitch, which was off limits in the past to the common self published author.
Steph: I can see this being a memorable and compelling movie! Good luck with the pitch.
Dave: Thank you, and I will be sure to let you know what comes of that adventure.