The whole world against him
The Nine Lives of Jacob Fallada is the story of an outsider, a lonely, misunderstood young artist who chronicles all the unpleasant things that happen to him in life. Abandoned by his parents, brought up be a tyrannical aunt, bullied at school, ostracized by the local community, nearly everyone Jacob comes into contact with takes an instant, (often) violent dislike towards him. Like Job from the bible, he is beaten and abused, manipulated and taken advantage of. Life, people, fate, circumstance force him deeper into his shell, deeper into the cocoon of his fledgling artistic work, where he records every significant event in sketches, paintings and short-form verse, documenting his own unique, eminently miserable human experience. At heart, he longs for companionship, intimacy, love, but is dealt so many blows he is too scared to reach out to anybody. On the fringes of society, he devotes himself solely to his art.
– When and where do you prefer to write? Do you have a certain ritual?
I have a little writing space for myself at home, a quiet nook with desk and laptop, and like to write first thing in the morning. That way, if I get my three or four hours in, no matter what distractions the rest of the day may bring, I have had my writing fix nailed down. Sometimes my work – I’m a freelancer editor and am currently ghost-writing a book for a Melbourne-based life coach – can get in the way of that, unfortunately. But that’s pretty much my sacred daily routine.
– Is there a drink of some food that keeps you company while you write?
Not really. Other than two espressos for breakfast to propel my fingers across the keyboard!
– What is your favourite book?
Difficult question. So many great books have moved and inspired me over the years. I could probably give you a different answer every day of the week for a year! But, just recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the first time I read The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jnr. If you haven’t read it, it’s a book about forgiveness, an unlikely friendship between a street kid and a holocaust survivor. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but the kid wants to take revenge on the gang who threw acid in his girlfriend’s face, whilst the older wiser man who’s been through so much himself teaches him to let go of his hate, as he learned to let go of his own hate regarding the time he spent in a concentration camp. It’s an incredibly moving, beautifully written story that I’d recommend to anyone.
– Do you consider writing a different genre in the future?
Again, tricky question. I actually started out writing historical fiction, but have now turned my focus to more contemporary stories. A few years ago, I dabbled with the thriller genre but got my fingers so badly burnt, I don’t think I’ll ever return! – writing thrillers is more structured, formulaic, disciplined to a certain extent, and I think fans of that genre, no matter how twisty or turny a plot, have become accustomed to a set-menu type or reading experience. By that I mean, a twist or turn at a certain juncture which takes them to an almost predetermined place. Not so much the butler did it, but a satisfying, familiar climax. Anything that subverts that is given short shrift (or, in my case, a raft of terrible reviews!) That said, I do admire those fast-paced page-turners. Maybe not for the quality of the writing, or their ultimate reason to be, but the way they can grab hold of the reader and make you want to find out what happens on the next page. Maybe it’s good for writers to try something different every now and then. Like an exercise in form. Whether successful or not, it certainly give you a different, worthwhile slant on the storytelling art itself.
– Do you sometimes base your characters on people you know?
All the time. In many of my stories, I’ve used, not so much the actual characteristics of people I know, but parts of their life story. If something out of the ordinary happens to a friend, for instance, it’s so tempting to insert it into a story, to make it part of one of your fictional character’s make-up, maybe something important which made them the kind of person they are – whether pleasant or unpleasant – in the story itself. A motive force, if you will.
– Do you take a notebook everywhere in order to write down ideas that pop up?
Definitely. In fact, I just ordered a new one from the Book Depository today! Notebooks are essential. To write down those little gems, killer lines, even titles pop into my head at the most random of times. I do a lot of running and often find myself having to turn back halfway along my intended route to write down an important plot-twist for my current work-in-progress. Because, believe me, there’s nothing worse than letting something slip, forgetting whatever bolt of inspiration interrupted the normal flow of thoughts in your head!
– Which genre do you not like at all?
I’m not really adverse to any genre – not totally. There are things that don’t interest me, naturally. But I’d like to think I’d give anything a go, if it was well done. Over the years, I’ve discovered that some stories have a rare and beautiful ability to surprise you.
– If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
I really couldn’t envisage that ever happening! I work in such a haphazard fashion, I’m sure I would drive my co-writer mad! It wouldn’t work!
– If you should travel to a foreign country to do research, which one would you chose and why?
I’d like to return to Russia (I first visited the country when I was 19 and would love to go back again). I’ve a long-standing interest in writing a book about a Russian footballer called Eduard Streltsov. Regarded as the finest player Russia has ever produced he missed out on playing in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden after being arrested for alleged rape. Lots of conflicting accounts of what took place exist. But it would appear that Streltsov insulted the daughter of a high-ranking member of the Politburo, and his one chance of appearing on the biggest stage in world football, was snatched away from in unjustly, in revenge for a petty slight/insult. In short, he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. I think, off the top of my head, he served five years in the gulag (a prison camp). But even that couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the game. He made an unlikely comeback, greatly weakened by his prison ordeal, not half the player he was/could have been, to win the league championship with Torpedo Moscow.
On more than one occasion, I’ve attempted to outline/write his story but I really need far more background materials, and would love to write it in the faction style of Capote’s In Cold Blood or Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song – in an investigative/journalistic way. That’s a big ambition of mine. The whole experience – the travel, the research, the writing.
Thank you, Neil Randall and Rachel’s Random Resources.
About the author
Neil Randall is the author of seven published novels and a collection of short stories. His work has been published in the UK, US, Australia and Canada
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